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In Defense of Movie Ratings

Parents are always the best judges of what kids should -- and shouldn't -- watch, but we're here to help.

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Last week, I heard from both colleagues and friends about Jessica Grose's column in the New York Times, in which she cited Common Sense Media's tween/teen age ratings on a few films she and her husband chose to watch with their young kids during their pandemic quarantine. In the piece, she says: "I do think something is gained by letting children enjoy a varied media diet, including entertainment that might challenge them emotionally, inspire them to think critically, or leave them without an uplifting message." And -- speaking as both a mom and a 16-year veteran of Common Sense (and the person who's ultimately responsible for our movie age ratings) -- I wholeheartedly agree!

Media has the potential to be an incredible teaching tool, to help kids learn and understand the world around them and develop their own sense of self, morality, and more. Here at Common Sense, our goal has always been to share the message that making the right media choices for your family is all about one thing: knowing your kid. Every kid and every family is different, but every family can benefit from a deeper understanding of the media they choose to watch, read, or play.

Here are some things to keep in mind about media, ratings, and kids:

Ratings and reviews (including ours!) are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules.

Our age ratings -- which are based on extensive input from experts in child development-- are designed as recommendations that parents and caregivers can use alongside their own knowledge and understanding of their kids, what they can handle, and what their interests are when making media choices. Consider them your starting point in the decision-making process. All of the editors at Common Sense are huge media fans, and we love helping families find titles they can say yes to -- our age ratings are intended to guide you toward movies, TV shows, books, games, and more that are definitely appropriate for that age and up.

Our goal is to give you the detailed context and nuanced information you need to make a choice that works for your family. What gives one 7-year-old nightmares could make another one laugh; you know your kid best, so you get to decide what they're ready for when. When my own daughter, now 11, was 6, I chose to let her watch Kubo and the Two Strings at home with her older cousin, even though I knew it was pretty intense. After she'd seen it, I told her that Common Sense rated it 9+, thinking that she'd be excited to have been allowed to see a "big kid" movie. Instead, she burst into tears -- "Now you're never going to let me watch it again!" -- as if I had just learned the age rating for the first time.

Developmental appropriateness is one of many important issues to consider.

Our overall age ratings take a wide range of content into account -- violence, language, sex, and more -- but some families have specific categories that are make-or-break for them. For example, you may not care whether your 8-year-old hears an F-bomb or two, but other parents will. Or a show might have a great message about teamwork but is also super scary. By offering detailed reviews to support our age ratings, we give parents the full picture of what to expect, helping inform their decisions for their kid. There are pros and cons to every media choice.

The environment in which kids experience media also has a big impact on how it affects them. Over the years, my husband and I have shown both of our kids movies that they "weren't old enough for" -- including every single Marvel movie during quarantine -- because we were watching at home, on a small screen, with the lights on and the pause, volume, and fast-forward buttons close at hand. Which brings me to the next point:

Watching with your kids, when you can, is key.

This is exactly what Jessica Grose did, and it sounds like it worked out wonderfully for her family. Being there with your kids to add context and answer questions offers the opportunity to address tough issues, let your kids challenge themselves, and provide your own perspective and values -- as well as a safe lap or a comforting hug if they're needed.

We recognize, however, that being able to watch together is a privilege: Not all parents and caregivers can be there while their kids consume media, and even those who can, can't do it all the time. Recommendations like ours are here to offer that extra guidance when it's needed.

Challenging your kids with media can be a good thing -- but it should be your choice as their parent or caregiver, since your perspective and knowledge are some of the most important guiding forces in their lives. Only you can make the right decision for your family, or know the right way to manage the fallout when a couple of those decisions inevitably backfire -- like the time last year when I sat down to watch The Witches with my daughter and she left the room after 20 minutes because of Anne Hathaway's Venom teeth. But it never hurts to come at these decisions empowered with as much information as you can get. That's what we're here for.

Betsy Bozdech

Betsy's experiences working in online parenting and entertainment content were the perfect preparation for her role as Common Sense's editorial director. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in 1997, she began her editorial career at BabyCenter.com and then served as an editor at Reel.com, Emode.com, and AOL's Digital City before working as the site content manager at Netflix for three years -- and then joining Common Sense Media in 2006. She's a lifelong movie and TV fan (favorites include The Princess Bride, 30 Rock, Some Like It Hot, Saturday Night Live, and Star Wars) and is delighted to have a job that makes keeping up on celebrity and pop culture news a necessity -- which, in turn, helps give her (a little) cred with her two kids.

In her role at Common Sense, Betsy has had the privilege of moderating a Comic-Con panel, serving as a juror for the San Francisco Film Festival, touring the set of Imagination Movers, interviewing filmmakers like The Good Dinosaur's Peter Sohn, and much more. She is also a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.

Follow her on Twitter.