Why the Clean Reader App Negatively Impacts Literacy

Generally, I'm all for mobile apps or computer programs that support literacy. TechSoup for Libraries had a webinar a few months ago, in fact, on ways librarians can incorporate apps and technology into story time.

But when I heard about Clean Reader, the app that scrubs out "profanity" from books and replaces it with alternative words, I was offended. It's not explicit language that makes me grimace, but the fact that this app is a blatant form of censorship.

According to the website, Clean Reader came about when developers' daughter came home from school feeling sad. She said she had been reading a book during library time (of course!), and there were a few swear words in it.

Clean Reader doesn't actually change the words in e-book's file, but how it appears on your e-reader's screen. According to the developers' FAQ, Clean Reader does not break copyright for this reason. But if you want an author's perspective on having his writing changed, I highly recommend reading Chuck Wendig's profanity-laced rant on the subject.

Filters Are Not Smart

Clean Reader screenshotWe've touched on the cons of Internet filtering in this previous post. Filters aren't people. They don't have brains, and they can't make judgments of whether a word that might appear profane is actually being used in an explicit way, such as a name versus physical anatomy.

As with Internet filters, there isn't a whole lot of transparency with the way that Clean Reader decides what and what not to clean up. There are three filter levels you can use: Clean, Cleaner, or Squeaky Clean.

According to the developers' FAQ, the Clean setting only blocks "major swear words," which includes all uses of the f-bomb. The Cleaner setting blocks everything that the Clean setting blocks "plus more," while Squeaky Clean is the most restrictive and blocks profanity plus "hurtful racial terms."

The developers have said that the filter is continuing to evolve, and the ever-growing list of words and phrases the app filters is over 100.

The ALA's GLBT Roundtable blog did a quick test of the app to see how Clean Reader handles GLBT-related terms. The author concluded that it didn't automatically block GLBT-related terms.

But one troublesome point is how Clean Reader handles anatomical terms. The same author found that the app replaced the name "Dick" with "groin." Author Joanne Harris also found that multiple anatomical termse for genitalia were changed to "bottom." So not only is this filter imperfect, but also, it results in misinformation regarding sensitive subject matter.

Censorship Hurts Literacy and Learning

Reading isn't just looking at the words in front of you. It's understanding, analyzing, and reflecting on the themes and concepts that arise when those words come together.

An app that picks and chooses what to mask or change is disruptive to this learning process. The reader is not only cheated from the author's original intentions with the story, but also from learning opportunities that might arise. Profanity or explicit material might be uncomfortable, but they can also be opportunities for discussion.

Furthermore, giving young people misinformation about sensitive issues, such as anatomy or sexuality, is dangerous. And wiping away racial issues or terms is essentially denying that these injustices exist. If we want children to grow up to be informed and compassionate members of society, we cannot withhold information from them or give inaccurate information to them.   

How Librarians and Teachers Can Help Guide Young Readers

The developers' story about their daughter getting upset in the library makes me uneasy. Why the indirect blame for the library?

And did the child say anything to the librarian about the book with bad words? I'm sure she or he would have been able to find a suitable book for the child to read. If this conversation between the librarian, parents, and child had happened, there wouldn't be a need for this app!

You can't shelter children completely from swear words, sexual content, or violent situations. They're just as likely to be exposed to inappropriate media and words via the TV, the Internet, or the playground as they are from a book.

And that's what librarians are there for: to help children find literature that is meaningful and engaging. Librarians can help children find books that are at their reading level, have a theme that they're interested in, or are written by an author that they enjoy. Librarians also help children avoid books with themes or language they are uncomfortable with, but librarians will never prevent somebody from checking out a book.

This quote from Amy Wilde, a middle school librarian interviewed by School Library Journal, hammers home my point:

"If the parent was having an issue [with a book a student wanted to read], I think I would rather have that student read a different book with the same theme than have them change the language of what they are reading," she said.

More Resources

Image 1: florian b. / CC-BY-NC 

Image 2: Clean Reader App