Children's Hospital Colorado
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Just Ask Children's

Parental Discretion Is Advised

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, Dr. Mindy Solomon, Ph.D., explains that when it comes to media exposure, specific numbers just don’t work.

“Parents need to understand that there is no one right answer,” says Dr. Solomon. “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 this 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 sexy partner or dream job — or scroll through images of perfect family vacations and parties — without internalizing feelings that we must be doing something wrong, since our own experiences are often vastly different.

Most adults have enough perspective to know that such media images are often heavily sensationalized and curated — that they 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.

Tips for media exposure

Dr. Solomon urges parents to take the following things into consideration when deciding if your child is ready to hit some media milestones.

1. Talk early and often about values

If you’re in the car and your teen starts playing a song that contains lyrics about violence against women, begin a conversation about the lyrics. For example, don’t just turn off the music — that’s what your child is expecting, and they may rebel. Explain to them how the song goes against your values. For example, “I don’t want to listen to this song because violence towards women makes me uncomfortable. I value the rights of women.”

Going a step further, you can also use this opportunity to talk with 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 considerably. For instance, it’s possible for your child to type “sex” into a search engine and get to pornography in just two clicks. It’s therefore 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. Solomon’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 "appropriate age" to regulate a relationship with the content in question.

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