It is now possible to play any song that enters our head by simply asking. As a man who grew up with physical media, I was accustomed to traveling to a record store to buy an album and waiting until I got home before I could play it. So I still struggle with the concept of a subscription that grants me instant access to 30 million tunes, with algorithmically tailored recommendations. This service and other digital innovations make being a child or a parent very different than it once was.
As a parent, it is easy to see why Apple Music and Spotify are offering discounted packages aimed at families to ensure that the whole household has access to unlimited music. However, it seems that someone forgot about parental controls. While exploring the settings, I realized that I could not filter out music with explicit language. As we begin to put voice-activated devices in our children's bedrooms, a lack of filters to protect them from explicit lyrics seems disturbingly reckless.
The American Academy of Pediatrics released this study discussing the impact of music, lyrics, and music videos on children and youth. Here is an abstract from that study:
Music plays an important role in the socialization of children and adolescents. Popular music is present almost everywhere, and it is easily available through the radio, various recordings, the Internet, and new technologies, allowing adolescents to hear it in diverse settings and situations, alone or shared with friends. Parents often are unaware of the lyrics to which their children are listening because of the increasing use of downloaded music and headphones. Research on popular music has explored its effects on schoolwork, social interactions, mood and affect, and particularly behavior. The effect that popular music has on children's and adolescents' behavior and emotions is of paramount concern. Lyrics have become more explicit in their references to drugs, sex, and violence over the years, particularly in certain genres. A teenager's preference for certain types of music could be correlated or associated with certain behaviors. As with popular music, the perception and the effect of music-video messages are important, because research has reported that exposure to violence, sexual messages, sexual stereotypes, and use of substances of abuse in music videos might produce significant changes in behaviors and attitudes of young viewers. Pediatricians and parents should be aware of this information. Furthermore, with the evidence portrayed in these studies, it is essential for pediatricians and parents to take a stand regarding music lyrics. - The American Academy of Pediatrics
I decided to look deeper into this, reviewing every major music streaming service for this specific, family-friendly feature: explicit language filters.
Amazon Prime Music
Having recently purchased an Amazon Echo, my entire family quickly embraced the idea of asking Alexa to answer almost any question that popped into their heads. That made me a little nervous, but I placed trust in the algorithm. It soon became apparent, though, that when playing songs, my house could all of a sudden flood with curse words I do not want my children to hear.
For example, my 8-year-old recently asked his Amazon Echo "Alexa play the song Sexyback by Justin Timberlake" and it started playing the "Explicit" version. I stopped it after hearing a few words and asked it to play the Non-explicit version. Alexa wouldn't understand despite my trying various combinations of commands. Now, even if there were an appropriate command that would instruct Alexa to play the clean version of a song, the fact that the Explicit version was the default setting was extremely troubling especially since these voice-activated devices are home-community devices accessible by everybody in the household including children.
The Echo is touted as a centrally connected hub for the home, to be used by the whole family. But it is not precisely family-friendly. Alexa understands hundreds of commands but, unfortunately, "Alexa, turn off explicit lyrics," is not one of them. It is begging for a parental filter.
The introduction of a family plan price drop is a no-brainer for most families. Up to six family members of all ages and sensibilities can have access to unlimited music streaming, yet there is so sign of an explicit language filter or family-friendly policy on this platform either.
Apple's explicit content filter is an excellent example of family friendly. Music, videos, podcasts, and even news are all successfully managed by an explicit content filter. If Apple Music offers a "Radio Edit" version of your chosen song, it will always take preference over the explicit version.
Turning the feature on is relatively easy. You can even create a 4-digit passcode to prevent your tech-savvy kids from disabling the restrictions.
Google Play Music
Google's music streaming service offers a halfway house of family-friendly tunes. There is an option to "block explicit songs," but this feature only applies to songs played on its radio stations. The filter does not work when playing songs from the library of on-demand music.
Pandora's streaming apps allow parents to disable explicit content. But there is no lock or passcode. As soon as you leave the room, nothing prevents your mischievous child from deactivating the filter.
Placing a check in a box marked "filter explicit songs" is easy. Updating the platform to include this option should be too. For those streaming services that don’t have this option, I think it is a missed opportunity. Being a user and a parent, my priorities feel like an afterthought.
Major tech companies desperately trying to win over the hearts and minds of family members need to think more like parents. Integrated smart tech in the home is already a Trojan horse, fraught with security issues. If you cannot trust tech companies to anticipate basic parental priorities, like “no bad language,” what else is missed?