Common Sense Media's New App: Kids Media

By Sarah Ludwig |

Kids Media is Common Sense Media’s new app. Free and available for Android, iPhone, and iPad, it's a convenient way to access the content from the website offering parents and educators reviews of games, movies, books, TV shows, and more.

I have a love-hate relationship with Common Sense Media, Unlike typical reviews, Common Sense Media helps parents find age-appropriate media for their children. Each review identifies the most appropriate age group to consume the media, as well as specific content that might concern parents: sex, violence, drug use, materialism. For example, the review of the new "The Great Gatsby" movie identifies the target age as 14 and alerts readers to the following acts of violence, among other things: “A man is held by two others while someone else hits him, in a very brief scene. Another character runs over a woman with a car; her body is shown many times hitting the windshield and thudding to the ground. A man is also shown shooting someone from a distance and then putting the same gun in his mouth. A man strikes a woman hard.”

As a parent, reading aloud or popping in a DVD,  I appreciate knowing about scenes that might frighten or confuse my daughter. As a librarian, I sometimes use Common Sense Media to help me determine whether or not a book is going to work with my middle school students, a notoriously tricky age group. But also as a librarian, I bristle at the way Common Sense Media can strip a book down to its faults. While the “Is it Any Good?” section helps balance the quality of the work against its moral pitfalls, this sort of rating can make books and media appear far more sordid than they are. A parent who is concerned with providing age-appropriate reading materials to his or her child may pass by high-quality titles because of a few curse words or a brief description of teen drinking.

The Kids Media app is attractive and easy to use, with a scrolling list of new reviews along the top, including new video reviews, and a breakdown by media-type underneath (movies, games, apps, websites, TV, books, and music). Users can also browse by age (2-17) and select “Top Picks” to quickly access CSM’s “best-of” lists in each category. Among the 71 Top Picks book lists, you’ll see “Strong Female Characters in Books” and “Love Books for Little Ones”;  or in the Top Picks apps lists, “Best Zombie Apps” and “Storytelling Apps.”

Users can also search for a specific title. The review includes everything that is published in the website review, including the overall rating, target age, and ratings on specific issues like educational value, positive messages, and language. Tapping on each rating brings details. “Sensitive readers should know that there are graphic descriptions of what it is like to suffer through cancer,” reads the “violence” section of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Users can add the title to their favorites and also see other recommendations at the bottom of the review.

The “My Kids” section is strictly for parents, who can add a profile of their children, including name, age, gender, target age range for recommendations, and a photo. I entered my daughter Evie’s information, and once saved, found “Evie’s Picks,” which include the TV show "Sid the Science Kid," the game "Just Dance: Disney Party," the "Super Why!" app, and the book Mouse was Mad by Linda Urban. I was not impressed by the recommended books list as a whole, as it included mostly classic titles like Hi, Cat! by Ezra Jack Keats, The Lorax and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss, Mommy by Maurice Sendak, and Frog and Toad All Year by Arnold Lobel. While these books are classics for a reason, I also would have liked to learn about exciting new titles that are less familiar.

Finally, the “Favorites” section is where users can access all of the favorites that they have identified through their searching and browsing. These favorites are arranged chronologically as added, rather than by genre, which might make it hard later on to find a specific title. The list can also be edited to remove particular titles.

Common Sense Media has a wonderful mission: they are “dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world full of media and technology.” Our children and students are drenched in media—according to CSM, they “spend more time with media and digital activities than they do with their families or in school.” Parents often struggle with the challenges of selecting the best media for their kids, and a product like Kids Media can have a positive impact on those decisions. That said, Common Sense Media and its app are not substitutes for hands-on experiences with media, or reviews from librarians, which may come in the form of a conversation as well as text. I recommend this app for those who need quick access to information on specific media, or who want help finding materials based on certain criteria. The app is easy to use, provides an enormous amount of information, and is one powerful tool in any parent's toolkit.

Another Common Sense Media resource of interest to educators is an excellent and comprehensive K-12 digital literacy curriculum.  Though too large and complex for me to teach in its entirety, I've used numerous activities as jumping-off points with students. The curriculum includes everything from “My Online Neighborhood,” a lesson on staying safe online for kindergarteners, to “Retouching Reality,” a unit on digital image editing for high schoolers.