Common Sense Media and ‘Positive Messages’ About Youth

General Interest, Labeling and Rating, Minors

By: Kate Lechtenberg

Common Sense Media

In my last post, “Euphoria and the Tyranny of ‘Positive Messages’” I looked at how Common Sense Media, a nonprofit media organization that provides resources about digital literacy, including rated media reviews for parents. I gave an overview of how Common Sense Media reviews media, with particular focus on their five-star rating system and how Common Sense Media reviewer Joyce Slaton rated the “positive messages” and “positive role models & representations” in HBO’s Euphoria. I disagreed with Slaton’s assessment of these messages, and here, I explore additional questions about how Slaton, Common Sense Media, and parent and teen reviewers use the rating system for messages and role models. 

The necessity of “atonement” for positive messages

Reading the low ratings for positive messages in the Euphoria review made me wonder whether it would be possible in the Common Sense Media formula for a show to earn high stars for both the good stuff (positive messages, role models, and representations) and the bad stuff (sex, language, violence, and drinking, drugs & smoking)?  Or does the presence of drugs, sex, violence, and language always correlate with “bad” messages and role models? Unsurprisingly, my quick and admittedly unscientific survey leads me to believe that there’s a pretty strong inverse correlation between “positive” messages and the inclusion of sex, language, violence, and drugs.

Slaton has written nearly 800 reviews for Common Sense Media, and while I didn’t read them all, I skimmed the most recent 50, looking for examples of media that she rated high for both positive messages or role models and high for the presence of sex,drugs, language and/or violence. I found only six out of fifty review that had four stars (zero with five stars) for “positive messages” and at least one of the “bad” categories. The Weekly, a news documentary show from the New York Times; Late Night, a comedy starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kahling; the indie film Last Black Man in San Francisco, and HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Comedy all had four stars for positive messages and four stars for language. In addition, the anime film Funan (about the Cambodian Civil War) had four stars for positive messages and four stars for violence. It’s not surprising that none of these examples focus on teenagers and that they include only a “little” sex and drugs; sex, in particular, is often much more indicative of whether censors or challenges will go after a book.

Elton John in Norway. 
Photo by Ernst Vikne [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Elton John in Norway.
Photo by Ernst Vikne [CC BY-SA 2.0]

The sixth review, Rocketman, the Elton John biopic is the only example I could find in Joyce Slaton’s recent 50 reviews that included four stars for both positive messages and multiple “bad” categories: sex, drugs, and language (violence had only two stars). And the difference here is clear: Rocketman is the story of a famous person’s entire life, so he can become a three-star role model who conveys four-star messages by virtue of his long character arc, achieved over the course of decades. Slaton highlights John’s “atonement”:  “Elton John emerges as a man who’s made many mistakes but atones for them, tries to treat those around him with dignity, respect.”

If there had been a TV series about Elton John before he had time to “atone” for earlier transgressions (like Euphoria, a series focused on a short period in teenagers’ lives), it is not unreasonable to imagine that Slaton might not have rated its messages so highly or suggested that it was “appropriate” for 15-year-olds and older.

Using this system and the implied necessity for atonement for youthful sins, is it really realistic to say that the only stories of youth that have positive messages are those that have clear signs of repentance and change? Doesn’t this also suggest that young people who are in the thick of it, who are growing and changing and yes, making mistakes can only be seen as cautionary tales?  Is there really no way to view the realistic struggles of youth as positive?

Reductive ratings that ignore youth reality


Overall, while I’ve focused on Joyce Slaton’s reviews on Common Sense Media because she reviewed Euphoria, my critique is not focused on Slaton’s skills as a reviewer. My larger critique is with Common Sense Media’s system of rating, which encourages reductive judgements of complex works of art and human experiences. I find the idea that a character or message can be reduced to a single value judgement of “positive” or “negative” and quantified on a five-point scale by Common Sense Media reviewers is contrary to everything I know about textual analysis and characterization. In addition, it is a disservice to its parent audience to suggest that there is one definitive assessment of the morality of each work of art or the virtue of a person.

Moreover, this system privileges stories that focus on character growth and “atonement” for perceived sins–something that young people don’t have much time to achieve in youth-centered works of art. The teens of Euphoria are in the thick of it–both in terms of their lives and the series as a whole. Season one offered a captivating view of a world that honors the complexity of youth experiences, and I look forward to season two–not because I expect Rue or her friend to atone for their season one sins, but because I expect to continue to see art that respects the complex, messy experiences of life. If Rue and company had fully atoned in the brief span of time encapsulated by the series, it would no doubt come across as didactic and moralizing, rather than compelling and thoughtful.

