What's age-appropriate for 10- to 12-year-olds?

The way our kids consume and create media profoundly affects their social, emotional, and physical development. That's why, when we make assessments about age appropriateness, we rely on developmental criteria from some of the nation's leading authorities to determine what content and activities are best suited for each age and stage. Below you will find the developmental guidelines we use in establishing our age ratings and recommendations. But even as we rely on experts, we know that all kids grow and mature differently. Our age-based reviews and ratings are a guide -- but ultimately, you're still the expert when it comes to your kids.

What's going on at age 10–12?

Cognitive development: Between the ages of 10 and 12, children develop the ability to think abstractly and engage in "what if?" reasoning. They may start grappling with moral and ethical questions. Their moral reasoning tends to become more sophisticated, so they can consider possible justifications for exceptions to laws and rules. But they also can fall for naïve opinions and one-sided arguments. Ten and 12-year-olds generally have a good command of reading and writing. They can understand characters' intentions, and they can follow several storylines at the same time.

Social and emotional development: During this period, kids often start to distance themselves from family and have increased focus on their peers (both same- and opposite-sex). They form friendships based on common interests and that sometimes turn into cliques. Popularity and social pecking orders become important, and social drama and peer pressure increase. Kids this age often become preoccupied with their appearance and have strong likes and dislikes, in part because they care so much about peer approval. They may feel self-conscious about their physical changes, feel pressure to conform to cultural gender norms, and become intolerant of cross-gender mannerisms and behaviors. By age 12, preteens often don't want to be "pre"-anything anymore, and this in-between stage can lead to major mood swings. One minute you may have a child on your hands and the next a teen. The idea that their friends might exclude them bothers them a lot more than it would when they were younger. This is the age when they may engage in risky behavior. So even though they may be starting to distance themselves from family, parental support and guidance are still important.

Physical development: Between 10 and 12, many kids begin puberty, and some develop completely. Growth spurts and hormonal imbalances can trigger strong emotions that kids don't always understand. Body consciousness may become a big issue. Although children may have sex education in school, it may not provide all the information your child wants and needs. Sex experimentation might begin during this period. Instead of letting kids get their information from peers or dubious online sources (including online pornography), consider providing books with accurate information about sex and making yourself available for questions and conversations. Media depictions of healthy, positive relationships can be a useful starting point for conversations.

Technological/digital savviness: At this age, kids begin to feel more social pressure online. Preteens have strong digital skills, which helps when it comes to schoolwork and following specific interests but also opens the door to drama, cyberbullying, harassment, and privacy violations. Adults should go over safety basics and establish rules and consequences. It's appropriate for young teens to explore their identities online, and they should follow basic safety and privacy rules to protect themselves. Encourage kids to be kind to others online, even though the screen may make them feel disconnected from actual people and feelings. Talk to them about being a positive force. Discuss how to use social media tools such as flagging, untagging, blocking, and reporting to stand up for themselves and others who are being harassed. Make sure kids know to tell an adult if they encounter cyberbullying. Remind kids that anything can go viral -- photos, videos, texts. Piracy becomes a factor as kids learn about downloading. Expect to deal with the challenge of multitasking as kids operate phones, tablets, and other devices simultaneously. Kids will push to age up their gameplay and social media, so always check age-appropriateness.

What's age-appropriate at age 10–12?

  • Educational value: At this age, children have access to a wide range of tools to learn about whatever topics interest them. Well-chosen, high-quality media can stimulate broad thinking and new interests. Guide preteens toward content that shows a diversity of experience and ethnicity as well as portrayals of history and projections of the future. Also, seek content that builds on what kids are learning in school. Kids can hone specific cognitive skills by playing some types of video games. For example, games that require children to solve spatial puzzles or navigate mazes may enhance visual-spatial skills. Their ability to comprehend longer stories with implicit moral lessons continues to develop over the course of this period, so (at least early on) the most effective educational lessons will be focused and explicit.
  • Positive models and messages: As opposed to in earlier years, preteens now can learn from positive role models as well as from negative role models who suffer consequences for their behavior. Preteens can generally draw their own conclusions about situations in media but still need help understanding situations with shades of gray. They are increasingly able to handle psychologically complex issues such as loss, rejection, separation, and disappointment. Acts of heroism, kindness, and achievement can inspire them especially at this age when they're figuring out their own identities. Kids should be encouraged to follow characters who are good role models and to talk about why they're good role models. Ask (rather than tell) preteens why what characters do is right or wrong. Preteens are generally pretty good at understanding the plot of a story. But they still benefit from encouragement/help understanding subtle themes or messages. Consider asking them what they think the takeaways are.

