Behind the Common Sense Media ratings system

For every parent who's walked in on their child watching something they shouldn't, or discovered that their kids have a secret social media account, welcome. For any adult who's shared their favorite childhood movie with their kids, only to be reminded of all the iffy scenes you didn't remember, we've been there. For caregivers looking to have tough conversations about tricky subjects and wishing there was a movie or book to help -- we've got you.

We review all of the high-profile media that's intended for or appeals to kids. And because media profoundly affects kids' social, emotional, and physical development, Common Sense Media evaluates media based on age appropriateness. We rate titles for ages 2 to 18, covering movies, games, books, podcasts, apps, websites, and TV shows that range from Elmo to Game of Thrones. We aim to inform, educate, and guide families so they better understand what kids can handle at every age. What's scary for one kid is another kid's biggest thrill.

With experts in childhood development and children's media literacy, we've developed a research-based rating system unlike any other. We know every family and every child is different -- but all families need trustworthy information to make confident choices.

Our ratings are written by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the creators, media partners, or funders in any way. Our editorial integrity and independence is of the utmost importance to our approach.

Diverse representations

Media plays a critical role in shaping how we understand and make sense of ourselves, our identities, and the world around us. It can perpetuate stereotypes and bias, amplifying injustice and inequities. But it also presents an opportunity to reduce bias, end division, and be a gateway to a more inclusive future. Common Sense is committed to evaluating media based on its representation of diverse identities, including race, ethnicity, gender, and more.

We help you decide at every age

For each title we review, we indicate the youngest appropriate age, based on its specific content and overall developmental guidelines.

Right below our ratings, a list of content categories gives you in-depth information on each title. Each category is rated on a scale of 0 to 5. If no dots are filled in, that means the content is either not applicable or doesn't rate on our scale. If three dots are highlighted, that means there's a fair amount of that type of content, and five dots indicates that there's lots of it.

To determine the rating for each category, editors and reviewers representing a diverse range of perspectives consider several factors, including the answers to questions like these:

  • Positive Messages: What's the overall takeaway? Does the title convey positive lessons/values/responsible behavior? Are there problematic viewpoints/stereotypes that should be called out?
  • Positive Role Models: Are the characters realistic and relatable, or shallow and thinly drawn? Do kid characters act like people you would want real kids to emulate? Are adults present and responsible?
  • Diverse Representations: Which traditionally marginalized groups are represented? This can refer to gender, race, ethnicity, age, disability, religious backgrounds, socioeconomic status, or body shapes that have been underrepresented in media. How are the characters from those groups portrayed? Are they drawn from stereotypes? Are they narrow or well rounded? Do they have agency, or is their only function to support a White/male/dominant character? Are behaviors and characteristics that are traditionally seen as "masculine" and "feminine" equally valued? Is this title telling an unknown or nontraditional story?
  • Violence & Scariness: How bloody/gory is it? Is it fantasy violence or realistic? Cartoony or explicit? Are there consequences for the violence? Do characters get separated in scary/upsetting ways? Are pets/parents/kids in peril? Are characters mean to each other?
  • Sex, Romance & Nudity: Is there sexual innuendo/banter? Flirting? Sexual activity? Nudity (and is it sexual or nonsexual)? Unsafe sex? What are the consequences, if so?
  • Language: Which specific words are used? What's the general frequency of the swearing? What about hate words/name-calling?
  • Products & Purchases: Are products/advertisements present? Is the title part of a broader marketing initiative/empire? Is the intent to sell things to kids? Which came first -- the media title or toys/cards/clothes/etc.?
  • Drinking, Drugs & Smoking: Do characters smoke? Drink? Do drugs? Is the behavior glamorized? What are the consequences of that behavior? Are the characters of legal age?
  • Educational Value: Does the title educate kids? If so, is that the intent, or is it incidental? What specifically do kids learn?
  • Ease of Play: How simple is it to learn? Are game controls difficult/complicated or intuitive? What kinds of accessibility features are available?

Please note: We encourage parents and caregivers to read the privacy policies and terms of service for any product to determine whether they're comfortable with the amount of information being collected and how data is used. For more information about the privacy practices of some of the most popular apps and games for home and school, please check our privacy evaluations.

Is it any good?

Part of the Common Sense Media mission is to recognize and champion high-quality media. Our star rating reflects each title's overall quality, taking into account everything from meaningful character development and enriching, relatable stories to positive messages and diverse representations. Those that earn our highest rating are doing something to push their medium forward, whether it's introducing a new point of view or level of accessibility, or demonstrating best-in-class talent or technical innovation.

Five stars: Truly outstanding -- the best of what the media has to offer. 
Four stars: Excellent -- highly recommended and worth seeking out. 
Three stars: Solid entertainment -- a fun way to spend time, with room for improvement. 
Two stars: Disappointing -- could have been better and/or has significant flaws. 
One star: Don't bother -- your time is worth more than this.

We're also proud to offer the Common Sense seal program, which recognizes outstanding media with an official seal for quality and impact. Common Sense Selections include age-appropriate movies, TV series/specials, books, podcasts, and games that have the potential to spark family conversations, entertain families of all kinds, and have a positive, lasting effect on society.