Culture

Technological walls

Culture | New devices seek to filter out impurities on television and the World Wide Web, but they are not enough

Issue: "The politics of grace," April 25, 1998

During the Dark Ages, after Rome fell, Christians built walls around their monasteries and libraries to protect them from the barbarians. Today, Christians are also building walls to protect their families from the new cultural barbarians.

Broadcast television used to have its own industry standards that kept networks from airing profanity, nudity, sex scenes, gross violence, and glorified immorality. With cable came "premium" channels which would show R-rated movies to viewers willing to pay the extra price. It was fairly easy for families who didn't approve of such fare to keep it out of their homes by simply not subscribing to the movie channels.

Now, however, broadcast TV, which is full of sexual innuendos and vulgar language, has even broken the nudity barrier. Now cable stations that are part of the normal subscription package show, at no extra charge, programming that makes many parents cringe-such as South Park, the most popular program on the Comedy Channel, a cartoon that depicts children getting blown up or impaled and that uses gross-out scatological humor (including a character who is a living piece of excrement). Defenders point out that South Park is shown after 10:00 p.m., when many children are in bed, but the commercials, which are almost as bad, are shown 'round the clock, and the show, in fact, has become an underground favorite of children and adolescents.

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Similarly, one no longer has to search out pornographic sites on the Internet. They come to you. Unsolicited pornographic "spam" fills e-mail boxes, even of children. A reader told WORLD that the first site that came up in an Internet search for "world magazine" turned out to be something on the order of the "world's" premier gay "magazine." (For the record, WORLD's site is www.worldmag.com.)

What to do? There has never been a better time to get rid of the television set. Some Christian families have done just that. As for computers, it is certainly possible for children to live without them, but many Christians are not willing to go that far. They are looking for ways to wall out the bad influences from their homes.

Television ratings were thought to be a way for parents to protect their children from inappropriate programming. After hoopla, controversy, and revisions, the ratings have faded into the background screen.

An Associated Press poll asked, "How much attention do you personally pay to the guidelines?" Among all adults, only 14 percent said they paid "a great deal of attention," with 15 percent each saying "a fair amount" or "just a little." More than half paid "not much at all." Among parents, only about a quarter paid "a great deal of attention," 22 percent "a fair amount," and 13 percent "just a little." Almost four in 10 said "not much at all."

When asked, "How much of the time do you use the guidelines to make viewing decisions for yourself or children in your family?" 39 percent of the adults said "never." Another four in 10 parents do "just about always," but a fifth of the parents never do. (Twenty percent monitor the ratings "not much at all," and about that same number do "only sometimes.") So TV ratings seem to be having little effect.

The real test of the rating system will be when it is combined with the heralded and much-delayed V-chip technology, which will allow parents to program their television sets not to play shows of a particular rating. The federal government is requiring that V-chip technology be installed in at least half of all full-sized TV sets manufactured after July 1, 1998. All new TVs must be built with blocking technologies by July 1, 1999.

Then there are a host of computer programs designed to block access to sexually oriented Web sites and to filter out obscene e-mail. One such program, CyberPatrol, allows parents to prevent their children from giving their names and addresses over chatlines (by blocking out any attempt by the child to type in such information). The program also allows parents to prevent access to chatrooms, block out inappropriate Web sites (based on a list updated weekly), filter out specifically chosen terms and categories, and limit the time spent on the computer. Such programs are sometimes clumsy and can be circumvented or fooled, but at least they give parents some control over what goes on in their children's computer.

The Internet itself provides resources for parents concerned about what their children are consuming in the way of entertainment. For example, "Entertainment Reviews for Parents," at www.screenit.com, offers thorough breakdowns, analyses, and recommendations of movies past and present.

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