    Children this age are often acutely aware of social divisions: by cliques, neighborhood, race, gender expression, etc. It's important that they see positive representations of social differences and material that offers insight into conditions experienced by different groups. Send the message that worth and happiness don't come from appearance (especially important for female characters) or from physical strength (especially important for male characters). Show role models who display both feminine and masculine behaviors and interests. Avoid or discuss stereotypical representations (even in humor). At this age, ask (rather than tell) your kid what's problematic about stereotyped or demeaning representations. Encourage them to think about what's realistic and why particular portrayals may be harmful. Comment positively on healthy, supportive, and fulfilling cross-gender friendships and relationships. Discriminatory behavior in media content should have consequences (whether pain for the victim and/or punishment for the aggressor) and be discussed.

  • Violence: Exposure to violent media content can encourage and increase aggressive behavior. There's a whole range of content that kids may encounter during this period. During the early part of this age range, kids (especially girls) tend to prefer content with lots of "relational aggression," such as gossiping, social exclusion, and put-downs. Consider using such content as a way to discuss avoiding drama and maintaining good friendships. More realistic and more interactive forms of media violence, such as first-person shooter games, may have the most negative effects. Portrayals of violence should show the consequences of subsequent pain and suffering, not triumph. Sexualized violence is never OK but is prevalent in many horror and slasher films. Call out such content and discuss why it's a problem. Consider discussing real-world consequences of mean or aggressive behaviors, both for the victim and the aggressor. Representations and discussions of violent situations can now be more nuanced, as preteens are starting to think in abstract and ethical terms. At this age, many children can grapple with historical contexts of violence, including violence experienced by particular social groups.

  • Scariness: At this age, kids often seek out scary/horror content looking for thrills, particularly when watching as a group, but they can still be frightened and have bad dreams. Know your child, talk about scary content they may be watching, and help them make reasonable choices. Children this age can experience empathic fear for a character, particularly in content that seems realistic to them. They can generally deal with non-abusive emotional conflict and mild horror so long as there's resolution. Preteens may also be more likely to encounter and be upset by news stories, including abductions and relatively global threats such as terrorism or climate change. As at all ages, it is important to listen to your child's concerns rather than mocking or belittling him or her. If your child does get frightened or upset, coping strategies can include discussion and truthful reassurances as well as a hug and distraction.

  • Sexy stuff: This age group remains split between those who still find any sex-related content gross and/or somewhat threatening and those who have developed physically and want to know more. Again, it's important to know your child. Kissing and dating are age-appropriate, but more serious/advanced sexual behavior should be by responsible adults and show consequences for poor judgement. Nudity and simulated sex are not age-appropriate. Avoid disrespectful portrayals of characters as sexual objects or as sexual aggressors. Humor that relies on these themes isn't appropriate. If you encounter such depictions, talk about why they're problematic. When kids see something sexual in the media, adults can use it as a way to talk about healthy and responsible sexual behavior. For example, consider (at least occasionally) pointing out when characters don't discuss contraception and approving of instances when they do. By 10 and 12, many kids seek out information about sex and contraception, and they often do so from magazines, films, TV, and websites. Providing reliable, accurate content can help prevent misinformation and confusion.

  • Language: One of the ways that preteens push the envelope is with "forbidden" language. Mild swearing is age-appropriate, but this is the age to establish what kind of language/talk is acceptable in your own family and in different contexts (friends versus teachers). Media content with lots of put-downs and insults is often funny and/or appealing to this age group but isn't recommended because kids often copy what they see, particularly as they're figuring out social relationships. Race-, gender-, and sexuality-based slurs are not appropriate.

  • Consumerism and commercialism: Preteens often take comfort in looking cool -- and that means they often associate positive emotions with certain brands. It's a good idea to point out strategic product placement (especially in digital media such as apps). Help kids learn more about the tricks that advertisers use to make viewers want to buy their products. Talk to them about lighting, music, camera angles, etc. Parents and kids can also discuss the food advertised in commercials and clarify their own family's food choices.

  • Risky and unhealthy behavior: Underage substance use/abuse isn't appropriate unless it shows explicit consequences. Any adults abusing substances also should face consequences. Humor associated with being drunk or high isn't age-appropriate. Be particularly aware of the high level of alcohol advertising during sports programming, and consider fast-forwarding or muting such content if possible. Research suggests that heavy exposure to alcohol ads in magazines or on TV predicts the likelihood of drinking during preadolescence and adolescence. Similarly, try to avoid (or at least comment negatively on) smoking in films, particularly by heroic and/or attractive characters; again, research suggests that exposure to smoking in films predicts the likelihood that preteens and teens start to smoke. Adults can begin conversations about substance use and abuse in the media and point out the differences between reality and media glamour. Now is the time for parents to start making clear what kind of behavior is acceptable in their families.