Children's Hospital Colorado

Parental Discretion Advised: Children and Media

A teenage boy with brown, curly hair lies down watching his phone with big headphones on.

When it comes to kids and media, there is no "right age"

Doctors often give parents a specific age range for when their child might be able to walk, talk, ride a bike or finally ditch the car seat. But what do doctors recommend as the "right age" for activities such as watching Batman movies, signing up for an Instagram account or downloading a virtual makeup app?

These types of questions are common among today's parents. However, Amy Sass, MD, explains that when it comes to media exposure, specific numbers just don't work.

"There is no one right answer," says Dr. Sass. "You'll want to take certain things into consideration — your child's maturity level, their ability to communicate their questions, thoughts and feelings, and your own comfort level."

The reason she can't just hand over a "Stages of Media Exposure" chart to the parents she sees? "Because mass media and social media establish societal norms that set up unrealistic expectations for kids." And the age at which kids can understand and digest media varies widely.

What's real and what's not about media

It's hard enough for us, as adults, to watch favorite TV show characters effortlessly get the perfect partner or dream job — or scroll through images of ideal vacations and parties — without internalizing feelings that we must be doing something wrong, because our own experiences are often vastly different.

Most adults have enough perspective to know that such images don't necessarily reflect reality. Kids, on the other hand, don't have that insight yet. This leaves them far more susceptible to emotions such as associating gunfights with heroism, or social media "likes" with self-esteem. Basically, children have to be taught that what they see on a screen isn't the same as real life.

Milestones for children's media use

To decide if your child is ready to hit some media milestones, Dr. Sass recommends a few key considerations:

1. Talk early and often about values

What the media represents as real life — whether it's attitudes, ideas or depictions of sexual relationships — isn't always what everyone wants or enjoys. Especially in their teen years, kids start experimenting with their own attitudes and values. Media can offer an opportunity to talk with your child about yours.

For example, say you're in the car and your teen puts on a song with lyrics about violence against women. Your child is expecting you to just turn it off — and they may rebel. Instead, have a conversation. You could say something like, "I don't want to listen to this song because I value the rights of women, so listening to this person glorify violence toward women makes me uncomfortable." You can then ask your child about what they value.

2. Limit access

Once your child gets a smartphone or a social media account, their view of the world widens. It's possible for your child to type "sex" into a search engine and get to pornography in just two clicks. It's never a bad idea to set some limits, so your child can navigate this new realm in increments.

Many companies now offer parental control apps or software for smartphones, tablets, laptops and PCs. As for the content itself, Common Sense Media and the Family Guide in IMDB are two useful sources that provide age guidelines. They also offer feedback directly from parents and even kids, so you can read about other users' experiences with a particular movie, TV show, app or game.

3. The two questions you must ask yourself

Dr. Sass's most important advice in evaluating a child's media-readiness, though, is to ask yourself two questions. First, are you comfortable exposing your child to a particular movie, song, game or website without constantly monitoring or overseeing them? If not, then your child is not ready.

Second, are you comfortable answering your child's questions about sex, violence, abuse, self-destructive behavior or materialism that this media exposure might bring up? If not, then you aren't ready.

When you can answer "yes" to both of these questions, your child is the "right age" to regulate a relationship with the content in question.

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