Town Hall on Parental Controls for Streaming Media Platforms Research Findings by Melissa Henson, Program Director, Parents Television and Media Council June 8, 2021

Written by PTC | Published June 9, 2021

Thank you all for joining us today. My name is Melissa Henson, I am the Program Director for the Parents Television and Media Council and I am also the author of this report. I’m going to briefly walk you through some of our findings.

In our 2017 report, Over-the-Top or a Race to the Bottom, the PTC made several recommendations for improving the family viewing experience across several streaming video platforms and services, to wit: we recommended a uniform ratings system, giving parents more control over content, and giving parents the option to block explicit titles.

In looking again at these streaming services four years later, it appears that many streaming services heeded our call for more uniformity in the application of age-based ratings.

Although most streaming services are still not using content descriptors (S,D, L, V to indicate elevated levels of sexual content, adult dialogue, foul language or violence); most have adopted some variation of content controls based on age-rating – most often these involve creating one or more separate user profiles, choosing an age or rating threshold (most often using a combination of TV Parental Guidelines and Motion Picture Association ratings), and PIN-restricted access to content above that age or rating threshold.

Today Hulu (owned by Disney) has the least-robust parental controls of the major streaming services. Although Hulu does allow you to set-up a separate “kid” profile, there is no way to distinguish between younger children and older children, meaning a seven-year-old child navigating the “kid” profile can access PG-13 and TV-14-rated content. Moreover, Hulu still has not added PIN-restrictions or other barriers to prevent a child from switching profiles to view adult content on a parent’s profile.

In early March, CBS All Access became Paramount+. Interestingly, the parental controls on Paramount+ are worse than what it replaced. Under Paramount+, parental controls are limited to the ability to create a “kids” profile, which can be set to “Younger Kids,” which limits content to programs rated TV-Y; or “Older Kids,” which restricts content to programs rated TV-Y, TV-Y7, TV-Y7-FV, TV-G, G, TV-PG, and PG. There are no options that allow for content rated TV-14 or PG-13 while also restricting access to R-rated or TV-MA-rated content. And, as with Hulu, there are no barriers to stop a child from switching over to an adult profile.

Hulu’s chief deficiency is that it does not distinguish between content that would be suitable for a 7-year-old and a 13-year-old. Paramount+’s chief deficiency is that it does not allow that content that might be suitable for an 18-year-old might not be suitable for a 13-year-old.

Further improvements can be made to ensure an even higher degree of consistency across platforms. Amazon Prime, for example, bases restricted content on age, not on content rating – leaving some ambiguity as to what Amazon considers appropriate for a 16-year-old, for example, that would be too mature for a 13-year-old, but not explicit enough to be restricted to viewers 18 and over.

None of the streaming platforms we looked at have taken the additional step of adding a family tier or family-friendly package; though Disney+ was built chiefly with family audiences in view (more adult content is to be found on its sister platform, Hulu).

Netflix alone among the major streaming services also allows blocking specific programs, as the PTC recommended in its 2017 research report.

Ranked on a relative scale, right now Netflix has the best parental controls of the major streaming services; Hulu, the worst. The parental controls available on Peacock, Paramount+ and HBO Max are similar enough to be virtually undistinguishable. Disney scores slightly higher because of the “kid-proof exit” feature, which requires users to answer a security question to switch profiles; AppleTV+ also scores slightly higher because it also provides parents with data about screen usage.

It is worth noting that for all intents and purposes, there are no restrictions on content on these streaming plaforms. Broadcast decency laws don’t apply here. That means the adult content can be very adult: explicit language, nudity, graphic sexual content and violence. At the same time, many of these streaming platforms know that they need families for stability and growth – that’s why so many of them are investing heavily in children’s programming. But as long as “Sesame Street” and “Euphoria” are available on the same platform, it is vitally important that these services institute robust parental controls.

I will now turn it back over to Tim Winter for concluding remarks.

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