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How to Choose the Right TV for Your Kids

If you've ever walked into the room when your kids are watching TV to find something completely iffy on the screen, you know how hard it is to find shows that both appeal to your kids and still are age-appropriate. Adding to the challenge is the fact that kids now can access "television" content from so many devices and so many sources; it's next to impossible to stay on top of all the shows kids want to watch.

Finding specific networks you feel are generally trustworthy -- from PBS Kids to the Disney Channel to Cartoon Network -- is where most parents tend to start. But with new shows coming out virtually every week and content varying from mild to mean even within trusted networks, finding shows that meet your criteria can be really tough.

There truly is a better way. It starts with understanding what content isn't only age-appropriate but also developmentally appropriate for your child. After that, you can determine what's OK based on the things that matter to you, like your kid's interests and individual temperament. What's scary to one 7-year-old may be fun and action-packed for another.

Here are some things to consider when it comes to choosing the right TV shows for your kids:

  • What age is the show aimed at? For preschoolers, the TV landscape is pretty cut-and-dried, and producers tend to be very careful about the type of programming they offer for the under-5 set. But some animated shows might look like they're appropriate for preschoolers, even though they're really designed for an older crowd (SpongeBob SquarePants, for example). And as kids get older, they often hear about shows from their friends -- but the fact that kids of the same age are watching them doesn't mean they're age-appropriate. You'll need to make a judgment call based on what you think is right for your kid, taking into account many of the factors described in more detail below.
  • Quality. Yes, quality can be subjective -- and certainly your kids will like stuff you don't -- but look for benchmarks. Are the characters well-rounded, or does the show rely on one-dimensional stereotypes? Is the dialogue believable? Does the show engage kids on a meaningful level? Does it use music, special effects, and strong production values to amplify the meaning, or does it simply go for cheap laughs? There's a big difference between a formulaic fighting show like Power Rangers and a complex, thoughtful story with some action like Avatar: The Last Airbender.
  • Educational value. This is especially important when you're looking for shows for younger kids. It's perfectly fine to choose TV shows solely for their entertainment value, but if kids can learn something, too, then why not give it a shot? Almost all preschool-targeted shows have some sort of built-in educational content, from counting (Peg + Cat) to literacy (WordWorld) and social skills (Caillou). For tweens and teens, plenty of positive social messages can be found in quality shows, but for more specific educational content, look to PBS (Design Squad Nation) and science- and nature-based shows on other networks, like Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey or MythBusters.
  • Messages and role models. Media messages really do affect kids, so it makes sense to choose shows that reflect the kinds of values you'd like your children to absorb. Younger kids are more literal and do better with direct messages, like the ones in Doc McStuffins. But for older kids, shows with slightly ambiguous messages -- like Star Trek: Next Generation -- provide an opportunity for you to discuss your own views and values. Also consider the characters. Are they people you'd like real kids to emulate? Are adults present and responsible? Are the characters realistic and relatable -- like those on Black-ish -- or shallow and stereotypical, like those on Jersey Shore? Are there consequences for their behavior?
  • Violence, sex, and language. Though TV shows for younger kids don't have graphic violence, sex, or language, many push the limits with juvenile stand-ins. It may be cartoon violence instead of realistic violence, kissing and flirting instead of full-fledged love scenes, and gateway words like "heck" and "jerk" (or all-purpose made-up swearing substitutions like "smurf" and "gammit") instead of four-letter curses. All these aspects intensify as TV shows move up the age range. Common Sense Media offers expert guidelines for the level of violence, sex, and language that's developmentally appropriate for every age, but you may need to make a judgment call for your own child, based on your own values. Don't mind some pointed political talk, a little swearing, and plenty of innuendo? The Daily Show is probably fine for your young teen with an interest in current affairs. OK with lots of saucy humor and mature references? Saturday Night Live might be watch-together fare for your family.
  • Consumerism. Whether the show spawns the toy or vice versa, it's like a chicken-or-egg puzzle these days, with almost every kid-targeted show aligned with a product line. From SpongeBob Band-Aids and Power Rangers bedspreads to Doc McStuffins dolls and Jessie-inspired clothes, you can't escape familiar TV characters when you go to the big-box store -- or even the grocery store. And when kids see their favorite TV character on a product, they'll almost certainly ask you to buy it. Commercials that air during live TV or online programs also can be a way consumerism makes its way into your home. Muting ads or recording shows with a DVR and forwarding through them can help shield kids from unwanted advertising. Though consumerism connected to a TV series doesn't disqualify it from being worthwhile (and, honestly, it's pretty hard to avoid entirely), it's an important aspect to keep in mind and to talk to your kids about. Train them to be on the lookout for it, and they'll learn some valuable media-literacy skills.
  • Drinking, drugs and smoking. Most kid-targeted shows steer clear of showing substances on-screen, though some period-set shows might include some smoking or drinking (think Pa and his pipe in Little House on the Prairie). And some teen-targeted shows focus on issues that real adolescents face, including making choices around drinking, smoking, and using drugs. High-quality shows (Degrassi) will address the consequences of using substances in a realistic way, whereas shows that might appeal to teens but not necessarily be appropriate for them (Jersey Shore) will take a less responsible approach. We offer guidelines for what's developmentally appropriate for every age, but you may need to make a final call for your kids based on what you're OK with. Any time substance use or abuse comes up, take the opportunity to discuss the issue with your kids.
  • User reviews. Sometimes it takes a village to figure out which shows are right for our kids. If you're on the fence, see what other parents -- and even kids -- are saying. Although our user community's ratings are based on personal opinion rather than developmental guidelines, they do rate TV shows using the same tools our editors do, with icons to flag areas of concern, stars to signal overall quality, and a target age to help you decide.

The bottom line is that it's up to you to do your research, and Common Sense Media makes that easy by providing detailed written reviews, so you know exactly what to expect. We've done the hard work for you -- you just have to apply it to your family, and remember to check the ratings (and maybe watch an episode) before showing it to your kids. And don't forget: If you're not comfortable with what's on the screen, you can always turn it off.