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How to Choose the Right Websites for Your Kids

If you've ever caught your kids quickly closing browser windows when you walked by the computer (or found some unsavory links in your history), you know how easy it is for kids to access inappropriate content online -- and how hard it is for parents to keep up with the ever-changing selection of what's out there. The Internet is an incredible resource that can help kids learn, grow, and socialize, but it also has a lot of potential pitfalls; one click often means the difference between cool butterflies, space shuttles, and hilarious cat memes and millions of nude selfies, porn GIFs, and pro-anorexia photos. So how can your family stay on track?

Communication and openness are key. And whether you're negotiating with your kids about diving into the world of social media or drawing a line in the sand about sites they should never go to, it's always important to be able to back up your answer. That's where Common Sense Media comes in.

We start by helping you understand 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 fun and engaging for one 8-year-old may be boring or old hat for another.

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

  • What age is the site aimed at? Sometimes a website's target age group is obvious -- for example, PBS Kids lets the youngest Internet users interact with TV characters like Curious George and Caillou. Other sites are trickier. Your 15-year-old may not be ready for a public social-networking site like Facebook or Twitter, even though the sites accept users age 13 and up. 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. Does the design look modern enough to engage the most tech-savvy kids? Is it easy to use? Getting around a website should be intuitive and simple, especially for younger users. Is it covered in ads, with grown-up content a click away, or is there an ad-free walled garden for younger users? Is the website from a reputable source? NASA's sites for kids are probably more trustworthy than a stranger's blog.
  • Learning value. This is especially important when you're looking for sites for younger kids. It's perfectly fine to choose sites solely for their entertainment value, but if kids can learn something, too, then why not give it a shot? A perfect example of this type of "edutainment" is Umigo, a wacky introduction to STEM subjects that teaches concepts with hilarious videos and attention-grabbing games. We evaluate a website's learning potential not only in traditional subjects like math and reading but also in 21st-century skills like creativity and collaboration. We focus on engagement, learning approach (depth of content, ability to transfer skills), and support (help, progress reports) to really hone in on the best sites for learning.
  • Messages and role models. Media messages really do affect kids, so it makes sense to choose websites 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 on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, where kids can learn life skills from a friendly group of positive role models. But older kids might be ready for more ambiguity -- so long as you're available to discuss your own views and values. For all ages, pay attention to what kinds of people, animals, and characters are featured on a website; are they the kinds of role models you'd like your kids to emulate? Younger kids may look up to plucky problem-solver Peg of Peg + Cat, whereas teens may be inspired by the strong women featured on Curating Change. Kids also can explore the stories of sports heroes, great artists, and legendary musicians online; powerful role models are only a Google search away.
  • Violence, sex, and language. YouTube has a lot of innocuous, preschooler-friendly videos, but it's also chock-full of sexy stuff, profanity-laden movie scenes, and "fail videos" that feature people falling down, getting hurt, and worse -- and everything in between. Parental controls and kid-safe filters can help with this, but it's always good to keep abreast of what kids can easily find on which sites. Common Sense Media offers expert guidelines for what level of violence, sex, and language is developmentally appropriate for every age, but you may need to make a judgment call for your own child, based on your own values.
  • Consumerism. Free isn't always free when it comes to websites. In addition to straight-up ads, lots of sites have links to online shops that sell related stuff, from sports gear to toys and books. Sites like McDonalds.com hit kids with marketing pitches while they play, and others, like Barbie.com, are basically fronts for selling merchandise. And even well-made, kid-friendly subscription services, like Club Penguin, can tempt kids with in-site purchases to enhance their virtual worlds. Consumerism on a website doesn't disqualify it from being worthwhile (and, honestly, it's pretty hard to avoid entirely), but 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. As with sex, violence, and language, substance use is only a click away when kids are online -- sometimes obviously, sometimes more subtly. Gossip blogs like Perez Hilton might detail a young celebrity's most recent indiscretion with marijuana, and teens can easily post selfies of themselves indulging in illegal behavior. Other sites might glamorize substance use or address it as no big deal. 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. And any time substance use or abuse comes up, take the opportunity to discuss the issue with your kids.
  • Privacy and safety. For kids under 13, COPPA rules are designed to protect personal information. But whether a website is collecting personal information about kids or adults isn't always obvious. Some sites (not enough) offer short, sweet privacy policies written in plain language. But more often, you'll feel like you need a law degree to decipher the legalese. What happens to your information after it's collected is key. Will it be sold to marketers who will then target you? Can you have your personal information removed from the site's records? There also are issues related to kids' safety to consider: Can they interact with others? Are location details collected and revealed? How easy is it to delete your account and remove any or all data?
  • User reviews. Sometimes, it takes a village to figure out which websites are right for our kids. If you're on the fence, see what other parents -- and even kids -- are saying. Though our user community's ratings are based on personal opinion rather than developmental guidelines, they do rate websites using the same tools our editors do, with icons to flag areas of concern, stars to signal overall quality, and target ages 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 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 don't forget: If you're not comfortable with what's on the computer screen, you can always turn it off.