Thankfully, Euphoria avoids the neat simplicity and comfort of didacticism. This is the kind of art that makes me think about myself, my children, my students, and my place in disrupting the dehumanizing cultural patterns that this series reflects.

Parent and teen assessments of “positive messages”: A mixed bag

I’m not the only parent who disagrees with Common Sense Media’s low assessments of the positive messages and role models in Euphoria. Of fourteen reviews published on their website, only 4 agree with Common Sense Media’s 18+ designation. Other parents rate it as appropriate for as low as 9-year-olds, with the mean age recommendation being 14.8 years and a median of 16, for you stats-lovers). 

Teens disagreed as well. Only 3 of 32 teens agreed with the 18+ rating, and the teen age recommendation mean was 15.1, with a median of 15.  Teens recommended it for as young as twelve.

Unlike the official Common Sense Media reviewers, parents and teens aren’t allowed to use the five-star system to rate the presence of sex, drugs, langauge, violence, and positive messages & role models. Instead, they can simply indicate the presence or absence of these criteria.  Still, the results are interesting.  

  • Of fourteen parents, four noted only positive messages and/or positive role models; five noted both positive messages/role models and some combination of sex, drugs, and language; and five noted only the presence of sex, drugs, and language.  
  • Teen reviewers were equally mixed.  Six teens chose not to comment on the presence of any criteria, but of the remaining 26, four noted only positive messages and/or positive role models; nine noted both positive messages/role models and some combination of sex, drugs, and language, and fifteen noted only the presence of sex, drugs, and language. 
  • And while I didn’t run any complicated statistical analyses, at first glance, it appears that those teen and parent reviewers who recommended a lower age range for the series were also more likely to note the presence of positive messages and/or role models.  

So what does this all mean? Clearly, Joyce Slaton’s pithy 18+ recommendation and one-star rating for positive messages and positive role models & representations is not the definitive verdict on Euphoria. Common Sense Media’s “a lot or a little” metric seems clear and quantifiable, and it may be justifiable for “countable” things like the amount of a given topic or issue in the show, but value judgements about media messages aren’t as valid using this metric.

Leave the critique to the critics

In the end, I think Common Sense Media should stick to what it does best: providing parents with the list of curse words and sexy scenes to help individual parents to make decisions for individual children. I know it might seem blasphemous for an intellectual freedom supporter to support even this narrow mandate, but I do believe that knowing the nuts and bolts of content “ingredients” is one piece of a parent’s decision-making toolkit for their childrens’ art consumption.  It is, however, only one part of a decision and of art’s value, and there are experts in other fields that are more suited to assessing the overall messages, characterization, and nuance of media.

Therefore, if Common Sense Media could easily leave the critique aspect of their current reviews to professional film, television, and book critics who aren’t working in a system that translates the amount of risky behavior to the value of the art’s message. Providing links to professional reviews of the artistic merit and complexity of art would be preferable to using their current system. As it currently stands, conflating the the amount of “inappropriate” content and the value of the messages within the same five-star rating system does a disservice to parents, youth, and art as a whole.

Kate Lechtenberg

Kate Lechtenberg earned a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa’s College of Education, where her research focused on how teachers select, frame, and facilitate discussions about controversial issues. She teaches courses in young adult and children’s literature, collection development, and critical literacy at the University of Iowa. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.


  • Thank you for this! Well said!! I just read Joyce’s review on CSM of the documentary No Safe Spaces. For the sake of transparency here, I am married to the film maker Adam Carolla. Ms. Slaton’s review of this film was totally one sided. The overall message is free speech in America and what’s happening on college campuses. Now, you may not agree with the message of the movie and of course that’s fair! See that’s the beauty of this country. You have the right to your opinion. But don’t be a so called “expert reviewer” for a site that parents, like myself (we have 13 yr old twins) rely on. Feel free to have all the opinions you want…just don’t review films. It’s that simple. I had to google this woman and your article came up. I just wanted to say thank you, well done. I hope CSM is listening!!

    Lynette Carolla

  • I couldn’t agree more with Lynette Carolla’s comments and Kate Lechtenberg’s article. I have recommended Common Sense Media to hundreds of people for more than a decade. I have a 14, 16 and 18 year old. The review of No Safe Spaces was irresponsible and untruthful. Clearly biased and must have struck a nerve with Ms. Slaton to give the documentary such a rating. I laughed out loud when I read her review. I feel I can no longer recommend Common Sense Media knowing Ms. Slaton is being utilized for movie reviews. All credibility was lost. I will most certainly pass this information along to the hundreds of parents and parenting groups I have spoken with over the years.

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