Tim Winter, President of the Parents Television Council, speaks about how the media industry targets children and teens, and how devastating this can be at times. In particular, he cites the destructive effect of 13 Reasons Why, which is being blamed for a frightening increase in teen suicides after Netflix released the first season of the series.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thank you for joining us today for Family Policy Matters. I’m Traci DeVette Griggs, Director of Communications here at NC Family, sitting in this week for John Rustin. In the summer, many families have more time to relax and have fun. Kids get to stay up late, and since watching movies is a pastime some families enjoy together, we thought this would be a good time to get an update on how to choose movies that are truly family-friendly, and even perhaps inspiring and beneficial. So it’s a good time to bring back Tim Winter, who is President of the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for responsible entertainment. Tim brings a wealth of experience from time spent at NBC, MSNBC, MGM Studios, and many, many years with Parents Television Council.
Tim Winter, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
TIM WINTER: Traci, it’s great to be back on the horn with you and with Family Policy Matters.
TRACI GRIGGS: So Tim, what kind of suggestions do you have for parents, and how can they make good choices for the films and television shows they may watch together as a family this summer?
TIM WINTER: In the 21st century, it’s never been harder for a parent to be able to monitor what their children are consuming in terms of entertainment media content. We have not just motion picture shows and the living room television set anymore. We have computers, we have iPads and tablets, we have cell phones and video games—now that we’re more sophisticated—all of which bring an increasing amount of age-inappropriate material with them. So it’s more important than ever for parents to be involved. The most important thing is to do a little research to make sure the shows the kids are watching really are appropriate for the age, for the content, for your family’s own values, and there are a number of ways to do that. You can come to the Parents Television Council’s website to learn about television programming. Parental Previews is a wonderful movie resource for you. These are guidelines that don’t just tell you what the plot is or what the rating is, but it tells you more about the type of specific content that many parents may find runs counter to their values, and every bit of information helps a parent to be a better parent.
TRACI GRIGGS: As you said, it is getting harder and harder to police what our kids and grandkids are watching and what they can access. So how important is it to go to the source? So talk to our kids and explain to them why it’s important for them not to be putting this kind of material in front of their eyes. How helpful is that?
TIM WINTER: It’s a great question and it’s a question I don’t get all that frequently. We can sit and we can wag our finger at our kids and say, “Here’s what you should and shouldn’t do.” A little bit of context can really help. A little bit explaining why you are setting rules can be very helpful. And obviously, what you say depends upon the age of the child. But we as parents instinctively, intuitively know, that what our kids consume in terms of entertainment media can have an impact on their thinking, on their behavior, on their cognitive development. And medical science confirms that to be true. So, it’s important just as we talk about telling junior you can’t have just a bowl of Fruit Loops everyday for breakfast, you’ve got to have something healthy, also making sure they understand the reasoning why they also need to make good media choices for themselves. That if they want to develop and be the best grownup they can possibly be, it starts not just with good sleep and good food, but also with a good diet of healthy entertainment. Telling them and explaining to them why that’s so important is, I think, a very helpful step to get them on your side of this issue.
TRACI GRIGGS: Can you give us a few more examples? Such as: if over-sexualized media can change the way you look at girls or boys, or how you think about marriage, and how hopeful you are about the world. Are there some other things that you would suggest that parents say along those lines?
TIM WINTER: The answer to the question depends in great part on how old the child is. If you’re talking to a 7- or 8-year-old versus a 12- or 14-year-old, you’re going to have to make sure you put that answer, that context, into an age-appropriate answer. A lot of times kids don’t think about the sexualization of young girls in a way that we as adults can see the harm. But if a mom tells a young boy, “I was a young girl and how should I have been treated? How would you want other boys my age to treat me when I was a kid?” And trying to put it in that kind of a context, you know. Most boys worship their moms—and dads too of course, but there’s always, I think, something special when a mom can talk to her son in a way about these values that really puts into a young boy’s mind the context of: These girls in my age-group are going to grow up and be mom someday. My sisters will grow up and be moms, hopefully someday, and how would I want them to be treated with respect? That’s one way to add the context into the conversation with a child.
TRACI GRIGGS: Of course we know that kids don’t always learn the lessons that we want them to, and so we need to do our best to shield them from this content. So, let’s talk a little bit about some of the things that are put into place, such as rating systems for movies. And then there’s a rating system for television shows too, right? Could you just kind of give us a synopsis and a comparison of those two systems?
