Streaming video deepens digital divide

School systems all over America now use web-based services to keep parents apprised of their child's grades, attendance, behavior and homework assignments. It is also increasingly common for students to be issued or required to bring a tablet or other Internet-connected device to school. Such tools in the classroom open up a world of opportunity and information, and while this has proved a boon to many students, many more are left out because of the so-called "digital divide." That is, people who live in poor or rural areas where broadband is limited or slow to deploy don't have the advantages that all this mobile technology provides.

There is another, perhaps less obvious way in which the digital divide is putting children in poor or rural communities at a disadvantage, and that's with media access and content.

Recently, the Parents Television Council released a report examining the television ratings system since its inception nearly 20 years ago and found that there has been virtually no consistency in how the ratings are applied, not only across television networks, but even within the same network. Parents are told to rely on the ratings system, which works with the V-chip to block unwanted and harmful programming. When programs are not rated appropriately, they are always overly permissive, rather than overly restrictive, that is, giving younger children access to more adult content.

Less obvious, but no less harmful, unintended consequences can also be traced directly to the TV ratings system. There are fewer G and PG-rated programs on television today than there were when the system was introduced, and adult content has become more pervasive and accessible to young impressionable minds.

What has all this got to do with the digital divide?

So often these days, when concerns are raised about the content on television — broadcast or cable — those who used to chide, "just change the channel!" or "turn it off!" are now asserting an abundance of alternatives to the traditional broadcast/cable model with "over-the-top" services and streaming video now so widely available through services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and the like.

Over-the-top and streaming services are a viable, even preferred alternative for hundreds of thousands of families in urban centers across the country. For many families I've spoken to, it is their preferred way to access entertainment for their kids because it gives them better control over content without the worry over endless junk food and toy ads, or promos for more adult-themed goods or shows.

But children who live in areas where high-speed broadband access is unavailable, limited by data caps or is prohibitively expensive do not have those alternatives. According to the Pew Research Center, there are 5 million homes in America with school-aged children who do not have Internet access. For those families, opting-out isn't an option.

Further compounding the problem, according to a report from Common Sense Media, a higher percentage of children from lower-income families have TV sets in their bedrooms and report having the TV left on all or most of the time in their home than their peers in middle- and higher-income families. The CSM report also shows that children from black and Latino families are more likely than their white peers to spend more time watching TV per day, more likely to have TVs in their bedrooms, and are more likely to live in homes where the TV is on all or most of the time.

Children from lower-income families have been found to show lags in cognitive and behavioral development as compared to peers in higher-income families. When combined with other risk factors, such as living in a single-parent family or low parent education levels, a child's chances of experiencing school failure, tendency toward aggressive or violent attitudes and affects are greatly increased. And those high-risk factors are exacerbated by exposure to violent or highly-sexualized media content — both of which have become increasingly common in the years since the implementation of the TV ratings system.

This means that those populations that are at most risk from media's harmful influence, are spending more time with media, less likely to be consuming it with parental supervision, and have the least ability to opt-out of the broadcast industry's monopoly over content. Those families are still dependent upon the traditional broadcast and cable model; where there are fewer and fewer family-friendly viewing options, and where ratings are often inaccurate and misleading.

It's time to bridge the divide and ensure parents are given the tools needed to protect their children from harmful media content.

Delman Coates is the senior pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., and a member of the board of the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. Twitter: @iamdelmancoates.

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