In democratic societies, the fundamental, core principle of freedom of speech must often be balanced with the need to protect children from harm. This issue has dominated the public debate over children and the media throughout the twentieth century, often moving to the forefront during the entry of a new medium, when parental anxieties are particularly high. Since the earliest days of television and continuing into the digital age, parents’ groups, health professionals, and educators have organized numerous campaigns to protect young people from various kinds of harmful media content, often calling on the government to enact safeguards.
These efforts reached a high level of intensity in the 1990s, as the growth and expansion of the Internet and a host of accompanying digital technologies transformed the media system. Several governments have responded with regulations designed to shield children from violent and sexually explicit material in the media. Presented below is an overview of some of these regulations as they have been proposed and carried out in a number of countries.
Concerns over TV violence began as early as the 1950s in the US, when Congress first took up the issue in hearings on juvenile delinquency. Over the years, dozens of bills aimed at reducing television violence were introduced, but none became law. However, when the US Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it contained a provision requiring, for the first time, that all new television sets be equipped with an electronic chip that would enable parents to block certain programs (Federman 1998). The V-chip is designed to work with the TV Parental Guidelines, a system for labeling program content that was developed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). During the first few years after the V-chip mandate took effect, neither the television industry nor the manufacturers did very much to educate the public about it. Surveys of parents showed considerable confusion about how the V-chip functioned or what the ratings meant. In 2004, when the government began cracking down on broadcasters over indecent content, the television industry launched several high-profile campaigns to promote the V-chip, but these moves have not thwarted further efforts by advocacy groups and law-makers to push for additional regulations.
In Canada (where the V-chip was invented and where it is also largely ignored by the viewing public), the emphasis has been on voluntary measures on the part of industry, including the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Action Group on Violence on Television and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. The European Union, in contrast, as part of its longstanding “Television without Frontiers” initiative, has rejected the V-chip in favor of purely rhetorical devices: “Programs which might seriously impair the development of minors are prohibited,” according to a June 1997 Directive of the European Commission (without, however, specifying any means of enforcement). “Those which might simply be harmful to minors must, where they are not encrypted, be preceded by an acoustic warning or made clearly identifiable throughout their duration by means of a visual symbol”. As with the concern over racist and misogynist lyrics in popular music and depictions of violence in video games, the debate over television programming unsuitable for children continues.
While the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, in its 1999 Report on new media, announced that it would not attempt to regulate the Internet and video games under the Canadian Broadcasting Act, other governments have been much more aggressive in these areas. Concerns over “cyberporn” and its impact on the safety of children and youth began during the mid-1990s, as the Internet began to make its way into more and more homes. The EU-funded COPINE (Combating Paedophile Information Networks in Europe) project, for example, is part of a larger effort to combat child pornography on the Internet. More generally, the EU’s Safer Internet initiative (launched in 1999 and expanded in 2004 as Safer Internet Plus) promotes the use of hotlines, rating and filtering technology, public awareness campaigns, and other cooperative ventures to protect children online.
In the US, the Communications Decency Act (CDA), passed as part of the omnibus Telecommunications Act of 1996, imposed fines and possible jail sentences on anyone found guilty of transmitting obscene or indecent material with the knowledge that minors under 18 could receive it. Civil liberty groups challenged the CDA in the courts, and the Supreme Court struck it down within a year of its passage. Over the next two years, new laws were passed to replace the defunct CDA. The Child Online Protection Act (COPA), enacted in the US in 1998, for example, would make it a crime for commercial organizations to allow access by those under 17 to sexual material deemed “harmful to minors.” An official commission was set up through the National Academies of Science to work through some of the complicated challenges posed by the Internet indecency legislation, but because of challenges by civil liberty groups, the law has been blocked in a series of court decisions.
In contrast to COPA, the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA), passed in the US in 2000, has been successfully implemented. That law requires libraries and schools receiving federal discounts and funding for computers and Internet access to install filters on computers used by minors, in order to restrict their access to harmful material on the Internet (American Library Association 2006). A survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that more than half of Internet-connected families with teens are using some kind of filter, although the overall effectiveness of this technology remains unclear. The US government passed a law in 2003 creating a “dot-kids” domain, an official subsection of the .us domain, described as a “child-friendly” safe zone for children under 13. The following year in Europe, such concerns were extended to mobile networks (as an emerging major carrier of online content), with the formation by the European Internet Coregulation Network (a consortium of nine private organizations) of a working group on child protection and mobile phones.
The public policy debates over violent and indecent content during the 1990s left a legacy of “parental empowerment tools,” including an array of rating systems, filtering software products, and labeling schemes, as well as dozens of private, self-regulatory initiatives that are now institutionalized into the expanding media landscape. But the persistent public focus on media harm to children and teenagers has also created a climate within government, the educational community, and industry that positions young people primarily as potential victims in need of protection, rather than as productive participants in digital media culture. Such concerns have diverted attention away from developing a broader understanding of the role of media as a positive force in the lives of children and youth.
- American Library Association (2006). The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). At www.ala.org/ala/washoff/WOissues/civilliberties/cipaweb/cipa.htm, accessed September 3, 2007.
- Center for Democracy and Technology (2006). The court challenge to the Child Online Protection Act. At https://www.aclu.org/cases/aclu-v-gonzales-challenge-child-online-protection-act.
- Federman, J. (1998). Media ratings systems: A comparative review. In M. E. Price (ed.), The V-chip debate: Content filtering from television to the Internet. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Lavell, A. L. (2004). In the name of In(ternet)decency: Laws attempting to regulate content deemed harmful to children. Public Libraries, 43(6), 353 –359.
- Montgomery, K. C. (2007). Generation digital: Politics, commerce, and childhood in the age of the Internet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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