Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Common Sense Media

Recently I meandered over to the Barnes & Noble website, and I noticed two things: First, you can now get free shipping on orders exceeding $25 dollars (sound familiar?) and second, there are now advisory ratings on YA media courtesy of a company named Common Sense Media. This is the preamble to their beliefs:
Media is fun and our kids love it. We also know that kids now spend so much time absorbing its messages and images that it has become "the other parent" in their lives. We started this organization because we know families need trustworthy information to help manage their kids' media lives.
What follows is a list of ten beliefs, the first reads: "We believe in media sanity, not censorship". If you want a more elaborate cross-section of what this company does, there's a handful of other excellent blogs google will direct you to if you search for it, but as always this blog is for my thoughts. This isn't journalism. I also really don't want to get into the quagmire of parental philosophy.

The first thing to address is their principle tenant: "media sanity, not censorship". First, what is media sanity? It sounds wonderful. It sounds like a call for an end to propaganda and the rebirth of honesty. Except what do they consider propaganda? Well. Common Sense Media judges content based on the presence of Role models, Violence, Sex, Language, Consumerism, and Drinking/drugs/smoking in media. Therefore media sanity is the judicious consideration over the exposure of these very real, ubiquitous, theoretically negative elements of modern culture. Sounds like something we were just discussing, doesn't it?

So that's media sanity. Censorship is defined as "the act or practice of censoring"; Censor is defined (second usage) as "any person who supervises the manners or morality of others". Without making any kind of judgement call on the aforesaid material, I think we can safely assume that Common Sense Media is in fact a censor. Even if we were to define censorship as the willful, physical withholding of information, which I can only assume they must, it can at least be said that they enable censorship by providing families with their "trustworthy information."

Now that we've dispelled that misunderstanding, let's take a closer look at the preamble to their list of beliefs:
We also know that kids now spend so much time absorbing its messages and images that it has become "the other parent" in their lives.
I believe the operative word here is messages. The criteria they evaluate (that which I listed above: Role models, Violence, etc.) is compiled into an overall ranking under "messages". Simply, what's being communicated. Smart thinking. Let's make sure the author/creator has something positive or important to say, and not something destructive or harmful.

But there's a problem here. Let's look at Common Sense Media's evaluation of John Green's Printz Award winning (That's the award for YA literature, by the way) Looking for Alaska. It only has a two out of five smiley faces in Messages. That's a little confusing as John Green's Looking For Alaska is an emotional coming-of-age story that, if memory serves [it's been about two years], is about the heartbreaking difficulty of truly understanding another human being. It's an important message, and even more so for young adults when being understood is yearned for, and the act of trying to understand others falls victim to adolescent self-absorption. That's something important and positive, not something "iffy" for ages 15-18.

The problem with Common Sense Media's system is that they associate the sheer presence of what they deem negative as a poor message, and ignore what an author is legitimately communicating. They have, as so many of the systems do, taken thinking out of the equation. These people not only assume young adults can't determine right from wrong when they're shown it, but actually can't do it themselves. It's not the presence of violence or drugs that's wrong but to what end its presence is used for.

Common Sense Media acknowledges media's place as "the other parent" but ignores that parents teach. If a family goes out to dinner, they'll pass a smoker, see someone drinking, and if the night is particularly wild maybe even something sexual or violent. These things exist. They just do. You can't help that, and so it becomes what you communicate to your children in the presence of these things that's important.

Media sanity, not censorship. It's a wonderful notion, but the kind of parent who grooms a purity-ring-wearing zombie, or naive paper doll can't appreciate it. These aren't thinking people, and neither are the people at Common Sense Media. Congratulations on your new partnership with Barnes & Noble. Let's hope the book buying public has enough common sense to keep your mindless Puritanism away from their children.

1 comment:

  1. The name of the company is woefully ironic.

    But this is the main problem with pretty much all censorship targeted towards "negative" subject matter. It doesn't take into consideration that to teach about the negative effects of x, you need to include x in the media and include it in a manner the target audience can relate to. Simply saying "x is bad, don't do it" isn't enough. People need to go deeper than that to really be taught to understand, etc.

    I've always disliked to notion of needing to "project" people from certain things. No one can stay in a bubble forever, and the sooner they learn about things, the sooner they can figure out what's what for themselves. It isn't like kids suddenly, magically know about things at a certain age if they were never exposed to it before. :\