TIM WINTER: The Parents Television Council, who’ve been very active in terms of public policy—I spend a lot of time in Washington D.C. and we’re based in Hollywood, right here in the belly of the beast. But I spend a lot of time in Washington as well, talking to members of Congress, senators, elected appointed officials, and cabinet officers and so forth, about the media’s impact on kids, and how we can help parents become better parents. You’d think that the easiest way is to look at the rating system, for a parent to say: What’s the show rated? If it’s G or PG, then it’s probably okay for my kid. If it’s PG-13 is probably okay for my 14-year-old child. What we have seen is, there’s two separate things. One is the rating systems themselves. Parents have a rating system for television; They have a different rating system for movies, a different rating system for video games, a different rating system for music lyrics. So how can a parent possibly navigate all of those different systems? So, issue number one is the complexity of the different systems. We think—and we are advocating for— one system that would cover all media, so parents can understand in depth, one rating system that covers all forms of media.
The second part is the accuracy and the transparency and the consistency of the rating system. […] There’s supposed to be some sort of continuity, but we’ve seen that not happen a lot. Every single show on primetime broadcast television is rated for a child, even the most sexualizing, most profane, most violent. They’re all rated as appropriate for children. And that’s done because the networks make more money from the advertisers if they rate them as appropriate for children as opposed to adults only. So there are problems with the system’s accuracies, and problems with the transparency, and problems with the consistency. We’ve seen—there have been social science reports, actually academic reports—that show there is more gun violence in PG-13 movies than R-rated movies. There are now F-words—multiple F-words—that are allowed in a PG-13 movie. I don’t know a single parent in America that thinks that type of profanity is appropriate for a 13-year-old child. But the Motion Picture Association has said: Well, if you have one or two, it’s okay, but if it’s three or more than it’s not okay. That seems so silly to me. There needs to be better transparency of what these rating systems stand for, and right now it’s lacking that terribly. So we are advocating for a unified rating system and better accuracy across all rating systems.
TRACI GRIGGS: Of course, more and more families are cutting the cord and they’re just going to a lot of the streaming services. Do these rating systems apply to any of those things, like Netflix? And then, what about YouTube?
TIM WINTER: This is where it gets even more complex for a parent, when you start using some of these streaming platforms: YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Apple TV. Some of these streaming platforms use the TV system, some of them use the movie system, some of them use both, some of them use their own system, and some of them don’t use any system at all. And so what’s the parent to do? It’s like going into a supermarket and only having some of the food boxes having on the back the nutritional ingredients and the nutritional value. And some of them have the right ones, some of them have wrong ones, some of them don’t have any and it’s a mess. So, the issue is even more problematic for parents who are trying to navigate through cord cutting. A lot of parents think: If I can get rid of TV and cable, then I don’t have the sucker-punch where a show comes on that I’m not expecting. But the problem is, when you open up, it’s Pandora’s box, really. You open up Netflix and there’s some really good content for children, but you also have some of the most disturbing, twisted, sick content available anywhere in entertainment, much of it is featuring, and targeted at children. So really, the parents can’t just turn on a device and leave the room. It is so troubling right now. And the issue of the streaming media platforms, they need to get on board with a more consistent and accurate system as well.
TRACI GRIGGS: You mentioned targeting children, and that brings up the efforts of some to slip storylines into movies and TV shows that are specifically designed to influence our kids’ hearts and minds on certain issues. So, is this a real thing? And how worried should parents be about that?
TIM WINTER: Oh, this is absolutely a real thing. Matter of fact, I was recently on Fox News to discuss a show on Netflix called 13 Reasons Why. Most adults in America have never heard of a show called 13 Reasons Why, but I assure you, most children have heard of it. Many of them have watched, and some of the consequences are tragic. It’s a show that’s on Netflix that features children, and it’s targeted at children, especially junior high schoolers and high schoolers. The show is about a young high school girl who is sexually assaulted and bullied and brutalized, and she ends up taking her own life. It was the single most explicit suicide scene we’ve ever seen produced in any form of any media […], very graphic, a suicide scene of this young girl who felt such despair and no hope, she took her own life. The show was about the 13 reasons why she killed herself. This show was watched by millions of children, and what the National Institutes of Health have confirmed for us in just the last couple of weeks ago, is that after the show premiered the number of children ages 10 to 17 who committed suicide after the show was released, spiked up by 30 percent. This follows another concerning statistic after the show was released: the Google search term for “How do I kill myself” went up 26 percent. So you now have evidence that there is a link between this show, targeting teenagers, targeting children, that basically romanticizes teen suicide, and a number of teenagers and children who are actually killing themselves. It’s deeply troubling. What could be more concerning to a parent than a child who is contemplating ending their own life because they feel such despair? Where’s the redemption? Where’s the positive result? Well, Netflix and the Hollywood creative community think it’s edgier and better to produce the despair as opposed to the redemption. And Netflix seems to be one of the biggest perpetrators in terms of explicit content marketing towards children.
So your question is about, is this really a thing where some of these programs are slipping content in that most parents would think is vile? The answer is: Yes. And they have a constitutional First Amendment right to produce this type of content. But I think it is outrageous that a publicly traded corporation would market and profit, they would profit from children who watch a show, and it’s now being linked to increased rates of suicide of children.
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