Screen time is part of most of our daily lives. From toddlers to teens, kids have their favorite movies, videos and TV shows. That's why watching together, as a family, can be a great way to bond with them. Beyond entertainment, family screen time offers us parents and caregivers a chance to have open and honest discussions about all kinds of topics. You can use storylines that relate to sex and relationships — including identity, relationships, puberty, sex, pregnancy, and more — to spark important conversations. Screen time can help you find out what your kids think, what they're up to, and how they might respond if they were in a similar situation as the characters on TV. You can also share your values, expectations, and hopes for them through the stories and people on screen.
First, find out what your kids are watching and figure out a time — when you won't be harried or distracted — to join them. Depending on their ages, inserting yourself into their screen time might need to be subtle; and making a favorite snack is always helpful. Ask open-ended questions about what they’re watching instead of yes or no questions to get a conversation going. Try:
• What’s this about? What do you like about it?
• What do you think about what’s happening right now?
• How realistic do you think this is? Do you know anyone in a similar situation? If so, how are they handling it? What do you think about how they’re handling it? What would you do?
Next, get more specific about what’s happening, and really listen to what your kids say. Here’s your chance to learn about what's happening in their friend circle, and share your thoughts and values. You can use what you’re watching as a “teachable moment,” a jumping-off point, to talk about related issues. Here are some examples and tips:
• How do they treat each other? Why are they together? How do they communicate?
• What do you think about how they treat each other and how they settle disagreements?
• Overall, what makes the relationship healthy or unhealthy?
• What you hope for them in their romantic relationships.
• The relationships you’ve had or have. Kids are often interested to hear about your dating history.
• Warning signs of unhealthy relationships, and what to do if you ever feel uncomfortable or think your relationship might be unhealthy.
Sex or sexual activity
• Do you think the sex on this show is realistic? Why or why not?
• How did the characters know they were ready to have sex? How would you make that decision? Who would you talk to about it?
• What communication did they have before, during, and after sex? Was that good or bad, and why?
• When you think sex is appropriate. Be specific — do you believe sex is only for adults? Only for people who know and trust each other? Many parents and caregivers aren’t clear enough — your teen won’t know what you expect from them unless you’re direct and specific.
• The complex emotions that can go with having sex.
• What the advantages and disadvantages are of having sex. Help them think through what the right decision is for them right now.
• What real sex looks like versus sex on TV or in movies, including how in real life people don’t look perfect all the time and they don’t automatically know what the other person wants. In real life, people don’t usually go from kissing to sex in one minute. There has to be communication between partners. And in real life, most teens aren’t having sex — the average age of first sex in the U.S. is 18.
• Preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections with birth control and safer sex.
• How does this character feel about being pregnant? Who did they tell about the pregnancy?
• What are their options and what are they considering doing? How realistic do you think it is?
• How would getting pregnant affect your life right now? What would you do and who might you ask for help?
• Ways to prevent pregnancy with birth control, including emergency contraception.
• When you think it’s a good time to become a parent.
• Your values around making decisions about a pregnancy.
• How do you think about your sexual orientation or gender identity? Is your experience figuring out your identity similar or different from what we’re watching?
• What are the challenges and joys that this character experiences because of their sexual orientation or gender identity? How are they being treated? What do you think about that?
• What (other) LGBTQ+ people do you know? How supportive is your school for LGBTQ+ students? What can you do to be supportive of people in your life and/or your school culture?
• How everyone has a sexual orientation and a gender identity, and it can take time to figure out what yours is, and it can change throughout your life.
• How discrimination and bullying affects LGBTQ+ people, including mental health, being blocked from playing in sports or using the bathroom, etc.
• How LGBTQ+ folks deserve the same dignity and respect as everyone else, and anything short of that is not OK.
• What made the character do that? What do you think about what they did? What would have happened if they didn’t do that?
• What would you do if faced with a similar situation? How would you say no to someone pressuring you to do something you weren’t comfortable with?
• What do you think about people who pressure others to do things they’re not comfortable with?
• What are some ways to tell that someone might be uncomfortable about what you are suggesting?
• What peer pressure looks like as a child, teen, and adult.
• Ways they can get out of a peer pressure situation safely.
• How to know when someone is uncomfortable with what you’re asking or suggesting.
• How to respectfully hear a “no.”
Texting or social media
• Have you or a friend ever sent a text or posted something on social media that you regretted? What happened? What would you do differently next time?
• What kinds of things do you think are OK to text or share on social media and what kinds of things aren’t OK to share?
• Protecting your privacy and how little control you have over photos, videos, and posts once they’re shared, even if just with one person.
• That sending nude or semi-nude photos — even of yourself — is illegal for minors in many places.
• How social media is a powerful tool that you can use responsibly if you’re thoughtful about it.
Body image or unrealistic beauty standards
• Why do you think this character feels the way they do about their body? What causes someone to feel good or bad about their body?
• What do you notice about most of the people we’re watching — are their bodies typical of most people? What do you think actors do to look like they do?
• Do you and your friends talk about your bodies (and other people’s bodies) in negative or positive ways? How does that make you feel?
• The fact that bodies come in many different shapes and sizes, and that’s normal.
• The messages we receive about the way people “should” look from the media and peers are often unrealistic and tend to make us feel bad about ourselves.
• How celebrities’ body types usually don’t look like the average person’s. Celebrities need to look a certain way as part of their jobs, and they often have to make a great effort to stay in shape. In addition, their bodies are sometimes cosmetically or surgically enhanced, and their images are often changed.
• Maintaining a healthy body image — including keeping a list of their positive qualities that don’t have to do with appearance, how to treat their body with respect and kindness, and surrounding themselves with supportive, respectful people.
Don't stop when the credits roll. Your kids are getting messages about sex and relationships all the time. If you want to teach your values, know that this is about lifelong learning — not "the talk," or a one-time conversation. As your child grows, their experiences will change and their understanding will expand. So it's best to have these talks early and often