So you stream content on Netflix. You may or may not notice the parental ratings system that the service provides in the “Movie Details” section of many films they make available. A secondary layer of parental supervision, the “Common Sense Media Rating” is provided by Common Sense Media; a not-for-profit organization that “exist[s] because our nation’s children spend more time with media and digital activities than they do with their families or in school, which profoundly impacts their social, emotional, and physical development.“
While the organization’s website repeatedly reminds us of their “nonpartisan” and “trustworthy” work on behalf of children and parents, one can’t help but notice the criteria that are used to determine “age-suitable” material. For example, on the details page for the documentary, Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man, the “13+” Common Sense Media rating begins by stating, “Parents need to know that this documentary comes from a clearly leftist perspective in its discussion of citizenship, activism, and electoral politics. This is not an unbiased portrait of Nader or politics and people who disagree with Nader’s politics may become angry watching this film.“
Aside from the irony of discussing bias, the parental rating’s content itself is far more alarming than the film it refers to. Since when was political orientation or social cause a factor in determining age-suitable material? Since when did parental ratings warn that you “may become angry” at this “leftist” content? The documentary in question is a fly-on-the-wall account of Nader’s work over the years in public safety, right up to his recent presidential campaigns. It also heavily includes Nader’s critics. The fact that the rating for it opens with “leftist perspective” certainly places Nader’s political stances as the leading factor for the “13+” rating. One would find no more bias on a picket sign that reads, “Go home, Pinkos.”
As well, all documentaries and news media are biased to begin with. For example, if a documentary or news story covers a war, it is placing that war in “need to know” status by default, which is a bias. Whether the story uses the perspective of the civilian population, the military or both, it is highlighting a particular vantage point, and choosing which vantage point is also biased (such as “public interest” or “corporate interest). In An Unreasonable Man, Nader’s work is highlighted from the perspective of his contemporaries and himself. Any critical thinker will know this, and any guidance for children should encourage critical thought.
The only bias that the Common Sense Media Rating should have is toward protecting children from what they are psychologically susceptible to: violence, aggressive marketing, propaganda or other material that can exploit vulnerabilities of childhood development. Anything outside this is nothing more than using the Common Sense Rating as a platform for opinion and rhetoric.
Of course, An Unreasonable Man is only one example. The “14+” rating for Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a documentary from a Creationist angle, begins with, “Parents need to know that this treatment of the subject of evolution contains a number of hot-button topics. From the existence of God to the destruction of humans in the name of racial purity, this documentary pokes at a lot of sensitive topics.” But then, it reassures us with, “Ben Stein is committed to asking questions, both of other people and himself. When he is faced with a tough subject, he admits he needs time to ponder it, and often goes to the geographical source of the query.“
Are you catching the drift? The ratings system appears to outline what it means to “think properly.” It establishes this by warning of “hot button” or “controversial” topics, but then coaxes the viewer with assumptions of “acceptable” film making. There is no mention of “Creationism” or “right wing,” either. The rating even mentions scientific process as “scientific doctrine.”
Whether these examples of embedded rhetoric in the ratings is systematic or dependent on the specific writer is unclear. The obvious concerns are that it’s there in the first place and that Netflix has willingly included it in its movie details section. One may assert, “But Netflix provides this “controversial” content anyway.” The reality is that Netflix sells memberships, and bottom line is the goal. Not including the content would work against profits.
Common Sense Media provides ratings for many media partners in exchange for a fee. It has contracts with TiVo, Yahoo!, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DIRECTV, NBC Universal, Netflix, Best Buy, Google, AOL/Huffington Post, Fandango, Trend Micro, Verizon Foundation, Nickelodeon, Bing, Cox Communications, Kaleidescape, AT&T, and NCM. It appears as a perfect setup for conflict of interest.
This much media using the Common Sense Media rating gives them a giant outlet for determining which intellectual content your child should watch, and which content you should avoid or approach “skeptically.” It appears to determine what’s “suitable” for adults as well as kids. Common Sense Media operates far outside the boundaries of “age-suitable” ratings. In their “10 Beliefs,” they do state that media influences a child’s mental development, which is an obvious point. But the third “belief” states, “We believe in teaching our kids to be savvy, respectful and responsible media interpreters, creators, and communicators. We can’t cover their eyes but we can teach them to see.“
“Teaching” the kids “to see,” as evidenced in the ratings themselves, subjectively includes determining how to “think properly” about the subjective, determining which opinions are “suitable,” determining what is “controversial” and warning us about how we’ll react.
The irony of Common Sense Media is that “common sense” is often wrong.