By Hayley Tsukayama

The Washington Post

A study last year found that teens spend nearly nine hours every day consuming media of some kind, whether it’s TV, music or video games. It’s a staggering amount of time, and the study hit a nerve with many who are concerned, even panicked, about whether all that screen time is creating a glassy-eyed generation of digital natives with stunted social and emotional skills.

The issue, of course, is a little more nuanced than that. And that’s what Common Sense Media, a Web-based media ratings resource for parents, is trying to get at with a new tool that gives parents better resources to judge what’s on their kids’ screens rather than simply monitoring how much time their children spend with gadgets.

The group will now rate media not only by looking at violence levels and language, but also by examining what positive character traits kids can pick up from what they watch — making it easier for parents to look at screen time as a tool for development rather than as a thing to be feared.

“The truth is that both screen time and content matter,” said Jim Steyer, executive director at Common Sense Media, which also published the screen time study last year. “You want to limit the amount of screen time and choose good content. We’ve always said we wanted to get parents to the good stuff fast.”

TV shows and films can help shape kids’ lives, Steyer said. It’s a media-saturated world, he said, and it’s become vitally important for parents to be able to understand what their kids are watching and to be able to talk to them about it.

To pick 11 traits from the entire range of human emotion, Common Sense looked to the education world and the process of “social emotional learning,” which schools have used to teach character traits and life skills. It also reached out to movie and television executives as well as academics to determine what character traits might be good to include in the rubric. Then, in focus groups for parents, the group asked them what traits they thought were most important for their kids to glean from the shows and movies they watch.

The group’s researchers compiled all of that information before settling on the final 11 — integrity, compassion, gratitude, self-control, empathy, humility, teamwork, courage, curiosity, communication and perseverance — and rating more than 600 shows and films for the site.

Common Sense Media is a nonprofit organization, and funding for this research came from the Templeton Foundation and the Bezos Family Foundation.

When looking at what shows to rate, Common Sense Media was careful to take a realistic approach to what kids may actually want to watch, rather than simply sticking to educational programming or shows specifically designed to teach lessons. For example, the group’s ratings say that “The Simpsons” can be used teach kids lessons about self-control and the power of communication. “SpongeBob SquarePants” offers lessons about gratitude. “Black-ish” is a good starting point to talk about humility and compassion.

The group has always thought of itself as being a sort of “nutrition labeling” for media, Steyer said, and this latest initiative expands that mandate. And while the ratings rubric is meant to be useful for parents, it can also be a tool for kids — particularly preteens and teenagers — who may want to talk to their parents about why they’re choosing the media they are. Or, if kids are choosing their own shows and films to watch already, it could give parents some insight into how to talk constructively about the things their kids are watching.

In the future, Steyer said, he expects that the character rating system will also extend to video games, another medium that Common Sense rates on its site for age-appropriateness. The group wanted to start with television and movies, he said, because of their broad reach and focus on storytelling. But he said he thinks video game ratings would be a logical next step as Common Sense Media looks to effect change in the entertainment world.

“We’ve worked for years with executives to highlight important issues for kids,” he said. “Now we have enough scale that we influence the industry and show that we can reward movies and video games that promote positive social emotional learning.”

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