Navigating the Media Landscape

by Theresa Powers

As we gear up for a holiday break, children are excited to have time off from school, which can mean time to read, to play outside, to travel, to dream…and to spend time on their devices.  All families have their own rules and plans for time spent on media as well as what is appropriate.  And, if you realize you need to set some rules or review the ones you have with your children, you are not alone.  It’s challenging to keep up with the amount of content that is constantly created in terms of TV shows, video games, YouTube videos, as well as non-stop news coverage and notifications.

I want to recommend a resource that can help parents in the holiday season and throughout the year: Common Sense Media (CSM) reviews movies, shows, books, podcasts, and games, by topic, by age, and by platform, and also has a wealth of helpful articles for parents.  Articles range from explainers: to research on how teens actually use their smartphones:

I like to use Common Sense Media to research films and tv shows to quickly get a sense of details and any content to watch out for; they also list questions you can talk to your children about.  For example, in the parent’s guide to the film The Marvels, they list that drink, drugs, and smoking are not present, and that there is very little sex, romance, and nudity: “in one scene, Carol and a prince sing and dance together, and Monica admires the prince’s attractiveness.” In terms of positive characters, the characters are “strong, brave, and empathetic, and work together as a team.”

Another movie making the rounds through theaters is Five Nights at Freddy’s, a horror film based on the popular video game franchise that follows a night watchman who’s terrorized by sentient animatronics at a pizza restaurant.  PG-13 films can be the most challenging films for tweens; some families won’t blink at having their 11-year-olds watch a film like FNaF, while there are plenty of children 13 and younger who will feel rightfully scared.  CSM helps parents discern by sharing the details and also provides questions for family discussion:  “Is the movie scary? What’s the appeal of scary movies? Why do people sometimes enjoy being scared?” The FNaF franchise is particularly interesting because of the odd appeal of the Freddy bear; he is a beloved mascot during the day and a possessed animatronic killer at night.  He’s also available as a plushie, coloring book, key chain, and yard inflatable – all of which are targeted in sales to children under the 13+ rating, so at first glance, it may not be clear what age children this film is for.  Logging in for an account at CSM allows for a certain number of reviews a month; I think that the monthly fee of $3.99 or yearly fee of $39.99 is well worth the price.

I particularly like to use the site to search for video games; as a mom who has no interest in playing them, it can feel like a black box when my son plays a new game.  Common Sense Media isn’t anti-games, but instead gives information that I wouldn’t know from looking at the box or website.  For example, the video game Among Us has an Everyone 10+ rating, but you wouldn’t know from that some of the things you will find on CSM’s review: “While there’s no dialogue, play is unmoderated, especially when using external chat programs or discussing who may have killed other players. Gamers can also select offensive phrases as their character name, so players should be warned that they could encounter racist, sexist, or homophobic language.” As a parent of a 10-year-old, you may decide to allow your child to play the game, but the information about the player dialogue may lead you to set a rule that they should not play with headphones on.

Other articles I recommend from CSM include an article about talking to children about the news: and general information about cellphones and devices; if your children are young, it’s great to start reading about approaches to take:

It’s also important for us as adults to reflect on our own media use and keep in mind that children often model their behavior after us.  The media landscape can seem daunting, but the Montessori philosophy of “freedom within limits” is apt when it comes to technology, as information paired with open communication can help us equip our children with the tools they need to engage with media thoughtfully and appropriately. 

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