By Michelle Perras-Charron
Parents leaving broadcast and cable TV for streaming in hopes of finding more family fare are in for disappointment, according to a new report from Parents Television Council.
The report, “Over-the-Top or a Race to the Bottom: A Parent’s Guide to Streaming Video,” finds that streaming platforms and content providers are doing a poor job protecting children from inappropriate and adult content. It also notes that youth often have easy access to adult content, even when available parental controls are engaged. Parents Television Council (PTC) is a nonpartisan education organization advocating for responsible entertainment. The report can be found here.
Melissa Henson, report author and PTC program director, says it was her own experience that prompted her curiosity about streaming content and children. When her child was in kindergarten, Henson wanted more control over the media coming into her home, so she ditched cable and switched to Netflix. She was surprised to find that children’s shows were in close proximity to adult content on the menu screen, and there was nothing she could do about it, she says.
The new report rates the effectiveness of parental controls — if any — on the most popular Over-the-Top (OTT) video services — Google Chromecast, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Roku — while also noting the availability of child- or family-friendly original programming. The organization also studied how OTT services work in conjunction with popular Streaming Video On Demand (SVOD) services, particularly Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix.
“Roku has the least parental controls,” Henson says. “There are no added layers of protection.”
The PTC report gave Roku a D on its Key Findings Report Card, for offering the least-robust parental controls of the four studied, noting that although parental controls may be in place on supported apps/channels, they don’t seem to work well within the Roku framework.
For example, despite the fact that parents can create a separate user profile for children on Netflix, Roku defaults to the Netflix adult/owner profile.
Henson says most surprising of all, PTC found that although Netflix and Hulu allow for a separate user profile for children, there is nothing to stop them from switching over to an adult profile with either service.
“It’s surprising how easy it is to switch between the adult and kid profiles,” she says. “A child can still browse adult titles.”
Also troubling, she adds, is that sexually suggestive adult titles and cover art are often in close proximity to child-friendly categories. For example, a child using Amazon Prime Video (which offers no option for a separate child profile) may have to scroll past adult-themed titles and cover art to access child-friendly content. And even when parental controls have been deployed to block a child from viewing TV-MA or R-rated content, titles and cover art are still visible on the menu screen. Hulu had the least problematic titles and cover art of the providers studied, according to the report, earning it a grade of B+ in “Visibility of Adult Titles/Content.” Netflix received a D and Amazon Prime a C in this category.
Overall, Henson says that although all SVOD and OTT providers work hard to draw families in with preschool programming, they are not doing much to serve or protect them.
Other key findings:
* Among SVOD services (Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix), there is no consistency in the application, or visibility of, aged-based content ratings.
* Netflix offers categories of content that some viewers may find offensive (pornographic titles and cover art), which often appear in close proximity to child-friendly categories, with no clear way of eliminating them from the menu.
* None of the SVOD services studied offer a family plan that would allow parents to block all explicit titles, at all times, across all devices. (Also, a portion of customer subscription fees goes toward underwriting explicit content.)
* Most original streaming content is rated TV-MA. For example, on Netflix, 65% of original/exclusive content is rated TV-MA, 8% is PG, and 1% is rated G. This translates to only 4 minutes out of every hour of original series programming being suitable for a family audience (rated PG or lower).
Which service or platform is best for families?
“There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for every family,” she notes. “It really depends on the age of your children.”
Factors to consider when choosing the service or platform include the ages of children in the home, who is using the services, when they’re using it, and the level of supervision, she adds.
Henson says families with young children may prefer Netflix or Amazon Prime with Google Chromecast, because while Chromecast has limited functionality (translation: more control for parents), there are no pre-loaded apps or menu screens. Chromecast is controlled via a mobile app rather than a remote, and content is “cast” onto the television from the mobile app. Therefore, whoever holds the smartphone controls what is cast onto the television. There is no risk of children scrolling past inappropriate content, switching to an adult profile, or viewing menu screens with objectionable content. Overall, Google Chromecast was given an A rating in the PTC report for these reasons.
Families with children listening to music and/or podcasts may prefer Apple TV, which received a B in the report because it is the only OTT device that also applies parental controls to music and podcasts, as well as video content, she says.
Families with older teens who can watch television independently may prefer Hulu due to its lower proportion of mature content. Also, Hulu uses age-based and content ratings, and rates each episode separately, rather than issuing one rating for the entire series, as Netflix does.
Michelle Perras-Charron is a freelance writer and mother to four boys in Western Massachusetts. A Navy brat and also the wife of a retired Air Force captain, she loves writing about people and all topics related to parenting.