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July 15, 2024

In Your Hands: Monitoring Kids’ Media

Video games are the new TV. Limits, anyone?

Full2340.jpgAmerican kids are marinating in media. The typical 8- to-18-year-old child spends six-and-a-half hours a day immersed in a thick stew of TV, music, online content and video games, according to a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The breakdown: four hours of TV, two of music, one each using the computer and playing video games. (The figures add up to more than six-and-a-half hours because so many kids multitask even when they’re being entertained.)

Before protesting that your kids don’t consume THAT much media, do what the researchers did. Keep a media diary. For extra interest, throw in the other categories the researchers measured: reading (45 minutes), hanging out with parents (two-and-a-half hours), physical activity (one-and-a-quarter hours), chores (30 minutes). You may be surprised at the results – especially during weekends and other downtime.

The sheer quantity of exposure raises two questions: First, is this much media good for children? After all, most media is passive – kids take in ideas and images that have been conceived and created by others. In excess, these mediated experiences crowd out direct contact with the world that inspires children to conceive their own ideas and create their own images.

For most parents, unplugging what the Kaiser report calls “Generation M” isn’t really an option. Instead, they must struggle with question two: how to monitor media so what kids see and hear stimulates their minds and promotes their development. Ratings are a start. (A succinct summary of the rating systems with recommendations for different ages is available from the American Academy of Pediatrics ((AAP)) at Unfortunately, ratings are different for every type of media and, even when they are conscientiously applied, they are a crude measure that doesn’t provide enough detail. What parents really need are cheat sheets that supply concise but comprehensive information about the content of specific products.

Fortunately, a number of Web sites specialize in up-to-the-minute reports about nearly everything a child might want to see, hear or play. As a bonus, parents who use these resources will know enough to ask intelligent discussion-starting questions about the media a child is enjoying when they can’t watch, listen or play. Here are some reliable sources of information.

  • TV: Parent-oriented reviews of TV shows are available at Commonsense ( along with reviews of games, music, Web sites and books. Also, consider making use of the V-chip, an incredibly powerful tool for monitoring what kids see on TV. Not only can the chip block programs with specific kinds of content, but it can also shut down entire channels or turn the TV off at certain hours. For V-chip instructions, go to
  • Interactive Games: The National Institute on Media and the Family uses a Kidscore stoplight to assess interactive games for violence, language, nudity, sex, fear and illegal activity ( In general, children younger than 18 should never play “AO” (for adults only) or “M” (for mature) games. (Some states are considering making it a crime for vendors to sell or rent such games to underage children.) Even games rated “T” (for teens) are often surprisingly violent. Parents of ‘tweens and younger teens should look for the new “E10-plus” (for everyone age 10 and ) rating, which limits games to mild profanity, minimal sexuality and moderate amounts of cartoon or fantasy violence. (For a list of games in different rating categories, go to and click on the “Advanced Search” option.)
  • Movies: Parents have long suspected that movies labeled PG today would have received PG-13 only a few years ago. Researchers at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., recently confirmed that “ratings creep” is a genuine problem making it even more crucial for parents to consult reliable reviewers such as Nell Minnow, the Movie Mom ( Independent reviews are also available from Kidsinmind ( and Screenit ( The Screenit reviews also include an at-a-glance grid of very specific information about everything from gore to disrespectful attitudes.
  • Music: Finding information about lyrics for popular music is a huge challenge for parents. The Parental Advisory label flags CD’s with lyrics that feature strong language or depictions of violence, sex or substance abuse. Assume that any CD with a parental advisory deserves it. Additional information about the Parental Advisory label is available from the Recording Industry Association of America Web site (

Above all, teach kids to be deliberate about their media choices so entertainment doesn’t expand to fill every available moment. Knowing where the “off” button is and using it is the first step toward managing media. (In the Kaiser report, many respondents said the TV, for example, was on all the time regardless of whether anyone was watching.)

During school breaks, experiment with media-free times. Try turning off everything – TV, videogames, computers, cellphones and any musical devices that involve headphones. There’s sure to be protest, but stick with it. If you disconnect often enough, your kids will start to realize that a stew made from their own conversations, observations and thoughts is every bit as rich and satisfying as anything the media can provide.

Carolyn Jabs is a former Contributing Editor for Family PC and mother to three computer- savvy kids.

gender differences

Although many believe that young boys share a greater penchant for video games than girls, a survey conducted by early education students at McHenry Community College in McHenry, Ill., sheds a contrasting light on that theory. Sixty-five percent of girls ages 7 to 11 expressed at least a moderate level of interest in playing video games compared to 83 percent of boys the same age.

Eighty-six percent of all the 200 participants have played a video game at least once, while 47 percent admitted they’ve played a game they are restricted from playing without parental consent. The same study also indicates that at least 50 percent of children ages 7 to 11 live in households with more than one video gaming system.

limits in action

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no more than two hours of TV and videos a day for older children and no screen time for children younger than age 2.
  • Set a timer so children know exactly how long they’ve been playing
  • The AAP recommends not allowing children to have video games or TVs in bedrooms.

did someone say, “playdate?”

Not every playdate or sleepover need incorporate endless hours of playing video games. Mom of three boys, Traci Devlin, permits her children to play video games watchfully, however.

“It’s tough if one of the boys” friends isn’t allowed to play video games because at some point during a three- or four-hour play date, the subject of video games is going to come up,” says Devlin.

So, what is a parent to do?

Wondering what – if any – restrictions placed on your child’s friends should be upheld in your house has made many play dates feel like a chore. But parents do have to feel responsible for wholly parenting or policing someone else’s children when they are in their care.

It’s not without its repercussions, but parents should still do what they think is best.

“I assumed most parents would be proactive about limiting or preventing video game exposure,” says concerned mom Josie Breitenstein. “I never imagined that not allowing my daughter to play would cause her to feel left out of certain conversations and social situations,” she adds.

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