For me, one of the hardest things about being a secondary English teacher is selecting texts and other types of media to use with my students. I have to work a delicate balance of finding works that are edifying, interesting, and appropriate for each grade I teach. Of course, every family has their own convictions about what that looks like, which makes for a challenging task! Books don't usually have ratings systems, so I’ve spent countless hours pouring over reviews and lists of recommended books, carefully weighing the pros and cons of each text.
Even when I'm back at home, I have to do research to select movies and television shows to enjoy with my family. Although many types of visual media have ratings systems that are supposed to help you choose content that's appropriate, I generally find these systems vague and useless. As an adult, I've watched numerous shows with the TV-14 rating, some of which I'm very comfortable watching, and others that have literally given me nightmares. From these experiences, I've learned to do my research before reading or watching anything new. Based on my experiences as a teacher and a media consumer, here are my top six tools for doing your homework on what you watch, play, listen to, and read:
Asking trusted friends about potential media options is always a great way to start your research. Perhaps someone you know can give you a good recommendation, or can steer you away from something you wouldn’t enjoy. Make sure you specifically ask them why they liked or disliked it, because you may or may not agree with their reasoning. You might find your new favorite book this way, or you might only get halfway through the first chapter before tossing it out. If you want a professional opinion, you could also consult with a teacher or librarian. They’ll know the content well, although they might not be so familiar with your taste in media.
I know, I know. But seriously, Wikipedia can give you a decent enough overview of the content in most types of media to give you an idea of whether or not you should spend your time learning anything more about it. This isn’t going to give you an exhaustive evaluation, but it’s not a bad place to start.
4. Google Books (books only)
Google Books will actually allow you to open up and read portions of a text before you buy. You can start by using the search feature to see if they have the book you’re looking for. You won’t be able to read the whole thing (you have to purchase the book to get access to the complete text), but it might be enough to give you a feel for it. You can search for keywords in most of the books as well, which is awesome for searching for potentially objectionable content. You can search the book for curse words, or words that might be associated with other challenging content. This will give you an idea of the type and frequency of anything that might not be in line with what you consider appropriate for yourself or your family.
3. SparkNotes (books only)
Don’t tell the kids! SparkNotes can provide helpful information about the plot of any book they have in their database. After using the search feature to find and select the book you’re looking for, select “Plot Overview” for a broad description of the events of the story, or click on individual chapter names/numbers for a more detailed analysis. This can be a very helpful resource for you if you don’t have time to preview books for your family but would like to have detailed knowledge of the story. My only beef with SparkNotes is how they incorporate ads into their site. There is flashy, annoying clickbait all over the place! However, if you can get past it, this can still be a valuable tool.
2. IMDb (movies and television only)
This is my go-to source for information about movies and television shows my husband and I are considering watching. It has saved us from many unfortunate movie-watching experiences! To use this resource, use the search feature to pull up the title you’re interested in. At the very end of the “Storyline” section you’ll see the television or movie rating the item received, and below that you’ll see “Parent’s Guide” and a link to click to view any advisories. The Parents Guide page for any show or film will be divided into five categories: Sex & Nudity, Violence & Gore, Profanity, Alcohol/Drugs/Smoking, and Frightening/Intense Scenes. If any such content is present in the feature, there will be brief description under that category. Be aware that this portion of IMDb is user-created (like Wikipedia), so some entries will be more detailed and accurate than others.
To me, this is the big kahuna of media resources for parents. I recommend it to families at our school every year. I absolutely love that Common Sense Media focuses on collecting unbiased information for parents. Maybe I just have a ornery streak, but I deeply dislike being told what I should or should not read or watch (You can't tell me what to do!). All I want is the information necessary to make an informed choice for myself, and that’s exactly what Common Sense Media provides.
The good people at Common Sense Media have content guides for books, movies, television shows, and even apps and websites! Awesome! The various types of media are evaluated on differently, but most books are broken down using the following categories: Educational Value, Positive Messages, Positive Role Models, Violence, Sex, Language, Consumerism, and Drinking, Drugs, & Smoking. There will be a score out of five for each category, and if you hover your mouse over the name of each category, it will specifically describe why it received the score it did. I love these categories because they give you a good picture of potentially negative and positive content in the text, so the information isn't too one-sided. There will be a general minimum age recommendation from Common Sense Media, as well as a minimum age recommended by parents and kids. The one from the organization itself (at the top of the content guide), will be the most reliable, as the other scores are based on user ratings.
Another thing I love about Common Sense Media is their mission to empower kids to become discerning media consumers. As a parent, you can protect your kids from a lot of things by choosing what they consume, but it’s also absolutely essential to teach them how to make good choices for themselves so that they will be equipped to guard their own hearts in the future. Check back soon for a post dedicated solely to why (and when, and how) parents should be teaching kids to evaluate media for themselves!
Bonus: Preview the Content Yourself
This isn’t really a resource, and it really only applies to parents previewing content for their children, but I still want to point it out. The absolute best way to preview something is to check it out for yourself. If you’ve done a lot of research and still haven’t come to a clear conclusion, it’s time for first-hand experience.
Ultimately, you’re the authority on what media is acceptable in your home. With prayerful discernment and a little bit of good research, you’ll be ready to make wise decisions for yourself and your family.
Are there any other helpful tools you like to use to preview content for yourself or your family?