When I was growing up, there were only so many avenues of entertainment my parents had to monitor: a few channels on TV (we didn’t have cable), radio, CDs, and VHS movie rentals.
Not so today. With the advent of the internet, streaming, and personal devices, the media options have grown exponentially. It can be daunting for Christian parents to discern what they should watch, let alone what their kids should watch.
How do parents navigate the tension of wanting to protect their kids from harmful content while also avoiding legalism that can backfire? As you disciple your kids through the mind-boggling amount of options they have at their fingertips, what considerations can guide your approach? Though certainly not exhaustive, here are 10 things that might help.
1. Vet the values, not just the rating.
The MPAA rating and the amount of profanity, sex, and violence in media is something parents should certainly research, with the help of resources like the IMDB parental guides, Common Sense Media, and MovieGuide. But when vetting a potential series or movie for your child, it’s important to go beyond “curse counting” and also consider the subtler messages and values at play. No matter how many times someone says, “It’s just an entertaining movie! Don’t overthink it!” the fact remains: every movie or series has a message or at least an implicit worldview driving its narrative. Even movies about puppy policemen, Legos, and talking cars. The best way to assess the values? Watch it yourself first. But if you don’t have time for that, practice the next point.
2. Listen to parents, leaders, and critics you trust.
Busy parents rarely have time to watch the things we want to watch, let alone do a preview of something our kids want to watch. That’s OK. Chances are, someone in your network has seen it and can speak to its content. Consider joining or starting a Facebook group (or some other online forum) where like-minded Christian parents can pool knowledge and recommendations regarding children’s media. Listen to pastors and trusted leaders when they warn of something in pop culture or recommend something beneficial. And find conservative Christian film and television critics (we exist!) and read our reviews.
3. Distinguish between ‘not safe, but good’ and ‘safe, but not good.’
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan is famously described as not being “safe,” but good. It’s an insight that can inform all aspects of discipleship—even our media habits. “Safe” doesn’t always equal “good.” Many Christian parents might assume anything G-rated or free of “objectionable content” is “safe” and appropriate for their children. But many “safe” shows and movies aren’t good. Their underlying values are shaky, or they’re just not good in the quality sense: cheaply produced, lacking in beauty or creativity. Likewise, some truly excellent, beautiful content—with solid themes that celebrate goodness and virtue—might contain some “unsafe” elements that give parents pause. Depending on your kid’s age and maturity, the latter content could end up being more beneficial than the former.
4. ‘Educational’ content is not automatically good for your kid.
We can sometimes assume anything “educational”—whether a Netflix show teaching ABCs, a PBS series teaching potty training, or even Christian educational content—is automatically good for our kids. Certainly much of it is! Insofar as educational entertainment sparks curiosity and learning in the real world (for example nature documentaries that stoke a child’s desire to go to the zoo or plant a garden), it can be great. But even educational content can be an addictive end unto itself for some kids. And some Christian educational content is moralistic, theologically iffy, or unhelpful in its application. Furthermore, some educational content is agenda-driven or politically motivated, so do a bit of research if you have any suspicions about who’s producing the content and why.
5. Steer your kid toward content that sparks curiosity.
Don’t downplay the value of wonder and imagination for your kid’s spiritual development. Just as fantasy novels like Narnia or Lord of the Rings are valuable because they transport us to fantastical worlds—not in spite of it—so too is there value in media that stretches your child’s imagination and stokes their curiosity. Entertainment and escapism are not bad things—especially for kids. It’s good for them to be wide-eyed and awestruck when they’re watching TV or in a movie theater, especially if it leads them to a greater knowledge and appreciation of the mysterious, majestic world God made.
6. Steer your kid toward content that cultivates love for God and people.
Intakes shape our loves. This is why the makeup of our media diet (not only for kids but for us adults too) matters. As you talk with your kids about what media they’re consuming, help them think about this. What are they loving more or loving less as a result of watching a particular movie or show? And for Christians, called to love the Lord our God and also our neighbor (Matt. 22:36–40), how are we choosing content that helps us obey these greatest commandments?
Many children’s movies or shows, for example, are primarily about the message of self-love: embrace your identity and love yourself. But Christian love is primarily directed upward and outward. What stories can help train our loves in those directions?
7. Don’t let the algorithm pick for your kid.
Streaming-media algorithms are disturbingly sophisticated. Leave your children alone on Netflix or YouTube, and the “watch next” recommendations will become ever more irresistible as they pinpoint exactly what your kid loves to watch. But as much as artificial intelligence can figure out your child’s consumption patterns, it can’t determine what is good for your child’s wisdom. Avoid letting their viewing journey go wherever the algorithm suggests, without parental supervision. Consider utilizing YouTube Kids or parental controls on Netflix, Disney+, Prime Video, Apple TV+, and so forth. Be more involved than the algorithms are in curating content for your child.
8. Assess your child’s age and maturity.
The appropriateness of media content varies by your child’s age and maturity. More than relying on the TV-14 or PG-13 style ratings, go with what you know of your child’s readiness. What are their unique temptations and triggers? What gives them bad dreams? Consider also their spiritual maturity and biblical literacy. The more confident you are in your child’s grasp of what’s good and true—as revealed in God’s Word—the more latitude you might give in what they watch, knowing they’re able to summon biblical wisdom in evaluating the messages they encounter. Conversely, if your child has a weak grasp of biblical truth, be more cautious about what they can watch. Don’t send them into the fray without armor.
9. Find content you can enjoy together.
In this age of privatized media consumption (it’s called the iPhone/iPad for a reason), we put on headphones, disappear to our room, and away we go. This is bad for all of us, but it’s especially dangerous for kids. Set a precedent in your house for watching content together. Hold movie nights. Pick content that connects with the regular flow of your family’s life. Going on a family trip to a national park? Watch Ken Burns’s documentary series as preparation. Love cooking meals together with your kids? Watch shows about food, cooking, and baking. Instead of everyone in the family going their separate ways on their own devices, find things you can watch together.
10. Limit screen time.
Even if we’re consuming solid, nutritious content, it can still be bad for us in excess. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. We need breaks. Encourage rhythms of screen-free time in your household. But instead of focusing on the negative message (put away your phone!), help your child see the value in other activities: reading books, going outside, arts and crafts time, church, Bible reading, rest, silence, prayer. Sometimes the best answer to, Is it OK to watch this? is, Sure, but there are actually better things we could be doing with our time. Shepherd your child to know what those better things are and to eventually choose them first, on their own accord.