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New Gadgets, New Worries

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Mike Elgan of PC World magazine is predicting that the Christmas season will prove his contention that Apple's iPad is the "Children's Toy of the Year."

"Have you ever seen a 4-year-old play with an iPhone? It's actually kind of shocking," he reported. "Kids take to the iPhone's multitouch user interface like they do trucks or dolls. They instinctively know that the iPhone is a toy, and they nag, cajole and harass their parents into letting them play with it."


Because parents are always looking for gadgets to grab their children's attention, Elgan suggested the iPad is "an ideal kid pacifier" and it also works as in-car entertainment, since the parent "doesn't have to put everyone's lives at risk trying to swap DVDs" from the driver's seat to the car.

Skeptics would ask about the cost, starting at $499 -- an extravagance in any income bracket. Elgan believes, "Any parent who owns an iPad will be constantly harassed by the kids, even more so than iPhone-owning parents are today. The path of least resistance for parents will be to just get the kids an iPad of their own. I think parents will do this by the millions."

He argued that while adults will debate the iPad's pluses and minuses, "the reaction among children will be different. I believe that in the under-12 market, the iPad will dominate without any real competition and will completely change children's culture."

So what now? Parents will face an entirely new front in the never-ending technological assault on the popular culture. As more and more technology-savvy children get in the routine of watching television online, can parents feel rely on technological help in screening out graphic sex or violence? The broadcasters love to tout their V-chip and self-regulating content warnings, but it is useless. Still, useless is better than nonexistent, and that's what you have in the online world.


Studies now show children are watching television on the Internet and on their cell phones with increasing frequency. (The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in January that children spend more time playing with games, songs and videos on their cell phones than in talking on them.)

In a new study, the Parents Television Council discovered that four of the most popular Internet distributors of commercial TV programming are a Wild West of video without warnings. The four are Hulu (made up of NBC/Universal, Fox and Disney/ABC), Fancast (Comcast), Slashcontrol (AOL) and AT&T. Each provider was graded on the effectiveness of its content ratings, homepage content decency, advertiser accountability and parental controls. The report card had three D's and one F (for AT&T).

Can a parent install parental controls on an iPad or laptop? No. Not one of these major online video providers offers a parental-control mechanism or even mentioned "parental control" on their homepage. Hulu and Fancast provided parent options ... if you went searching for a "help" page.

Can a parent trust the TV ratings online? Out of 602 videos the PTC analyzed in a three-week study period, 46 percent were unrated and accessible to all regardless of the nature of the content. Unrated videos were neither restricted nor blocked from the user however explicit the content.


Even the rated programs failed to include a single content descriptor (the V for violence, S for sexual situations, D for sexual dialogue and L for vulgar language). Online, the video providers have even watered down the ratings from regular cable TV. "South Park" is always rated TV-MA for mature audiences on Comedy Central, but episodes have been downgraded to TV-PG on Fancast.

Shouldn't these online video sites have login procedures to prevent young children from explicit content? PTC's analysts tried logging on as a 13-year-old child to see if that would limit content. But even if a child identifies as under-age using login procedures, they are still exposed to a massive amount of adult TV content. None of the providers block TV-14 content for underage children.

Based on the weak hurdles observed, PTC reported it was conceivable that a 7-year-old child would have full access to a season full of episodes from "Family Guy" or "South Park" or "a full menu of R-rated movies with just one click of a button."

Parents have been worried over what kind of television their children can watch in their own bedrooms when nobody's looking. New technology is multiplying that worry to the laptops and cell phones that children can carry anywhere. Parents could use some reassurance that entertainment conglomerates to make the online world a safer place. But the managers of these new TV-recycling platforms need to be sent to the principal's office for their low grades and lack of effort.


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