Common Sense Media: Promoting Family Values or Dictating Them?

Labeling and Rating

by Joyce Johnston

Screen TimeZero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America says that young children spend around two hours a day watching some sort of screen (TV, tablet, smart phone, or video game).  The older they get, the more they’re lured in: kids ages 8 to 18 spend, on average, more than 53 hours per week watching TV, playing video games, instant messaging, and listening to music online, finds the Kaiser Family Foundation.  But while parents and teachers have been angsting over all this media exposure, Jim Steyer has been quietly using their concerns to build an empire.

Steyer’s nonprofit Common Sense Media, will be only too glad to point parents and educators toward its extensive list of content guides, film and media ratings, lesson plans and guides to all things digital, all aimed specifically at families.  Indeed, CSM claims to offer the world’s largest library of age-based ratings and reviews of all types of content targeted at kids.  Just stay in the CSM environment, with its warm world of parent blogs and movie ratings, and everything, it implies, will be fine.

In actuality, says the New York Times, the group “now plays a role in influencing billions of dollars in government spending on education-related technologies.” The LA Times notes that its media, movie and book rating systems have become nearly ubiquitous,  adopted by Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, DirecTV, Hulu, Netflix and Amazon.  Since April of 2015, it has also begun turning moms, dads and kids into activists by joining—as well as funding— Common Sense Kids Action to influence state legislation on education.

These days, Common Sense Media’s initiatives contain a less than subtle paternalism based on the conviction that its values should control children’s learning experiences.  Early pronouncements like Core Belief #6  (“We believe that through informed decision making, we can improve the media landscape one decision at a time”) suddenly come across as a determination to reform that landscape in its own image. Starting this month (March 3), the Kids Action group has even started rating legislation based on how any potential law would—in CSM’s opinion, of course–help or harm kids. It even intends to “expose” sponsors of harmful bills—again according to CSM’s value system.

While Steyer’s company has done much to benefit schools and families, its growing reach is alarming.  No one group, however ambitious, well-funded and well-connected, should control children’s intellectual engagement online.   Student screen time has proved so vital, in fact, that the Parent’s Choice Foundation–the nation’s oldest nonprofit guide to children’s media–offers guidance, while The Diane Rehm show’s blog compiles no fewer than nine crucial resources for parents.  As they teach the children, parents and teachers should listen to more than one voice.

OIF Staff: Rating Systems; An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (Questions and Answers on Labeling and Rating Systems)

“Rating systems presuppose the existence of individuals or groups with wisdom to determine by their authority what is appropriate or inappropriate for others. Rating systems also presuppose that individuals must be directed in making up their minds about the ideas they examine.”


Joyce Johnston teaches at George Mason University and has been writing and speaking on digital intellectual property and virtual instruction for more than 20 years. As a non-librarian, but a proud member of the Virginia Association of School Librarians, she has provided updates on intellectual property at its annual conference for the past 10 years and serves on the Executive Committee for the World Conference on Educational Media and Technology (aka EdMedia).


  • It’s not uncommon to list a resource as useful, then have some disagreement about how good it is over time. Lists change, as do the reasons for supporting them. ALA’s position, long documented, is that “ratings” are often used to render judgments about content that are very narrow, and sometimes rather misleading themselves. Why would ALA endorse things that don’t adhere to its SHARED and documented values (reached after much discussion)? The fact that some of our members disagree with a specific recommendation is …. intellectual freedom. My experience with libraries, and the literally millions of people we serve every day, is that we are the family-friendliest institution around. But our labels (that would cataloging) try NOT to dictate the value, leaving that judgment up to the individual families, rather than Steyer.

  • James, I get that, but it doesn’t account for the censorship nor the blacklisting. Common Sense used to be on the Great Websites for Kids site then it was censored out because someone noticed it rated books on the potential for sexual inappropriateness. One person. The order was given not to use Common Sense any further, no library, no library association, no library school. There is really no excuse for that, especially not from the leader of the “Office of Intellectual Freedom.”

    Further, Great Websites for Kids “is a compilation of exemplary websites geared to children from birth to age 14.” It has nothing to do with “endorsing things” linked on that site. Common Sense used to be on the site then it was censored out for ratings books with a potential for sexual inappropriateness. This blog post complains about how big Common Sense Media has grown yet it is not an “exemplary website”?

    “Why would ALA endorse things that don’t adhere to its SHARED and documented values …?” And with that you display ALA’s bias and untrustworthiness for parents and educators.

    I do give you 100% credit, however, for publishing my comment and responding.

  • Censorship and blacklisting have actual and exact meanings. If a non-profit organization does a list of recommended websites, and your preferred site didn’t make it because its approach contradicts an association value statement, that isn’t censorship. It isn’t blacklisting, either, any more than it would be to decline a KKK link on a NAACP site, or for a Consumer Report on Toyotas to fail to mention Nissan. As this very insightful blog post demonstrates, Steyer’s ratings might deserve a closer look. This is critical thinking – in too short supply in our culture. OIF is proud to post it.

    But let me set some clear rules. I get that you’re an avid critic of ALA and OIF. But the purpose of this blog isn’t to give you a platform to make odd, hyperbolic, and (based on my investigations) utterly unfounded accusations. You’ve had two posts on this topic, on our platform. That’s enough, and it may be one too many. If you want to talk further, call or email me directly. Anything else is the behavior of an Internet troll.

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