Ways to help yourself and any children you help influence understand media content.
Inspiration hit me to address this topic as we approached the climax of end of the year shopping. Several parents had come into the store and wanted to support in their kids' hobbies. But, there was a reservation in doing so as much of what the kids wanted the parents weren't familiar with and could contain language or imagery they didn't want their kids to see. It's a completely understandable situation!
Firstly and most importantly: you are the guide, provide context for your little ones' media experiences! Some topics may be uncomfortable to broach before the fact let alone after, but it is up to you to frame the world for your kids. Even if you are waylayed by content in a video game you didn't expect, it opens the door to a conversation that should be had. If the child is confused by the content, it is because it ISN'T understood and this is the best time for you to talk about why (for example) hitting someone isn't the right answer. Perhaps a rebooted superhero gets a new look that is a bit revealing or can offer culture shock such as the new Green Lantern's Muslim background? You couldn't ask for a better time to strike while the topic is hot!
You don't have to be an expert to provide context to curious kids. While you may very well want to relay 100% correct information to them, make sure you don't put off the conversation for too long. Especially for things like movies and comics, there are a plethora of resources and online communities that can help catch you up quickly on why something was said or done. It is probably one of the few times you can let your guard down about using Wikipedia as a primary source.
If you want to be proactive about content filtering you have a great many resources available to you. If the child plays a modern console or handheld system you can set parental controls to block access to features, media, and games themselves. That way you don't have to worry about a snuck-in copy of Grand Theft Auto being played in the wee hours as the game system won't allow a Mature title to be played. Just be aware that even through a gaming platform, any online interactions or web browsing can still be a tossup. Your ten year old may be polite and patient, but on the other end of the headset is a cursing, offensive adult.
Speaking of ratings such as Mature, here's an organization with which you should be aware: ESRB. The Entertainment Software Rating Board is what reviews games and labels them according to their content. Understanding how and why they give games the ratings they do is important. It still isn't a substitute for further research. Your own tolerances and preferences aren't necessarily factored into a game's rating. If homosexuality makes you uncomfortable, the ESRB isn't going to increase the maturity for a game with characters of the same gender taking an interest in each other who don't have explicitly sexual scenes or dialog. This also goes with fashion sense and even some language.
You are all probably aware of the MPAA which rates movies according to a similar but different set of criteria. Don't forget that there is also a TV Ratings Board which does the same for television. In many cases if a game, movie, or TV show gets a certain rating there are additional notes or codes that explain why. Just remember that the PG (or equivalent since that is actually a copyrighted term by the MPAA) in these does stand for "parental guidance". Context. Being there with your younger child is still important when viewing these presentations!
Be aware that there are still some games, movies, shows, and printed material that is either unrated or has a rating system that is different than above. These mostly come from imported titles. Some cultures don't censor as heavily as we do and/or don't find certain words or body parts as jarring. This can especially be tricky for a popular form of cartoons called "anime" which originate in Japan. To an uninitiated parent, s/he may think that there is no difference between a Western Looney Tunes character and a character in an anime series. That is not true. Anime presents content that is vastly different than that of Western programming!
Always do your research to make sure that you are comfortable providing context to questions that arise from this clash of cultures. Check out the title's publisher's website for information on how they rate their content. A good central source is Anime News Network where you can do title searches and get a bit more specific look into the content of a show. Regarding Western comics, the Comics Code Authority as of a few years ago became defunct as publishers switched to their own systems. Generally they break down as follows:
E - EVERYONE
Appropriate for readers of all ages. May contain cartoon violence and/or some comic mischief.
T - TEEN
Appropriate for readers age 12 and older. May contain mild violence, language and/or suggestive themes.
T+ - TEEN PLUS
Appropriate for readers age 15 and older. May contain moderate violence, mild profanity, graphic imagery and/or suggestive themes.
M - MATURE
Appropriate for readers age 17 and older. May contain intense violence, extensive profanity, nudity, sexual themes and other content suitable only for older readers.
In addition to the resources here, if any of you would like advice on where to seek information or if a particular title of some kind would be suggested, I'll happily pass along any advice I can offer! Your local library would be another wonderful guide to look into as well as parent groups, industry reports (and their watchdogs), and other centers of research/opinion.