The entertainment industry says it's up to parents to police what their kids watch, play and listen to, using voluntary ratings as guidelines.
But even as parents try to provide a first line of defense, they can be ambushed. It can be hard enough deciding whether to allow a 12-year-old to play a teen-rated video game or take a 5-year-old to a PG movie. But what about media that don't fall into rating categories or are shown when kids are a captive audience?
The SuperBowl "wardrobe malfunction" garnered a lot of attention earlier this year, but it's an issue parents face nearly every time kids see a movie, watch TV or use the Internet. Parents can check a movie or TV-show rating, but not the ads and trailers shown in a theater or the commercials or promotions during television shows.
"Nobody asks us if it's OK to put this in front of our kids' faces," says Sally Kidder Davis, a Bainbridge Island mom of three.
A quick survey of parents also found complaints about airline movies (usually PG-13 movies "edited for airline use"), spam, spim, CD compilations and Internet porn sites that come up during searches for seemingly benign topics.
"One image can scare kids," said Gloria DeGaetano, local author of "Parenting Well in a Media Age." "Visual imagery hooks kids."
Each one on its own might seem like no big deal, but taken together, it's a lot of parents covering kids' eyes or ears too late.
"I am constantly amazed and surprised by the stuff I have to deal with," said Jim Steyer, a father of four and founder of Common Sense Media.
"A lot of parents really try to be conscientious, but no matter how hard they try, they can't anticipate it all. There's really a sense of being overwhelmed."
Here are some areas where some parents might be surprised by what kids are exposed to.
Audiences used to kill time before movies watching slide shows with trivia and advertisements. Now, the country's largest movie-theater chain, Regal Entertainment Group, offers "The 2wenty," a 20-minute "pre-feature program" with digital content provided by Sony Pictures Entertainment, in selected theaters.
A June promotion for the Sci Fi Channel movie "Five Days to Midnight," about a father of a 9-year-old girl who must find his future killer, featured shots of a coffin, guns and a dead body. Part of "The 2wenty," the promotions ran twice before a crowded local audience waiting for the PG-rated cartoon "Shrek 2."
Other "2wenty" ads before G- and PG-rated films included a behind-the-scenes look at Universal Studio's new "Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride" with clips from the PG-13-rated movie; shots of singer Shakira, dancing in leather pants and short top in concert; and a Fanta commercial with scantily dressed women giving men the soft drink and singing "Dontcha wanna Fanta?" The "2wenty" segments are slated to change each month.
The Cinema Advertising Council, an industry group formed last spring, offers "creative guidelines" for ad content. They suggest advertisements before PG movies can contain "dating scenarios, comedic violence [and] comedic risqué images" while "kidnapping, fire, physical fighting, drug use, vicious animal attacks [and] light sexual innuendo or subliminal messages" are OK in front of PG-13 movies.
A national study by Arbitron found that two-thirds of moviegoers said they don't mind pre-movie advertisements. "No longer simply a place to sit and see a movie, theaters are increasingly becoming entertainment centers for consumers," the 2002 study noted. "Short-form programming, movie previews and compelling advertising are all part of the movie experience today."
Expect more: An estimated $304.7 million was spent on on-screen ads in 2003, a 34-percent jump from the previous year, according to the Cinema Advertising Council. The top advertised items included candy, cars, military, fashion, video games and television.
Advertisers like the "captive" audience — moviegoers spend an average of 13 minutes in their seats before the show, Arbitron found — where no one has access to a channel changer. The council notes that ads will reach "moviegoers of all ages whose senses are heightened by the sights, sounds and aroma of the cinema."
Many parents complain about all-audience trailers for movies that are rated a step above the film being shown. Any preview can be rated for "general audiences" if it doesn't show scenes that caused the film to get its rating, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
"Kids are exposed to very adult stuff in trailers, which always focus on the most scintillating parts," said Steyer, author of "The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media's Effect on Our Children."
A 2000 Federal Trade Commission report condemned the industry's marketing of violent entertainment to children, including R-rated films (for age 17 and up) targeted at kids as young as 10. In a 2002 follow-up report, the FTC said theater owners, through the National Association of Theater Owners, pledged not to show trailers for R-rated films before PG movies "and on a case-by-case basis, before certain PG-13 films."
Critics contend the industry circumvented the R-rated movie edict by pushing increasing amounts of violence and sexual innuendo into PG-13 movies and rarely producing G-rated fare.
Fifteen of the 25 top box-office moneymakers last year were rated PG-13. This summer, only one studio release, "The Princess Diaries 2," is rated G.
Davis' younger children, ages 12 and 13, know she won't let them watch R-rated movies, but they still push when they see trailers for them before PG-13 movies.
"They'll say, 'That looks like it would be a fun movie. We want to see that.' And I say, 'Yeah, when you're older.' But having to say 'no' all the time makes it look like we're the bad guys."
The Arbitron study found nine out of 10 teens and young adults said trailers make them want to see the movie when it's released.
Seattle resident Alice Currah changed her shopping habits after encountering the PG-13-rated "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" on the large-screen televisions at a local Costco. The first time, her then-2½-year-old daughter started crying after seeing a frightening creature. "It really scared her, but she couldn't take her eyes off it," Currah said.
She complained to management, but the same movie was playing during a subsequent visit. She now tries to shop elsewhere or not bring her young daughters. "It's the first time she'd ever seen anything like that," Currah said. "She cried hard for quite a while."
Jim Sinegal, president and CEO of Issaquah-based Costco, said he's never seen "Lord of the Rings" but would ask for staff opinions on whether the movie, "a hot number at the moment," was too frightening. "We try not to show anything risqué or have anything offensive for parents shopping with children," he said. "Lord of the Rings" is "not something you'd ordinarily think would be offensive, but it might be scary.
"Obviously, that's not our intent [to scare children]," Sinegal said. "Our intent is to display TV sets." Still, he said, "there's a way to offend someone every single day, no matter what you do."
On their own TVs, some parents report distaste for beer ads during sporting events and promotions for news programs or television shows that play up blood and gore. Advertisements, sports and news shows aren't rated with parental guidelines.
"You'll watch a sporting event with your kids and suddenly a Victoria's Secret ad comes on, and you've got to yank the clicker out of their hands," Steyer said.
Think your teens will avoid pornographic spam because they use instant messaging instead of e-mail? Not necessarily. The amount of "spim," or instant message spam, is expected to double or quadruple this year, up from the approximately 1 billion spim messages sent in 2003, according to Ferris Research, a market and technology research firm. It also notes that "most IM spam is unsolicited adult content."
Davis' 13-year-old daughter, Tiffany, asked to keep a computer in her room for a six-month school research project on the differences between boys and girls. But clicking on some of the sites Google pulled up on the topic "scared and overwhelmed her," Davis said. "We didn't even think of it ahead of time. Now she's done with the Internet."
Seven in 10 teens ages 15 to 17 say they have accidentally come across pornography on the Internet, including nearly a fourth who say this happens "very" or "somewhat" often, according to a 2001 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
Even with blockers, Internet sites and spammers "find all sorts of loopholes," Davis said. "This stuff comes at you from all directions."
Davis forbids her young teens any mixed CDs burned by friends.
"If you go into a store to buy a CD and it has a parent advisory warning, that's a slam-dunk no," Davis said. But with burned CDs, "I'll hear the lyrics and say, 'Where did that song come from?!' "
"The media really get us on all levels," said Davis, a parent coach. "Parents have to pay so much attention to this."
Stephanie Dunnewind: email@example.com or 206-464-2091.