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Monitoring Your Child's Media Use

These days, kids have easy access to hundreds of TV stations and millions of Internet sites. And they can buy or download countless video games and apps. There's a lot of media out there, and some of it might not be appropriate for your child, depending on his or her age and maturity level.

The best way to monitor media that kids use is to experience the media yourself. Test apps and play games before your kids use them. View and play apps and games together with your children. And watch what they watch so you can talk about what they're seeing on their screens. You know your kids best, so you're the best judge of what they can handle.

When closer monitoring and more control are needed, parents have a number of ways to keep track of the media their kids watch, play, and use. These tools may not shield kids from all inappropriate material, but they can help.

Internet Activity

To help filter your kids' Internet use, start by setting up iOS and Android profiles for your kids on all the online devices they will use (smartphones, tablets, and computers). This will let you restrict all the apps and games they can download and play, and all the websites they can visit. You also can set time limits on their Internet use.

Also, most of the big email providers, such as Google and Yahoo, allow parents to create child email accounts for younger kids. These accounts can forward all their emails to you and let you monitor their contacts and communications. Kids must be at least 13 before they can have Google or Yahoo accounts of their own.

Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram also require kids to be at least 13 before they can have their own accounts. To keep an eye on your child's social media activity, set up accounts of your own and check your child's pages and activity for yourself. Many parents also insist on knowing the passwords to their kids' accounts, although some parents may consider this an invasion of privacy.

A number of programs and apps can monitor teens' social media accounts and alert parents to any inappropriate language or photos. Many software programs and apps are available — from free to expensive — that can give you detailed reports of your child's browsing history and tell you how much time your child spent online and on each site.

But no amount of monitoring can protect kids from everything. So encourage your child to be a responsible Internet user by being a good role model and talking to your child about online safety.

If any problems — such as cyberbullying or sexting — come up, use them as teaching moments to help kids understand the importance of protecting themselves and their reputation online.

TV Ratings and the V-Chip

Two ways you can help monitor what your kids watch are TV Parental Guidelines and V-chip.

TV Parental Guidelines. Modeled after the movie rating system, this is an age-group rating system developed for TV programs. These ratings are listed in television guides, TV listings in your local newspaper, and on the screen in your cable program guide. They also appear in the upper left corner of the screen during the first 15 seconds of TV programs.

But not all channels offer the rating system. For those that do, the ratings are:

  1. TV-Y: suitable for all children
  2. TV-Y7: directed toward kids 7 years and older (kids who are able to distinguish between make-believe and reality); may contain "mild fantasy violence or comedic violence" that may scare younger kids
  3. TV-Y7-FV: fantasy violence may be more intense in these programs than others in the TV-Y7 rating
  4. TV-G: suitable for a general audience; not directed specifically toward kids, but contains little to no violence, sexual dialogue or content, or strong language
  5. TV-PG: parental guidance suggested; may contain an inappropriate theme for younger kids and contains one or more of the following: moderate violence (V), some sexual situations (S), occasional strong language (L), and some suggestive dialogue (D)
  6. TV-14: parents strongly cautioned — not recommended for kids younger than 14; contains one or more of the following: intense violence (V), intense sexual situations (S), strong language (L), and intensely suggestive dialogue
  7. TV-MA: designed for adults and may be unsuitable for kids under 17; contains one or more of the following: graphic violence (V), strong sexual activity (S), and/or crude language (L)

V-chip (V is for "violence"). This technology lets you block TV programs and movies you don't want your kids to see. All new TV sets that have screens of 13" or more now have internal V-chips, and set-top boxes are available for TVs made before 2000. The V-chip allows you to program your TV to display only appropriately rated shows — blocking out other, more mature shows.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that V-chips in new TVs recognize the TV Parental Guidelines and the age-group rating system and block those programs that don't adhere to these standards.

The rating system and V-chip can be valuable tools, but they can also cause problems. Research shows that preteen and teen boys are more likely to want to see a program if it's rated MA (mature audience) than if it's PG (parental guidance suggested). 

Also, broadcast news, sports, and commercials aren't rated, although they often include depictions of violence and sexuality. So even with the V-chip and ratings, it's still important to preview shows to see whether they're OK for your kids — and to turn off the TV if they're not.

Video Game and App Ratings

Some apps and almost all video games available for purchase (through retail channels or by downloading) are rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). The ESRB has six rating categories:

  1. C (for Early Childhood): content is intended for young children
  2. E (for Everyone): content is generally suitable for all ages. May contain minimal cartoon, fantasy, or mild violence; and/or infrequent use of mild language.
  3. E-10+ (for Everyone 10+): content is generally suitable for ages 10 and up. May contain more cartoon, fantasy, or mild violence; mild language; and/or minimal suggestive themes.
  4. T (for Teen): content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language.
  5. M (for Mature): content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, and/or strong language.
  6. A (for Adult Only): content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content, and/or gambling with real currency.

The ESRB also has a long list of content descriptors to help explain why a game or app got the rating it did. Examples include things like nudity, blood, strong language, use of alcohol, and use of drugs.

The iTunes Store has its own rating system for apps that is based on age. The categories are: 

  • 4+
  • 9+
  • 12+
  • 17+ 

Internet monitoring, V-chips, and ratings can help shield kids from inappropriate material, but they can't block everything. As a parent, even if you program the V-chip and only buy or download age-appropriate games and apps, it's still important for you to pay attention to what your kids are watching or playing. Parents should think of themselves as their child's media coach, someone who can talk about and help them understand what they're seeing.

Date reviewed: December 2016

Note: All information on KidsHealth® is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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