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How much sexual content in media is appropriate for kids?

Kids are growing up surrounded by sexual images and messages. They're exposed to sexual imagery in advertisements, on TV, in movies, in books, in video games, and on the Internet. Many of these images are played for shock value, so they often contain graphic or violent sex. Even mild shows use sexual situations for humor, and sexual humor is a mainstay of adolescent entertainment.

The more prevalent sexual situations are, the more normal they seem. Highly sexual images inform kids' view of sex long before they've experienced it. Nobody wants his or her kids to learn about sex from the media. But, of course, talking about sex can be awkward.

Still, it's important to challenge the exaggerated notions of sex they're exposed to, as well as to share your own values to help kids develop a normal, healthy perspective about sex.

Here are broad guidelines to follow:

Tips for parents of elementary school-age kids

  • Keep sexual content out of their media. We often think it's harmless, but young kids imitate what they see and repeat what they hear, even if they don't understand it.
  • Use safe-search filters on search engines. Kids look for images on Google and Yahoo. Even the most benign search terms can surface something you don't want them seeing.

Tips for parents of middle school-age kids

  • Be aware and share your values. By middle school, most kids know the facts. They're also surrounded by sexual humor that is especially appealing because of how embarrassed and curious they are by the whole topic. This humor makes kids see sex as a laughing matter. Make sure you explain your values and balance the sexual examples kids see everywhere with your family's values.
  • Don't let kids use TVs and computers behind closed doors. Seeing what your children are watching will make it easier for you to enforce your own rules. When possible, watch and listen with your kids so you can answer -- and ask -- questions that might come up.
  • Look for teachable moments. A TV show in which a teen considers having sex with her boyfriend, or a song featuring sexy lyrics, can be the perfect opening for you to talk. Ask your kids about what they're seeing, hearing, and thinking about. They would rather talk about a movie than their own sexual thoughts.

Tips for parents of high school-age kids

  • Talk about the difference between scripted sex and reality. At this age, your children are moving into the sexually active zone. Discuss consequences and risky behaviors, and repeat your values. Point out that sex gets everyone's attention, so in the media, sex is often used to sell something.
  • Point out safe sex. We know that media influences kids. When characters practice safe sex, that sends a healthy message.
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