By Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media Reviewer
thinkstock One of the biggest surprises about raising kids in today's media-and-tech-filled world is that it's not the shadowy, dangerous place we've been warned about. Yes, there's iffy stuff out there, but much of what kids can discover is enriching, inspiring, practical, helpful, and fun.
That doesn't mean that you can let your kids loose with no limits or guidance. A big part of parenting today involves knowing what your kids are doing online, teaching them to be responsible and respectful, and helping them make good choices. In other words, teaching them to participate constructively and age appropriately.
Spurred by new research and new thinking -- and a strong impulse for spring cleaning -- we're challenging the conventional wisdom about managing kids' entertainment.
Brush the cobwebs off the old thinking, and usher in some fresh new ideas about how to manage everything from the Internet to iTunes.
Old think: TV is dumbing down your kids, and you should feel guilty about every second your kid spends zoning out in front of the tube.
New think: While screen time limits are important for every age, sometimes everyone needs the break that watching a show offers.
Our take: Find the good stuff. Between Netflix, on demand, Hulu, and other services, chances are good that you can find shows that represent your tastes, interests, and values. Take advantage of the wealth of programming to explore subject matter your kid is interested in, watch full seasons of shows, or introduce your kids to your old faves, like The Cosby Show or Facts of Life.
Old think: Playing video games will make your kid violent or get him addicted to gaming.
New think: Violent and addictive video games are out there -- but there are plenty of excellent titles that are active, social, and provide learning potential for strategy, cooperation, and even academics.
Our take: Explore your options. Consider investing in a game platform like a Wii, Move, or Kinect (whose games tend not to be violent and addicting) so you can stay involved in your kids' gaming pursuits and enjoy them together as a family.
Old think: The risks that kids face -- finding inappropriate content, talking to strangers, getting cyberbullied -- make you nervous every time your kid goes online.
New think: The Internet can be a vast resource for learning and fostering community -- if you know where to look and follow basic safety rules.
Our take: Keep an open mind. While there is a lot of inappropriate stuff on the Internet, it's also a vibrant resource that kids can learn to navigate safely and productively. The possibilities for discovery -- like Skyping with relatives, researching subjects that interest you, uploading digital creations, and interacting with friends -- can be educational and enriching.
Old think: MPAA ratings tell you exactly which movies are OK for your kids.
New think: MPAA ratings are ambiguous and not necessarily age appropriate.
Our take: Put yourself in charge. Use Common Sense Media's age ratings for essential details about a movie's content and subject matter. Check out movie trailers for yourself to get a good idea of whether a movie is appropriate. Use services like on demand, Netflix, and others to view movies in your own home -- where you can talk to your kids about what you're watching.
Old think: Apps provide cheap, fun entertainment -- what's the harm in letting my kids download anything they want?
New think: Apps -- and the smartphones and tablets they run on -- are becoming robust entertainment platforms with sophisticated features.
Our take: Take advantage. A lot of us hand our smartphones over to our kids as a form of mindless entertainment. But many apps offer learning potential and unique experiences you can't get anywhere else. Use Common Sense Media's app reviews as a guide to the good ones, and be aware that apps can have hidden features -- including the ability to buy things while you play -- that many parents don't discover until it's too late.
Old think: Reading is one of the best ways to prepare your kids for school.
New think: Ditto.
Our take: Don't limit yourself. E-books, book apps, audio books -- embrace it all. With so many options, it's easy to support and encourage your kids' love of reading.
Old think: You know what your kid is listening to because you can hear it blasting out of her speakers.
New think: Kids' experience with music is a solo act, as it's most often piped in through earphones.
Our take: You have a right to rock! With so many music sources -- from MTV to YouTube to iTunes to Pandora and other music sites -- discovering new music has never been easier or more fun. Share your music with your kids, and get them to share theirs with you. You may not like everything you hear, but at least you'll be listening together.
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