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Age-Appropriate Media: Can You Trust Movie and TV Ratings?

​​By: Cori Cross, MD, FAAP

Did you know movie, tv, and video game ratings today aren't the same as when we were kids? It's true—and it's no wonder why we often find ourselves thinking, "Did they really just say that on primetime TV?"

Studies show government and industry movie ratings have become more lenient over time and allow more violent and sexually explicit content into films. What these ratings mean and whether they actually can tell you what's appropriate for your child, isn't always clear. Even movies with the same rating released in the same year can differ widely in the amount and type of potentially offensive content.

What Parents Can Do:

To help you navigate these ratings systems, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers the following tips. 

  • Learn the rating lingo. Raters often use quotas or threshold levels for scenes with violence, sex and swearing, that, once reached, push a movie into a higher rating bracket. Although this may make sense for filmmakers, it is often difficult to navigate for parents who may not want their child exposed to certain content, such as vulgar language. For them, even one "f-word" may be too many. 

  • Co-view when possible. The AAP strongly recommends co-viewing media with your children as often as you can. Children's media should be age-appropriate and preferably reinforce a family's values. With the sheer amount of media children are exposed to, however, it's unrealistic for parents to pre-screen everything their child watches, and co-viewing media may not always be possible.

  • Family-friendly resources. When co-viewing isn't an option, there are reputable, independent parent resources such as Common Sense Media (CSM) that rate movies, television shows, video games, apps, websites, music, and books. The CSM website and app give in-depth reviews which allow parents a better sense of what to expect. They even have suggestions for follow-up discussions parents may want to have with their children. The ratings have a 5-dot system and detailed summaries about what parents may want to know in the following six categories:

    • Sex

    • Language

    • Consumerism

    • Drinking, drugs and smoking

    • Positive role models and representation

    • Positive messages

​​The CSM website and app offer age recommendations with each review.  Many cable guides now include this age recommendation on their TV menu listings. It can often be found with the CSM check mark logo.

​Federal TV Rating Guidelines:

The TV Parental Guidelines (see chart below) are usually included within local TV listings. Remember, ratings are not used for news programs. The AAP recommends keeping young children away from repetitive graphic images and sounds that may appear on news programs—especially after a major tragedy. With older children, if you do want them to watch the news, record it ahead of time. That allows you to preview it and evaluate its contents before you sit down with them to watch it. Then, as you watch it with them, you can stop, pause, and have a discussion when you need to.

  • V-chip tip: All TVs 13 inches or larger made in the United States after 2000 are required by federal law to have a V-chip. The V-chip allows parents to block specific shows or groups of programs based on ratings or time slots. Visit the FCC Parents' Place website for more information.  

TV Parental Guidelines - Table -

Industry Movie Rating Guidelines:

The movie industry's voluntary rating system in the United States offers general guidelines to inform parents about the level of content they might find inappropriate for their children. The Motion Picture Association of America's Classification & Ratings Administration employs a full-time board of 8 to 13 raters, who are required to be parents themselves. They view each film for potentially offensive content, such as violence, sex, drug use and language, and assign ratings based on what they believe a "majority of American parents" would consider the film's appropriate rating.

Motion Picture Association of American Rating Guidelines - Table -

Don't Forget…

Official government or industry parental guidance ratings offer parents some general guidance on which shows, movies, and other media may be appropriate for your child's age. But for most families, they don't replace sitting down with your children and watching what they're watching—or, when that's not possible, getting a heads-up from reputable, parent-friendly resources about what they'll see.

Additional Information & Resources:


About Dr. Cross:

Cori Cross - HeadshotCori Cross, MD, FAAP is a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Within the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), she is a former executive board member of the Council on Communications and Media and is an official AAP spokesperson. Dr. Cross is also a co-author of the AAP technical report, Children and Adolescents and Digital Media. Follow her on Twitter @drcoricross.  

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American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2017)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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