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Watching edgier TV with your kids during the pandemic? You’re not alone

By Bonnie Miller Rubin Special To The Washington Post

NPR host Scott Simon may have interviewed all kinds of actors, authors and artists, but he was no different from any other perplexed parent when he tweeted: “OK to watch ‘Emily in Paris’ with my 14-year-old?”

As the pandemic grinds on, we are all watching more television than ever before – and that includes sharing a couch with tweens and teens. But how do you respond when adult subjects – drug use, domestic violence and graphic sex – pop onto the screen? Is it an opportunity to start a conversation or tacit approval?

All families are different – and that includes their tolerance for edgy content. On one hand, the yearlong shutdown, with less rushing around, has provided ideal circumstances for serious chats. On the other, there’s a point when even the most progressive parent squirms when confronted with a moaning, breathless roll in the sheets on a 50-inch screen.

“It’s not even about age,” said Joshua Colean, a San Francisco-based psychologist. “I have 28-year-old twin boys. One is very comfortable watching sex with me while the other will immediately walk out of the room.”

Talking about awkward subjects is a responsibility of any parent, but sometimes it’s difficult to know what’s not appropriate, said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

A few years ago, her 15-year-old daughter bailed after a few episodes of “Breaking Bad” but is fine with watching “Bridgerton” with her mom. The soapy serial, which debuted on Netflix last month, does not shy away from intimate scenes, including newlyweds consummating their marriage.

“I offered to fast foward through the sex part,” Schoppe-Sullivan said, “but mostly we just laughed.”

To be sure, this is tricky parenting territory, experts said. Too self-conscious? You risk them learning from friends. Too much exposure at too young an age? Kids can become desensitized.

But on one point everyone agreed: The pandemic has spurred a surge in viewership. According to a report from eMarketer, TV-watching has jumped by 8.3 million in 2020, reversing a nine-year slide.

Many parents – including Schoppe-Sullivan – consult Common Sense Media, an advocacy group that promotes safe media use. But even on this site, where parents and kids separately rate shows for appropriate content, the two generations rarely concur.

For example, “One Night in Miami,” a current Netflix hit about four prominent Black leaders, parents give it a nod for 17-year-olds; kids ranked it as OK for ages 14 and older.

The same age gap is evident for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Adults don’t mince words about a flood of “f-bombs” and nudity. “This is not a show I’d ever watch with my kids even after they hit adulthood,” wrote one mom. But one 13-year-old critic called this show “absolutely amazing” and “great for you and your family as long as parents are open to questions.”

Ruta Kalvaitis Skucas of Darnestown, Maryland, has no problem answering questions from her three boys, ages 15 to 18, and says she is strict when it comes to monitoring television. Two of her sons have neurodevelopmental differences and “wouldn’t know where to draw the line in public,” she said.

No matter how embarrassing, media can provide an opportunity for a bonding moment with your child – something David Gottlieb of Arlington, Virginia, didn’t get when he was a teen.

When the retired psychologist was 14, his father tackled sex education by dropping him off – alone – at an X-rated movie theater.

“It was bizarre,” he said. “My dad didn’t say anything when he left me, and he didn’t say anything when he picked me up.” After seeing what he saw, “I … thought there was something wrong with me.”

Gottlieb feels strongly about parents hitting the pause button whenever the story line turns dicey to show that you’re willing to answer questions. “If you fast forward, the implicit message will be that this is not something we can talk about together,” he says.

In the case of a disturbing image, such as an addict shooting heroin, he offers a sample script: “’He must feel awful, and he could get even sicker. If he has a friend or a friend’s parent, maybe they could get him some help?’ In that moment, what you’re saying is, ‘Look what can happen,’ but also, ‘Tell someone.’ ”

Any opportunity to engage clearly and candidly with your child is positive, but sometimes kids are more self-conscious than their parents.

“It’s OK for my mom and dad to see sex stuff, it’s OK for me to see sex stuff … we just can’t watch it together,” a 14-year-old from Chicago said.

Peggy Orenstein interviewed 170 adolescents for her two books, “Girls & Sex” and “Boys & Sex,” researching everything from rape jokes to hookup culture. The truth is, she said, parents probably don’t know all their kids are watching.

“You can think they’re not ready for ‘Bridgerton’ or ‘Euphoria,’ but they may be watching them on their own or their friends’ devices – along with ‘365 Days,’ which has been all over TikTok” and glorifies forced sex and bondage.

“As parents, so much of our current job is about managing media, and part of that job is to take a deep breath … and start having conversations that our parents never had with us,” Orenstein says.

“Because if we don’t educate our children about sexual ethics, healthy relationships, substance use … the media will do it for us. And I guarantee you won’t like the results.”

Ultimately, Scott Simon decided to watch “Emily in Paris” as a family. “Our 14-year-old grew quickly bored and retired to her own pursuits. Our 17-year-old watched mostly because we had the popcorn but did not enjoy the show in any dimension, save for the clothes.

“In any case, it may be a special brand of icky to watch things with any romantic or erotic content with your fusty old parents,” he said, adding that his daughters seem far more upset by violent content, “which strikes me as healthy.”

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