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Publication #FCS2298

Making Good Decisions: Parenting Strategies to Guide Young Children’s Media Use1

Stephanie C. Toelle and David C. Diehl2

Guiding your children's media use based on your values can be a challenge in a media-saturated world. The earlier you start teaching them, joining them in front of the television or computer, and even setting time limits and controls, the easier it will be as they get older. This publication gives parents viewing strategies, offers suggested media guidelines, and reviews media policies designed to protect children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under six years old have no more than two hours of screen time a day and that children two years old and younger are discouraged from any screen time; the recommended restrictions are based on child development research (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1999). Young children have trouble distinguishing fact from fantasy or make-believe, meaning they may have trouble differentiating when something on TV is real. This could make certain scenes even scarier than they are! They are also very gullible and don't understand jokes or sarcasm very well. Also, children often imitate behavior observed on the screen (Common Sense Media, 2013). More information on the impacts of media on children's development is available through other “Making Good Decisions” publications available at

Figure 1. 

Take time to watch TV with your children. Credits: Cupolo, 2009

[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Three Strategies to Guide Viewing

For children six years old and younger, parental media control is needed more for accidental viewing rather than intentional inappropriate viewing. Parents often use one or a combination of three strategies to avoid unwanted viewing: instruction, co-viewing, and restrictions.

With instructive guidance, the parent discusses the program content with the child and helps him or her evaluate it. Usually these children learn more from educational shows, are more critical toward media violence, and are less inclined to request products advertised in commercials than children not receiving parental instruction.

With co-viewing, the most common strategy, the parent watches television or plays a game with the child without discussing the content.

Though not actively engaged, the social experience provides modeling and a sense of closeness and acceptance.

Parents use restrictive guidance when they set limits on material watched, including what is watched, when it is watched, and how much children are allowed to watch. These children spend less time with media (Koolstra & Lucassen, 2004).

A couple of organizations recommend the following restrictive three-step process to set family guidelines on TV, movies, video games, and music. TV Watch in particular recommends that parents:

  1. Learn the rating system.

  2. Decide what is right for you and your family.

  3. Use technology for parental controls to block inappropriate programming.

Digital TV, satellite TV, Xbox 360™, Sony PlayStation 3® and PSP®, Nintendo Wii®, Windows, and Apple operating systems have built-in parental controls that you can use for blocking and/or monitoring your child’s use. The TV Watch Guide to the TV Ratings and Parental Controls (TV Parental Guidelines, 2008), the MediaWise Parents’ Guide to Video Games (National Institute on Media and Family, 2008) and Parent’s Guide to Video Games, Parental Controls and Online Safety (Entertainment Software Rating Board & Parent Teacher Association, 2008) give excellent set-up instructions and parental guidelines. Check the websites at the end of this publication for more information.

When determining your family's approach to viewing, you should consider your values and the viewing goals you have for your children. Consider the benefits of instructive guidance, co-viewing, and restrictive guidance, and find a balance that works for you.

Media Policies to Help Parents

Parents’ efforts to limit unwanted viewing have been supported by policies such as the Children's Television Act (CTA) of 1990 and the Three-Hour Rule of 1997 (Open Congress, 2013). The CTA limits commercial time during children's programming, increases educational programming for children, and bans host selling, a practice of using a character from the program to “sponsor” a product in the ensuing commercial. This act was expanded by the Three-Hour Rule, which requires three hours of educational programming each week (Jordan, 2008).

Though V-Chips may be unnecessary with the advent of digital television and the phase out of analog television, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 required these chips in all newly produced television sets that were 13 inches or larger. The V-Chip blocked unwanted channels through programming set by parents. Research found that very few parents consistently used the V-Chip, even after special training (Scantlin & Jordan, 2006).

A sustaining part of this act, however, is the establishment of a rating system to guide parents in selecting appropriate viewing for their children. Learning the rating indicators has been challenging for many parents. Rating systems for movies (Motion Picture Association of America, 2013) and other entertainment (Entertainment Software Rating Board, 2013) are listed below, but are further explained by websites listed in the Internet Resources section of this publication. Sadly, research finds that many parents are not successfully using the rating systems. Some recommend the creation of a universal rating system (Harris Interactive, 2007).


  • G: General Audience

  • PG: Parental Guidance suggested

  • PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned

  • R: Restricted, under seventeen requires accompanying parent or adult guardian

  • NC-17: No one seventeen and under admitted


  • TV-G: General audience

  • TV-Y: All children

  • TV-Y7: Directed to older children, age 7 and above

  • TV-PG: Parental guidance suggested

  • TV-14: Parents strongly cautioned against children under age 14 watching unattended

  • TV-MA: Mature audience only

Television stations may also use the following content descriptors:

  • FV: Fantasy Violence

  • S: Sexual content

  • V: Violent content

  • L: Harsh Language

  • D: Sexual Dialogue

Computer and Video Games

  • EC: Early childhood, suitable for ages 3+

  • E: Everyone

  • E10+: Everyone 10 years and older

  • T: Teen, suitable for 13 years and older

  • M: Mature, suitable for 17 years and older

  • AO: Adults only, 18 years and older

What Can Parents Do?

