What's age-appropriate for 15- to 17-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 15–17?

Cognitive development: At this age, teens can have deep, philosophical arguments, and they can fuse information and apply concepts across different disciplines. Expect them to form firm, independent beliefs around moral subjects -- and passionately defend those beliefs -- even though their opinions often outstrip their experience. Although they can understand and put into perspective horrible acts such as murder, rape, and hate crimes, they can still fall for images and messages that "normalize" things such as sex, drinking, and acting out.

Social and emotional development: Between 15 and 17, teens are deeply exploring their identities. While they may put on a brave face to parents, trying on different personas can make them feel insecure. Their friendships get stronger, and they may experience their first love interests. They want to learn gender-based expectations for how to behave in romantic and sexual situations. Older teens pull away from their parents and require greater independence. Their increased physical independence (traveling alone, driving, etc.) leads to increased social independence. They begin to think about their future careers and what they may become. Rebellion is a way of life, often taking place through music or media selection. Kids this age can be very secretive. Often, they have nothing specific to hide, but they do have a desire to make mistakes or triumphs on their own, away from parental eyes. Some may develop antisocial behavior and explore risky practices: drinking, drugs, eating disorders, etc. On the other hand, at this age, teens are mixing with other genders and becoming more flexible about stereotypes. They understand civic engagement and can begin to understand broader ethical and moral concepts about their place and role in the world.

Physical development: As teens mature physically, huge changes in body shape and size occur. Teens often experience strong sexual urges, though there is considerable variability about when that happens and how it's expressed. Many kids become less physically active unless they're involved in sports, leading many teens to gain weight and become less healthy.

Technological/digital savviness: At this age, teens operate on their own when it comes to technology. They have an increased desire for privacy, and while ideally teens will give their parents access to their social networks and blog pages, it's really an individual family's decision about whether parents have access to teens' online activities. Either way, at this stage the key thing for adults to emphasize is the importance of responsible and respectful online and mobile behavior. It's also essential for kids to think before they post, especially since nothing is ever really private online (even with privacy settings). Some posturing is normal, but photos with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or sexual situations aren't OK. (Neither is geolocation, for both safety and privacy reasons.) Unprotected information -- such as posts on Twitter -- is public and searchable, and it lasts a long time. Kids must respect others' privacy in both words and images. Multitasking is normal, but if grades dip, parents need to establish rules around IMing or listening to music during homework. Teens who are driving should be subject to a hard-and-fast rule when it comes to talking or texting while behind the wheel: Don't do it -- ever. Encourage teens to be role models for others by standing up to cyberbullies wherever they encounter them.

What's age-appropriate at age 15-17?

  • Educational value: Teens can now glean educational value from less obvious lessons. They can understand that negative situations can be educational, especially in a historical context. Continue to expose teens to a diversity of experience, including different ethnicity-, race-, and socioeconomic-related situations. It's important for teens to become global citizens. Learning how other societies behave is a critical 21st-century skill.
  • Positive models and messages: Teens should have exposure to complex social issues, such as wealth, poverty, crime, and racism. Toward the end of high school, teens start really understanding civic responsibility -- to their friends, to their communities, and to the world. And ethical standards really develop at this age, both in life and online. Choosing media with excellent role models encourages teens to think beyond their immediate circles and personal drama. Find characters who have non-gender-stereotypical professional aspirations (i.e., girls who want to be scientists and boys who want to be nurses). Although teens are generally pretty good at understanding the plot of a story, it may not occur to them to reflect on the subtle themes or messages, including gender stereotypes. Look for media that features boys and men expressing their emotions in constructive ways, having diverse interests (other than only sex), and being kind or friendly to non-heterosexual characters. Point out when female characters voice their own needs. Consider asking them what they think the takeaways are and whether they're what the author intended.

    Teens are often very aware of social divisions: by clique, neighborhood, race, etc. It's important that they see material that offers insight into conditions experienced by different groups. As teens watch content that is more adult, read more adult books, and play more adult games, they will take in more sexual, racial, and ethnic stereotypes. Be ready to talk about what teens are seeing. 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.

  • Violence: Exposure to violent media content can encourage and increase aggressive behavior. More realistic and more interactive forms of media violence, such as first-person shooter games, may have the most negative effects. It's appropriate and important to clarify what types of content are acceptable for your family. Teens should avoid content that contains scenes of torture, gratuitous violence, and/or sexualized violence as entertainment (horror and slasher films). Call out such content and discuss why it's problematic. Depictions of sexualized violence are only appropriate if the portrayal emphasizes how destructive such acts are and has a clear, pro-social message. Representations and discussions of violent situations can now be more nuanced, as teens are able to think in abstract and ethical terms. At this age, children can grapple with historical contexts of violence, including violence experienced by particular social groups.

  • Scariness: Although it's almost become a rite of passage for teens to watch super-violent, scary R-rated films, that doesn't mean they won't be frightened. While most teens aren't going to emulate the horrible behavior in these movies, they are kids and can experience nightmares or other ill effects. Consider talking about the emotional cost of unwanted, intrusive images that can remain from graphic depictions. Depictions of sexual threats or rape may be intensely upsetting. As teens become more engaged in the world at large, they may also be upset by news stories, including global threats such as terrorism or climate change. As at all their ages, it is important to listen to your children's concerns rather than mocking or belittling them. If your teen is frightened or upset, coping strategies can include discussion and truthful reassurances as well as a hug and distraction.

  • Sexy stuff:Many teens this age are becoming sexually active (everything from kissing to, for some, intercourse) and are very focused on sexuality. Media can normalize fantasy and age-inappropriate sexual behavior. While sexual desires and experimentation are normal, teens should be careful to keep their sexual lives private online. Explain how sexting and taking and posting sexual pictures is a recipe for real trouble. Also, online pornography may become tempting, so it's important for parents to talk with older teens about their own values regarding sex. Teens can understand a variety of sexually charged scenarios -- from rape to raunchy comedy -- but they need to hear adults' guidance and values. Call out and discuss representations that involve pressure/coercion to have sex and/or stalking, particularly if such behavior is presented as romantic and attractive. Ask (rather than tell) your teen why such content is problematic. Avoid content that pairs sex and violence as entertainment.

  • Language: Most media for older teens has racy language and cursing. That isn't surprising, since teens are separating from their families and establishing themselves as independent young adults, and they often use language as a way of doing so. Explain your own family's value system around language. No matter what the house rules are, teens should be reminded that their texts, tweets, posts, and emails can always go beyond their intended audiences, so hate speech, slurs, and demeaning language are never appropriate.

  • Consumerism and commercialism: This age is a great time for adults to talk to teens about the risks of location tagging in social media. "Checking in" to places via cell phones or other mobile devices gives advertisers personal information that they use to manipulate teens into buying things. Teens can understand advertisers' tricks of the trade, and adults can point out product placement in movies, TV shows, apps, and games. Make sure that teens don't click on free online contests or giveaways, since they scrape personal information that can be used to target teens with ads (some also are full of spyware and malware).

  • Risky and unhealthy behavior: Talk to teens about how cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs are portrayed in movies and on television. Point out the differences between fictional glamour and reality. Many teens start smoking in part because they see their media role models making it look desirable, so they need to hear the truth. Similarly, media content may provide a way to talk about other unhealthy or risky behaviors, such as eating disorders or reckless driving.