Published on September 5, 2018

Algorithms have huge sway over the content we see online. As media-purveyors seek to remove any hint of friction between us and their content, and to reduce any opportunity for us to peel ourselves from the screen (I believe the CEO of Netflix once named his biggest competitor as “sleep”), algorithms predict what we will like, put it in front of us, and even go to the trouble of having it automatically play for us.

It’s easy to think that the sample of content we see online is representative of the whole, but the algorithms make it not so – what we see is representative of what it is predicted we’ll engage with, based on our previous engagements.

I was recently asked about content and kids. Sometimes, we at School assist students who have encountered content online that disturbs them, and we sometimes assist students who are managing exposure to ideas, images, and themes that are well beyond the family’s (and the School’s) ideal of what is good, helpful and right.

Streaming services puts huge resources into the algorithms which suggest content for users to watch. Because of this, I have been startled to learn more about the films and television programs housed in their online library  – the sample, based on my viewing of Parks and Recreation is certainly not representative of the whole. While investigating an issue recently, I learned that just what content is available to subscribers. Without looking for it, I could have gone the rest of my life and never know these were even part of the library. 

Despite being unaware of the presence of content like this, I had tried to set up parental controls when I first installed the service on our device and was surprised to find it lacking. “Kids” accounts are available by default, but I could not find a way to lock kids out of the other accounts, or out of inappropriate content.

I was surprised to learn, upon investigation this week, that Netflix, for example, does offer parental controls. In short, I was using the wrong device to try to set them up. Parental controls are available only when logging into the Netflix website using a computer’s web browser. This means that if your family uses Netflix via an app on an Xbox, a PlayStation, Apple TV, a smart TV, an iOS device or an Android device, you will likely have never been notified about the option to set parental restrictions.

Netflix offers the opportunity to require a PIN to view anything above a certain rating or to view particular content the family may wish to restrict. Stan, a similar streaming service, offers similar functionality, enabling the option to require a PIN to sign out of the kids’ profile, and blocking content above certain ratings in certain profiles. Help with Netflix is here; help with Stan is here.

It is our responsibility, if we bring access to the new age of media into our homes, to help children navigate it and to shield them from what is harmful.

If your children are too young even to consider going looking for this stuff, all the better to act now – it is far easier to set helpful boundaries and let children grow into them than to act after the fact. Even still, if acting after the fact is needed, better that than not acting – besides, you can always blame me! I’ll cop it!