How can parents guide their children's viewing and be confident of its content? Parents can be proactive by following these suggestions:

  • Know the ratings. They give parents a quick and easy screening.

  • Use the ratings when purchasing software, movies, games, etc. Teach your child to recognize and make decisions based on the ratings.

  • Set the parental controls. Read the manual and set limits on your computer, game system, or TV.

  • Apply the three guidance strategies. Consider your goals and find the appropriate balance for your family.

  • Use websites and mobile apps that provide an extensive content analysis for further consideration of movies and games. Read what other parents have to say!

  • Watch the movie, play the game. Preview the media that your child is begging for!

  • Think of your child's developmental level. Can he/she differentiate fact from make-believe? How will it affect your child later?

Internet Resources

Table 1 contains reliable resources to help parents and professionals learn more about policies regulating media for children and tools to direct viewing choices.

Table 1. 

Internet Resources

Resource Name



American Library Association

Offers a link to Great Web Sites for Kids on a variety of educational topics.


Movie reviews from the perspective of a family with children addresing issues that may concern parents.

Common Sense Media

Resources to help parents determine if media content is appropriate for their children. Parents can also search TV, books, games, websites, and music titles for reviews. Many other media articles and parent tips are available.

Control Your TV

More for parents on parental controls, rating systems, violence, suitable family programming, educational programs, monthly previews, and media literacy links.

Entertainment Software Rating Board

This non-profit organization assigns ratings to entertainment software, enforces guidelines on advertising, and promotes online privacy practices. The site lets you search by software title, rating, platform, and type of content. Includes an ESRB mobile app and search widget to display on blogs and web pages.

FCC Parents

Information for parents on TV rules, programming, ratings, children's access and safety on the Internet, and childhood obesity.

Get NetWise

Information for keeping children safe online, protecting your computer and privacy.


Movie content analysis, particularly addressing sex and nudity, violence and gore, profanity, and substance abuse. A Kids-in-Mind mobile app is also available.


Gives parents the latest information on various technologies to guide their media lifestyle and make informed decisions.

Motion Picture Association of America

This website offers great resources for parents to monitor and make choices about movies under their Resources for Parents link.

Open Congress

Check the status of new bills and summaries of others that have been enacted.

The Pause, Parent, Play Project

Gives parents tools to think about how their children might react to the media, to make a decision as a parent regarding what is right for their child, and enjoy the chosen media as a family.

The TV Boss

Gives parents advice to take charge of media in the home. Provides instructions for setting your parental control programs for cable, digital, and satellite television.

TV Guidelines

Gives full descriptions of the TV ratings, as well as web links to help parents use the V-chip feature.

TV Watch

Provides Television Tools for Parents 101, 1-2-3 Safe TV guidelines, and more on parental tips and controls.

Photo Credits

Cupolo, D. (2009, January 6). The Vacuum Glow. Retrieved from FlickrCommons.


American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Public Education. (1999). Media education. Pediatrics 104(2), 341–343.

Common Sense Media. (2013). Ages and grades: Highlights. Retrieved from

Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). (2013). Entertainment Software Rating Board official website. Retrieved from

Entertainment Software Rating Board & Parent Teacher Association. (2008). A Parent’s Guide to Video Games, Parental Controls and Online Safety. Retrieved from

Harris Interactive. (2007). The Harris Poll #125, December 14, 2007. One-third of parents use video game ratings to decide whether children play or get game and even fewer understand what the ratings mean. Retrieved from

Jordan, A. (2008). Children’s media policy. The Future of Children 18(1), 235–253.

Koolstra, C.M., and Lucassen, N. (2004). Viewing behavior of children and TV guidance by parents: A comparison of parent and child reports. Communications 29, 179–198.

Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). (2013). MPAA official website. Retrieved from

National Institute on the Media and Family. (2008). MediaWise® Parents’ Guide to Video Games. Retrieved from

Open Congress. (2013). Open Congress website, a project of the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation. Retrieved from

Scantlin, R.M., & Jordan, A. (2006). Families’ experiences with the V-chip: An exploratory study. The Journal of Family Communication, 6(2), 139–159.

TV Parental Guidelines. (2008). Understanding TV Ratings and Parental Controls. Retrieved from



This document is FCS2298, one of a series of the Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Original publication date May 2009. Revised April 2013. Visit the EDIS website at


Stephanie C. Toelle, Extension agent IV, Duval County Extension, Jacksonville, FL; David C. Diehl, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences; Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The use of trade names in this publication is solely for the purpose of providing specific information. UF/IFAS does not guarantee or warranty the products named, and references to them in this publication do not signify our approval to the exclusion of other products of suitable composition.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.