Skip to Main Content

Navigating Inappropriate, Scary or Confusing Media Content with Young Children

By: Morgan Russo, Jenna Herdzina

One of the wonderful elements of children’s toys and books is that they are specifically intended and created for children. The tablet, cell phone, and computer were originally not. These adult tools now include a myriad of engaging appropriate children’s websites, apps, and tools, but there is the inherent risk of a child seeing content that is not appropriate for them. Additionally, media seems to be everywhere nowadays with interactive billboards and music in waiting rooms and screens at bus stops. It is difficult to completely avoid young children being exposed to inappropriate, scary, or confusing media. One wrong click or swipe can lead children to content that is not suitable for their age or development. While we may not always be able to peer over their shoulder and censor what they see (nor should we), thankfully there are both proactive and reflective strategies we can implement as educators and caregivers to support and empower children to be safe in a world full of media.

Proactive Strategies (how to keep children safe from seeing potentially harmful media):

    1. Be mindful. Media is all around children, so be aware of times when the child can hear sounds or see images at home, in restaurants, in the car, etc. Being aware of where media is, is the first step.
    2. Turn it off. If you do see or hear an introduction to a topic that might be scary, inappropriate, or confusing, you can always choose to turn it off if it’s a device, or close the book. Listen for disclaimers that may warn about triggering or potentially offensive content.
    3. Distract. If you cannot turn it off or put it away, distraction is another approach. If you are in a restaurant, try positioning the child to not face the restaurant’s TV (which we recommend regardless!), or choose to sit outside, if possible. Distraction is best when the media content may be somewhat inappropriate, but not scary.
    4. Use parental controls. When you bring a new baby home from the hospital, you baby-proof the house. Ensuring that cleaning supplies, sharp edges, and choking hazards are out of harm’s way. As children begin to use technology, we recommend “child-proofing” devices. Smart speakers, apps, computers, cell phones and pretty much anything with an “on” button often has parental controls or ways to make it more child friendly. Whether that is turning off voice purchasing on a smart speaker or making the child their own kid-friendly Netflix profile, spend time ensuring that the necessary safety supports are proactively in place.
    5. Know the child. Appropriateness of content is subjective. While some children may be able to handle certain content, others are not. Understand the child’s age, disposition, and preferences and talk with them about what media makes them feel comfortable and uncomfortable. When watching media together, notice when they may close their eyes or look away. For educators, factor in students’ family’s culture by talking with caregivers about what type of content they consider appropriate for their child.
    6. Acknowledge. Even if children do accidentally see something or hear something inappropriate, scary, or confusing, we encourage you to acknowledge, discuss, and reflect on the content and experience. While it may be easiest to turn a blind eye and hope they didn’t see it, this may leave them with unanswered questions and confusion for the child. See the next section and the resources below for more information on how to handle these conversations.

Reflective Strategies (they saw inappropriate media, now what?):

    1. Stay calm. Children may think it is their fault for seeing something upsetting. We want to encourage an open dialogue and ensure them that they can and should come to you when something upsets them. Even if you are upset about what they saw, stay calm in front of them in order to assure them that it’s not their fault and that it will be okay.
    2. Inquire. Ask them to explain what they saw in their own words. Before you explain anything, make sure you understand how they interpreted it. Remember that children understand content in different ways depending on their development.
    3. Focus on facts and feelings. It may be a difficult topic to discuss so focus on what they saw and how it made them feel.
    4. Come up with a plan together. After learning how they found the content (clicking on additional YouTube videos or liking an ad), think through ways to prevent them from seeing this in the future (see proactive strategies!). If the child struggles to come forward, think about a secret word they can say or a signal they can use if they are feeling uncomfortable and need to talk.

Here are some additional resources which may help you navigate discussions around tough topics:

    • Sesame Street in Communities provides hundreds of bilingual, multimedia tools to help kids and families enrich and expand their knowledge during the early years of birth through six, a critical window for brain development.
    • Common Sense Media reviews children’s media and indicates if there is violence, sexy stuff, among many other things. Common Sense Media also published an article (Knorr, 2020), which provides tips and things to say to children based on their age (2-6, 7-12, and Teens).
    • Learning for Justice provides free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. Educators use their materials to supplement the curriculum, to inform their practices, and to create inclusive school communities where children and youth are respected, valued and welcome participants.

Suggested Citation: Russo, M., & Herdzina, J. (2021, March). Navigating inappropriate, scary, or confusing media content with young children. Erikson Institute’s Technology in Early Childhood Center.

Child Watching TV

Join the Erikson family with monthly news + events updates shared by academics, community members, and families.

Featured News & Press

Explore More Erikson News & Press

See All News & Press