Families becoming own censors

As films, music and the internet become less and less child friendly many parents are taking over the task of censorship from government bodies.
William West | Sep 17 2009 | comment  

televisionHas the time come for families to become their own censors -- to take over a task long considered the province of government-backed agencies? There are two main reasons for raising the question -- first, because these days government bodies seem to be neglecting their duties in this area, and second, because parents (thanks to the age of computerisation) now have the capacity to do the job themselves.

Whatever your opinion, the fact is that more and more parents are taking up the challenge, not only where the films they show their kids are concerned, but in all areas of access to information and entertainment, from news publications and music to internet access.

Let’s look at the last of these first: censoring the internet. I live in a country (Australia) where the national Government has promised to introduce compulsory filtering by internet-access providers. If it succeeds it would be the first government in an advanced Western democracy to do so. But you wouldn’t want to have been holding your breath for it to happen -- you would have expired long ago.

When the present Labour Government, headed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, came to power almost two years ago, part of its election platform was that it would introduce mandatory filtering of all internet access, specifically to protect Australian children. The proposal has encountered violent opposition, both from those who argue that it is technically impossible and those who reject it as a violation of personal freedom.

But even if government overcomes these immediate hurdles, there is the question of whether the software it chooses will be up to the task. The previous government attacked the problem by making no less than four separate software programs available for families to install on their home computers. In my own tests, all of them failed in significant ways. In short, they were all duds.

But despite all of this, most families have already come up with their own solution. They have downloaded some of the excellent commercial software now available, including freeware programs. After sampling many programs, I agree with those who say the best solution available at present is the K9 program -- an industrial strength program that has been made available free of charge for home use.

One of the big pluses of this program is that it allows parents to choose which categories of internet sites that they want to censor. It also allows them to block access to individual sites that they believe are unsuitable for their own children. In short, parents who have the energy to spend a little time on the problem have solved it long before the government (if it ever does!) and they have been able to tailor the solution to their own values and the special needs of their own children.

Moving on to film censorship: while preparing an article recently for
Perspective magazine I spoke to parents and film reviewers who agreed that government-backed censorship has been failing radically in recent times. Many parents said they had turned to censoring films themselves -- even movies that were clearly meant to be suitable for young children.

As standards of morality in the cinema have been slipping -- particularly in Hollywood -- so, it seems, have standards in film censorship. More and more films have levels of violence and sexual deviation that would have been almost unimaginable even 20 years ago. Often it seems sex scenes have been inserted merely to get an adult rating for a film, so the film will not be seen as a kid’s flick.

As one parent explained: "
I am not comfortable with letting professional sensors who spend half their lives watching violent and semi-pornographic movies to decide what is acceptable for my children. I reached the point where I had been burned one too many times by the ratings system to place my confidence in it, so I decided that I’d never allow my kids to watch any movie I hadn’t at least viewed myself."

There is, of course, the question about whether it is ethical to edit films yourself. But at least one father I spoke to was livid at the thought that he could be prevented from protecting his own children in this way.

"I believe it is completely ethical to edit a movie that you have paid for in order to make it suitable for your kids. Even if you have only rented it, as long as you delete the movie after the family has watched it, nobody should be concerned that you cut out material that you believe is inappropriate for your kids. After all, that is what government censors do. The idea that someone could say I don’t have the right to edit out smut and pornography from what my children watch really incenses me."

The software to "rip" (copy) and edit films has been available online for years. Some programs are shareware, but for parents with tight budgets there are even freeware programs available. One of the most popular seems to be DVD Shrink. At Download.com alone it has been downloaded more than 299,000 times.

As already mentioned, parental censorship of the media can even extend to music. One parent told me: "Our four children, three of whom are now in their teens, love music of all kinds from classical to the latest pop and rock, but they have never listened to a radio station. My wife and I are real music fans and we have exposed them to what we consider to be the best music produced over the past 40 or 50 years. Thanks to digital music you can pick and choose whatever you want to listen to -- you don’t have to submit yourself to someone else’s playlist, as well as their often inane and sometimes offensive banter as well. There was a time when you had to listen to radio to get the latest news and weather etc, but these days all that is available on the internet, so there isn’t the need that there used to be to listen to radio."

Not only is it possible to pick and choose which songs you want your children to hear, but you can even edit the music. As one parent said: "Occasionally you come across a song that is worth letting your kids hear, maybe because it is a particularly good example a particular style or genre of music, but it may have a swear word or something off-colour at the beginning or end of the song. There are plenty of programs around now that allow you to edit out things like that. We have used them a number of times."

Of course, the internet libertarians who believe that information does not only "want to be free", but that it wants to be free of all moral constraints, might baulk at this sort of thing. But that is one of the great things about the digital age -- even if governments and their agencies are forced take account of such views, individual families don’t. The liberties allowed by the digital age are not restricted to libertarians. They allow all of us some measure of choice -- even parents who want to act as their own censors.

William West is a Sydney-based freelance journalist and editor of Persective magazine.

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