Jim Steyer, 55, knows a lot about kids and digital media.
After all, he’s the President and CEO of Common Sense Media — a leading non-partisan, non-profit organisation that rates, educates, and advocates about the latest information in media and technology, with a focus on children and youth.
Translation? Steyer is in charge of the only place in the country which rates every new movie, book, TV show, video game, and app in existence for content and age appropriateness — all free of charge.
In one sentence: He helps parents make choices about what their children should be watching, reading, and playing.
Incidentally, Steyer is also father of four children ranging from ages 7 to 18.
This Thursday, the 7th annual Common Sense Media Awards will be held at Gotham Hall in New York City. The honorees include former U.S. president Bill Clinton, former New York City school chancellor Joel Klein, Nickelodeon actress Miranda Cosgrove, and the PS 22 Chorus .
The Wire spoke with Steyer in a phone interview this week, during which he explained what Common Sense Media does, the importance of digital education, and how he grapples with some of the biggest media companies in the business.
BI: In short, what does Common Sense Media do?
JS: We have three basic functions: we rate every platform of media, educate youth on using it, and advocate for education on their behalf.
On the ratings side of things, we’re the major consumer platform that rates every movie, TV show, video game, website, book, album, and app, for its content and appropriateness. Yes, we’re the only place that rate apps for kids and families.
BI: Where can media users see these ratings, and how do they get made?
JS: We serve our content to our own website, but also Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Direct TV, Google, and Netflix. Many of the leading media platforms use our ratings. It’s a sophisticated process developed by leading child development advocates in the country.
We look at sex, violence, language, commercialism, stereotypes. There’s a recommended age and a sliding scale we use. Basically we’re nutritional labels for media.
We hired the leading child development experts to develop our ratings criteria. I’m a professor at Stanford, so I also got a bunch of colleagues from Stanford and Harvard and other leading universities around the country to help develop the ratings grid, which is constantly updated by our large editorial staff.
BI: What about your education side?
JS: We created a free digital literacy curriculum that gets used in about 15,000 schools throughout the country. We hired leading child development experts in the country — collaborating with Professor Howard Gardener from the Harvard School of Education, for example — to help create a state-of-the-art digital curriculum.
Basically it’s like a sex ed or drivers ed curriculum, but a way to teach young people and their teachers and their parents how to be safe, responsible and ethical digital citizens.
BI: As far as advocacy is concerned, what does Common Sense consider some of the biggest media issues to be?
JS: We feel that that some of the issues around privacy, like the tracking of kids and their information by some of the leading technology companies that we know very well, is not appropriate and needs to be managed through regulation, legislation and industry leadership.
It’s a big issue, obviously it has an education component to it: teaching kids how to self-reflect before they self reveal. But it also has a very important policy side.
Some of the issues are more about the dissemination of this personal information without clear privacy laws or regulation. It’s around this area that we work closely with legislators and the White House and the department of education.
BI: One of the big issues in media and privacy was the recent story about iPhone tracking — what is your response to that.
JS: In terms of privacy, iPhone tracking totally falls. We’re the biggest group in this country looking at these issues, and the only non-profit that has the clout to go to Apple and tell them that we think that’s inappropriate. And we have.
BI: What is it like to work with media giants like Apple and Google? How do you respect their point of view in issues like these?
JS: Their point of view is that they’re trying to make money. Quite frankly, they’re running a business, and it’s rapidly shifting in a very new digital world. We don’t always agree with them on every issue.
Privacy is the one I would say we do not see eye-to-eye, but we’re not a for-profit business trying to make money off of other people’s private information. We are a non-profit trying to promote in a non-partisan kind of way what we believe is in the best interest of kids and teens.
We know the people [at Apple] well and we’re honest and we try to tell them what we think is in the best interest of teens and kids.
BI: What is your personal stake in these issues? Or perhaps, why are you at the helm of Common Sense Media?
JS: “Well, I have four kids; I’m a former schoolteacher. I started Children Now, one of the two largest childhood advocacy organisations in the United States, so I’ve worked in the field of child advocacy for many years.
Personally, I increasingly saw the impact of technology and media on kids’ lives and wanted to be a part of the conversation. I mean, there are pros and cons to this technology. Digital media allows for new efforts in collaboration and education.
Take the PS 22 chorus: you couldn’t have done that 10 years ago. It’s extraordinarily empowering thing for those young people; some will have their lives change.
BI: So how do we get these big businesses to act as responsibly as parents?
JS: They’re not as responsible as a parents would be! I mean, they can be individually, In fact, some of the top guys at apple are really dedicated and loving parents, I know that for a fact.
But they’re in business to sell products and make money, so they don’t view their job as a parenting job. I know those guys quite well and I respect them a lot, but that doesn’t mean i agree with them on everything.
And Google, again they are a huge global behemoth, and again, I know the people at the top of the company quite well, and they’re all parents now and that’s a good thing: Larry and Sergei are parents now.
I think that they try to be responsible but I don’t think their number one focus is being responsible citizens; I think their number one focus is being the leading technology company in the world, and dominating their field by competing with Facebook and other people for the eyeball.
They make business decisions, not parenting decisions and that why we’re here; to work with them and help them do better jobs and in some cases, criticise.
Bi: Tell us a little bit about the awards. Why Bill Clinton? And what else can we expect to hear about?
JS: I’ve known President Clinton for 20 years, and he’s deeply committed to kids and education, period, full stop. I have the pleasure of knowing him as a father — Chelsea was my teaching assistant in Standford, so I’ve known the Clintons as a parents for like 12 years.
He and Hillary are deeply committed to kids issues and are incredibly sophisticated on kids and education issues. Remember in a way he ushered in the technological revolution; he was president when so many of the important media and technology companies happened and grew; he has a sophisticated and deep understanding of that.
Also, we’re going to announce a couple of new initiatives that are quite significant. They’re very significant in this context and will have real implications for digital education and consumer space.
It’s exciting stuff….i believe some of the guys that are going to be honored, like Joel Klein and Julius Genachowski [head of the FCC] will comment on them as well. But you’ll have to wait until the awards show to hear about them.