Web site steers users toward family-friendly entertainment

When Lawrence resident Debby Smith’s 11-year-old daughter, Megan, got an invitation from a friend to go see “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” a couple of weeks ago, Debby headed straight for her computer – and she wasn’t looking for show times.

Instead, her destination was www.commonsensemedia.org, a Web site that provides parents with independent reviews of new movies, television shows, Web sites and video games.

“I hadn’t seen it, and I want to know what the movies are about before she goes so I can talk to her about it afterwards,” Smith said.

In the dog days of summer with school still out, it can be difficult for parents to keep track of all the television, Internet sites and movies their children are exposed to. And in an era of “wardrobe malfunctions” and gory summer blockbusters, media-conscientious parents like Smith are glad to have a family-friendly watchdog at their disposal.

“During the summer, there are more hours available for them to go to the movies or watch TV,” Smith said. “I use the site frequently, but it has been especially helpful in the summer.”

Debby Smith, left, and her 11-year-old daughter, Megan, look through some of the family's favorite DVDs. Smith is a Lawrence PTA member who uses a new Web site to check out movies before she lets her daughter see them. She has recommended the site to the PTA.

Launched in 2003, Common Sense Media is a nonprofit Web site founded by national children’s media advocate and Stanford University teacher James Steyer. Smith learned about the site at the Kansas PTA convention this spring in Lawrence, where Common Sense’s director of outreach markets Rebecca Randall delivered one of the keynote addresses.

The Web site, Randall said, grew out of a need to address the amount and type of media children consume in the digital era. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average 8- to 18-year-old uses 47 hours of media per week, a significant increase over the figure for decades past. Moreover, violent and sexual content have become a fixture on much of the programming once thought to be kid-friendly.

“I cannot stress enough how dramatic the changes have been,” Randall said. “TV is just so different from when I was growing up, and then we’ve got all the new technologies, as well, and kids are using it.”

Before you watch

Here is a sampling of Web sites that review media with an eye toward what might be appropriate for families.

¢ Common Sense Media
Rates films, TV shows, video and computer games, music, books and Web sites
¢ The Movie Mom
Rates films
¢ National Institute on Media and the Family
Rates films, TV shows, video and computer games
¢ GetNetWise
Lists Web sites appropriate for children

For each television show, movie, music album or video game, the Common Sense Web site provides a brief written review along with a visual guide that breaks down the media content by subject matter. For example, the Common Sense Media reviewers deemed “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” appropriate for children ages 9 and up, but warned that there were portrayals of sexuality and drinking that might give some parents pause.

While the Web site is intended to help parents avoid exposing their children to questionable content, the sheer volume of media most children consume makes it nearly impossible for parents to block out all inappropriate messages. Instead, Randall said, parents should try to limit children’s media consumption to age-appropriate content and to learn to use media messages as teaching moments.

“That’s another really big thing that we tell parents: You have to interact with the media and use it as a springboard for conversations that you might not otherwise have,” Randall said. “And those opportunities can crop up at any time.”