Why Parents Should Not Rely on TV Parental Guidelines

A study highlights why parents shouldn't count on TV ratings for kids

kids' TV content rating - girls watching TV
When it comes to TV shows, content ratings for kids may not be accurate.. Marc Romanelli/Getty Images

What does SpongeBob SquarePants have in common with Breaking Bad? It may surprise parents to know that research has shown that many kids' TV shows contain levels of violence that are comparable to those shows that are intended for a mature audience. Many parents rely on parental guidelines to help them decide which TV shows and movies and video games are appropriate for their children. But an August 2016 study on the usefulness of TV parental guides for parents has found that those age recommendations left much to be desired.

What the Study Says

High levels of TV violence and inappropriate content were plentiful in shows labeled TV-Y7 (appropriate for kids ages 7 and up), according to the study, which was led by Joy Gabrielli, PhD, a clinical child psychologist at Dartmouth College's Geisel School of Medicine in Hanover, N.H. The ratings, which determine the age rating for content based on the amount of violence, alcohol use, smoking, and sexual behavior depicted in the programs, are supposed to help parents gauge which shows are okay—and which shows are not—for kids of certain ages.

The researchers examined more than 300 episodes of 17 TV shows across different rating categories (TV-Y7, TV-PG, TV-14, and TV-MA), looking for duration and number of incidents of negative behavior, and found that every show had at least one risk behavior and there was just as much violence in shows rated TV-Y7 as there was in shows that are for adults.

The TV content ratings did do a good job of filtering out gory violence (shows for young kids aren't showing images of blood, body parts, and gore), hitting, punching, and other physical and verbal and emotional aggression were very much a part of young kids' TV shows. And while TV-Y7 shows had significantly fewer examples of substance use, shows rated TV-14 had just as much smoking and drinking behavior as shows that were rated TV-MA.

As for sexual content, the study showed that the ratings were effective in identifying content that was not appropriate for children. In short, the ratings worked for sexual content, but didn't do such a good job protecting kids from other types of content. "We were disappointed by how poorly the ratings functioned," says Dr. Gabrielli. "TV parental guidelines are useful to a degree but they don't cover everything and are not effective for violence."

When you consider the fact that kids today are consuming media in greater amounts and across so many more devices than ever before, the results of this research are incredibly worrisome. And considering that kids in the TV-PG and TV-14 age groups are at an age when they are navigating independence and learning about how those around them use substances like alcohol and cigarettes, the fact that shows for kids rated as okay for this age group are depicting substance use as much as shows for adults (the study showed that the use of alcohol was in 58 percent of all shows) is especially problematic.

What Parents Can Do at Home to Filter Out Inappropriate Content

Learn about what your kids want to see before you okay it. First and foremost, screen and filter what your kids are seeing. Common Sense Media, which offers an extensive library of ratings and reviews for parents, is very useful because it includes details the content of a movie, TV show, video game, music, books, and apps. It even has ratings from other parents and kids to add another layer of screening for parents who are looking for details about content before they give their okay. And network with other parents: Talk to parents you know to get their take on what they've approved for their kids.

Stick to the age recommendations. Your 8-year-old may have a friend of the same age who's routinely allowed to watch R-rated movies and TV-14 shows. Or you may have a grade-schooler who loves to emulate whatever his older teenage sibling is doing and wants to watch the shows that are for older kids. Explain to your child that you are screening content for his healthy development, and that what his friend's parents have decided for their child doesn't apply in your household. Tell him that you want him to develop a healthy media-consuming habit, and that watching content meant for adults is not good for kids. And be mindful of the reality that in many households, the TV is on, and older kids may be consuming content that's meant for adults, which can be seen by younger siblings.

Use content as an opportunity for conversation with your kids. As much as possible, watch shows with your kids. When you see something that seems inaccurate or inappropriate, use it as a launching point for talking with your kids. If you see something questionable, ask questions like, "Do you think that was portrayed accurately?"

Find out what your child is watching. "Parents should spend time talking to their children and monitoring what media the kids are exposed to," says Dr. Gabrielli. "Ask, 'What is your favorite show?' 'What do your friends watch?' and 'Have you seen anything that made you feel uncomfortable or afraid?'" And watch with your child whenever possible, not only to monitor her media use but to stay connected with her and to keep your relationship strong.

Do not let screens rule your lives. An alarming report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation released on 2010 showed that kids are spending an average of more than 7 1/2 hours using electronic devices, including TV, computers, tablets, cell phones, and video games. "That's more time than what's spent in school or with parents," says Dr. Gabrielli. "It's a huge influence in their lives."

Find ways to limit media use in your kids and be sure to set a good example by cutting back on your own screen time. And when you consider the fact that in many cases, kids today are media multitasking—using cell phones and computers while the TV is on at home, for instance—the actual use ends up being much more, as much as more than 10 hours of media use, says Dr. Gabrielli.

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