How We Rate and Review by Age: 12 Years

Behind the Common Sense Media ratings system

What's age appropriate for a 12-year-old?

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 12

Cognitive development: At this age, kids' sense of humor starts to change; they grasp abstract relationships and double entendres, but they can also be susceptible to naïve opinions and one-sided arguments. Twelve-year-olds are also capable of abstract thinking and hypothetical reasoning.

Social and emotional development: At 12, preteens don't want to be "pre"-anything anymore. They look up to older teens, and peer approval is crucial for their sense of identity. Twelve-year-olds can be critical of themselves and their appearance (usually because they want to look just like their peers). But tottering between childhood and the teen years means that one minute you have a child on your hands and the next a young would-be teen. Emotions can swing wildly, and the focus of influence shifts strongly from family to friends.

Physical development: Puberty continues, though individual kids can be anywhere in a wide variety of developmental stages. Boys may start a growth spurt at this age, and hormonal imbalances can trigger strong emotions that kids don't always understand. Sex experimentation can begin, and body consciousness is a big issue.

Technological/digital savviness: Preteens are technologically savvy, but their skills are likely to outpace their judgment. Adults should go over safety basics with them: No password exchanges, no clicking on contests and revealing personal information, set privacy controls to the highest level, etc. At the end of this year, when they turn 13, kids will no longer be subject to COPPA -- which means they'll be able to go on sites without their parents' knowledge or permission (Facebook is the big one). You can help prepare kids to enter the world of open social networking with a discussion about what "friending" is (all teens should "friend" their parents), how to stay on top of privacy (set controls to most private), and how to decide what is and isn't appropriate to post. It's appropriate for young teens to explore their identity online, but they shouldn't use anonymity to hide. Talk to them about being a positive force; discuss flagging, untagging, and standing up for people who are being harassed.

What's age appropriate at age 12

Educational value: Anything that shows a diversity of experience, nationality, or ethnicity in any form of media is age appropriate. Portrayals of history or projections of the future stimulate broad thinking.
Positive messages: Preteens can handle more psychologically complex issues like loss, rejection, separation, and disappointment. They can distinguish between right and wrong and appreciate the nuance of dramatic situations.
Positive role models: As kids this age try to fit in with their peers, they may be struggling with figuring out how to make good choices and defining what ethical behavior is. Use media characters and situations as a starting point for discussing appropriate behavior and what makes choices right or wrong. Anti-social or discriminatory behavior in media should have consequences and be discussed.
Violence and scariness: As preteens want to engage in teen material, they get exposed to more violent content, and studies show that prolonged exposure to violence can decrease empathy and increase aggression. That's part of why at this age any portrayal of violence should show the consequences of subsequent pain and suffering, not triumph. Although discussion of violent situations can now be more nuance -- as preteens are starting to think in abstract and ethical terms -- you should still try to avoid TV shows and movies with realistically violent/frightening scenarios (kidnapping, for example). They may still be scary for kids at this age. Some light horror may be OK, but it needs to have a clear, safe resolution. Talk to kids about what they're watching, and reassure them that they're safe.
Sexy stuff: Even though preteens think that they're cool enough to handle big sex scenes, it's still not age appropriate for kids this age to watch adult sexual representation. Thus, kissing and boy/girl social dynamics are age appropriate, but all more serious/advanced sexual behavior should be by responsible adults and have consequences. When kids see something sexual in the media, use it as a jumping-off point for discussions on healthy and responsible sexual behavior.
Language: Mild profanity -- such as body part references like "ass" and "boobs" -- is age appropriate. This is the age to establish what kind of language is and isn't acceptable in your own family, because one of the ways that preteens push the envelope is with "forbidden" language.
Consumerism/commercialism: Kids this age may enjoy learning more about the tricks that advertisers use to make viewers want to buy their products. Talk to them about lighting, music, camera angles, etc., and even make it a game to find all the ways that the director of the commercial is trying to make viewers want what's for sale. Kids can create their own commercials for products that they enjoy, and parents and kids can discuss the food advertised in commercials and clarify their own family's food choices.
Drinking, drugs, and smoking: No underage substance use/abuse is appropriate unless it shows explicit consequences. Any adults abusing substances should also face consequences. 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 own family.
Online privacy and safety: As preteens wander onto sites intended for those not protected by COPPA (Child Online Privacy and Protection Act), the responsibility for staying safe and private shifts to the teen rather than the organization. All preteens must be grounded in a deep understanding of privacy settings and the personal power to protect not only their own privacy but their friends' privacy, too -- especially when it comes to forwarding anything compromising or embarrassing, as that will (correctly) be called cyberbullying.