#childpredator | In our opinion: App-rating resolution needs sharper teeth to protect children

Of all the people who use digital apps on their phones or computers, children are the most vulnerable.

The average age of a person’s first exposure to pornography is 11, and 22% of the porn consumption done by minors is by children under 10, according to bitdefender.com, a security technology company. In addition, some seemingly harmless apps can serve as ways for adult predators to make contact with underage victims.

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, is sponsoring a House resolution that calls on the industry to set up a task force that would serve as a ratings board for apps, similar to the way the Motion Picture Association of America reviews and rates movies as a guide for viewers.

This is a good idea, and the resolution would be a nice first step, but it deserves to be in the form of a bill, instead — one that includes penalties for not providing information to the board. The resolution does ask Congress to impose sanctions for noncompliance, but a comprehensive law would be far more forceful than a resolution.

McAdams already has provided enough evidence to justify such a law. A press release from his office noted that in Salt Lake County alone, police arrested 30 online predators across four days during a concentrated focus on internet crimes last month. Law enforcement officers assigned to such details have in the past likened the search for online predators to shooting fish in a barrel. Surely, the nation’s elected representatives have a duty to protect children from these crimes as much as possible. If Salt Lake County can uncover that many criminals in four days, imagine how many of them are online, working hard through whichever apps are most accommodating to meet and groom children.

McAdams’ idea is to get the industry to police itself, rather than for government to do it. His resolution calls for the creation of a ratings board made up of industry representatives and child development and protection experts. This board would establish the criteria necessary for rating apps that are age-specific, and to review how the apps describe themselves.

Ultimately, the board would rate each app, similar to how the video industry rates the age appropriateness of its games.

Parents, of course, have the ultimate say over how much screen time their children are allowed each day. These new ratings would empower them to know which are safest and which ones to avoid.

The idea makes sense. Parents whose children beg to be allowed to see an R-rated movie have a good idea what sort of content would be in store. Parents whose children want a certain video game can check the age-appropriate rating. Parents whose children want to watch a television show with a TV-14 rating know what to expect.

Each of those entertainment choices could harm developing minds if the content is inappropriate. So why not provide more accurate, uniform and transparent ratings for apps beyond what’s already in place? Apps, after all, could pose the largest dangers for children in the digital world.

Ratings aren’t a guarantee against abuses. But anything that arms parents with information that could protect children is a good thing.

McAdams has a co-sponsor, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La. That makes this a bipartisan resolution. We hope he gets it passed, and that he then begins working on a bill with more teeth.

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