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Government wades into digital parenting anxieties

When it comes to parenting in the digital age, I'm a bit of a mess. I view our technology tricked-out home with both adoration, loathing, and certainly anxiety. I Love how my six-year-old daughter and I looked up the difference between snails and slugs on a Wikipedia iPhone app. I hate that after watching an online clip of the Wizard of Oz, she was oddly steered to another video of a couple in heavy liplock.

I feel at least a couple of steps behind in understanding what the impact our media, Web and gadget-centric household will have on my kiddos. And I'm not alone.

Last Friday, the Federal Communications Commission launched a pretty far-reaching review of these very questions. The investigation, prompted by Congress and the first undertaking of its kind in two decades, probes well-trod territory about online safety, the exposure of violent and sexually explicit material online, in video games and on television. But the inquiry dives into lots of newer questions about how children are impacted by advertising and inappropriate and harmful content on the Web and through mobile devices. Those questions haven't been considered with great depth before.

Overall, the FCC sees digital media as hugely beneficial for educating children, among other things. But the agency also recognizes the potential risks of such fast-changing and quickly-adopted technology among children.

"The challenges of an emerging media landscape will only become more complex as technology continues to evolve, so it is essential that we enable parents to assist their children in harnessing the benefits of emerging media while protecting them from harmful content," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement about the notice of inquiry.

For instance, the FCC asks about potentially exploitive online advertising to children, such as behavioral advertising, and what the agency should do about it.

So if my daughter looks up YouTube clips on Chinese acrobats (her current fave), will she then see ads for Chinese language lessons or Tsing Tao beer?

The FCC also asks about potential harms in Advergaming, the marketing strategy of using online games to reinforce a brand. The strategy is to get users to frequently visit a site to play a game centered on a brand, like Chex cereal, to reinforce the brand in the players’ mind. Better yet, if they invite their friends to play, the scheme becomes a viral marketing campaign. The commission explains that these new forms of advertising online and on mobile gadgets aren't regulated by the agency through the Children’s' Television Act.

The Federal Trade Commission has rules in place about online children's privacy. It announced last week that the marketerrs of Mudd and Bongo agreed to a $250,000 settlement with the agency for collecting and distributing personal information from children without parental consent.

"To what extent are children exposed to excessive and exploitative advertisements on media other than television? What actions, if any, should government take to create incentives to limit the exposure of?
children to advertisements and to promote associated policies, such as the separations policy, on these
other media?" the FCC asked.

The review also includes new forms of advertising that have raised concerns in television and cable such as embedded product advertising. CW teen drama "One Tree Hill" had 2,575 product placements last year, an average of 50 a week, according to Truthful Media, a group of child and public interest advocates. Who doesn't notice when "American Idol's" Simon Cowell takes a swig from his shiny red Coca Cola cup?

In a recent letter to Genachowski, the group called for the agency to regulate embedded advertising in TV shows, which doesn't fall under agency rules. Writers Guild of America West, a labor union representing TV writers, has called on the FCC to expand its definition of children’s' programming to include more primetime shows, which would have stricter rules for commercial advertising.

Indeed, advertising is an area whre parents often feel is out of their control.

"Household media rules are unlikely to be effective in protecting children from inappropriate advertisements, because parents are usually not aware of the content of a particular advertisement before a child sees it," the FCC stated in its notice of inquiry.
"Similarly, parental control technologies generally block entire programs or websites rather than specific commercials contained within otherwise acceptable content for children."

The agency also delves into the risks online social networking sites have on the privacy and security of children. Some 13 percent of youth on those sites say they've received sexual solicitations online, according to a study cited in the FCC review. And 46 percent of youth say they've disclosed personal information to someone they've met online.

It's unclear how far the agency plans to take the inquiry. It's got some major items on its plate with its controversial open-Internet proposal and task to figure out within months how to hook up the nation to high-speed Internet.

Meanwhile, I’ve got some ground rules in place on screen time. And I can't deny the fact that we're technology enthusiasts. I'll be using our two iPhones, Blackberries, On Demand television, 970 channels, iPod shuffle, digital video camera, portable DVD player, Wii and XBox, and multiple laptops and desktops as voraciously as ever. My children? They'll be able to dabble in the digital world, but only between climbing trees and indulging mom in some good old fashion conversation.

By Cecilia Kang  |  October 26, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
 | Tags: children media, embedded advertising, federal communications commission  
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Unfortunately, people fail to realize that there is an exceedingly simple answer to most of these issues that people often overlook in favor of further government interdiction in our lives.

In this case - it's called "Parenting."

I know, it seems to be a lost art nowadays, but children are only exposed to these things when parents are overly permissive (televisions and computers with unrestricted access to the internet in children's rooms)... children don't need cellphones with access to the internet and "IPhone apps"... a failure to put parental controls on their computers... a failure to monitor what television programs the children watch... and the list goes on.

While we can't protect our children from everything (or prevent them from finding some avenue with which they could potentially access such things) - we sure can do a whole lot better a job than we sometimes do.

Posted by: MrCustodyCoach | October 26, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

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