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TV Viewer's Guide: Teens

Other ages: Preschoolers | Grade Schoolers

Influencing what your teenagers watch on television just isn't the same as it used to be. For one thing, they're far more likely to be in front of a TV, as well as a computer, while texting on a smart phone with friends these days. And to complicate things even further, while some programs are more appealing to youth than adults, quite often teens are selecting from the same long list of cable, network and broadband programs as you are.

Teens have more TV and online choices than ever before, and because of this can benefit from your guidance. You will want to steer them toward programs that…

  • Introduce them to scientific discoveries.
    While all programs have the potential to get viewers thinking, some shows make it almost impossible not to. Even the most jaded teen may get interested in the career of an earthquake hunter, the secrets of exploding volcanoes or some of the other mysteries explored on the long-running Nature series. The same is true for Nova’s The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers, a web-exclusive spin-off of the acclaimed documentary series.
  • Encourage investigation of other cultures and times.
    Many adolescents are caught up in shaping their own identities; well-made documentaries, such as those featured on Independent Lens and POV, can help them make connections between themselves and other people, places and events. Another alternative for teens who can't get enough of programs like CSI and NCIS is to expand their horizons with programs like History Detectives, which uses modern technology and investigative techniques to offer surprising insights into our nation's past.
  • Focus on art and people who make it.
    Don't be surprised if your teen is obsessed with Glee and Lady Gaga. It is not uncommon for them to be well versed in popular culture and less familiar with more formal forms of creative expression, like theater, dance, literature and fine art. However, programs like Austin City Limits can encourage teens to explore the creative roots of their favorite art forms, just as the Tavis Smiley Show gets artists talking about their creations beyond sound bites and promotion.
  • Explain how to do something new.
    Teens often seek out new experiences and ways of distinguishing themselves from their family and peers. How-to programs that demonstrate what is required in acquiring a new skill, from preparing a meal to managing personal finances, can be a helpful part of a teen's self-discovery. Your Life Your Money and This Old House are examples of programs that can help teens develop skills and self-esteem.
  • Offer an alternative to network reality programming.
    The irony behind the reality TV craze is that most of these programs are set in a world that doesn't resemble reality at all. If your teen is hooked on America's Next Top Model or Dancing with the Stars, try introducing her to another kind of reality. Programs like Frontier House (set on the Montana Frontier in 1883) and Colonial House (set in a 1628 colony) introduce teens to a world beyond their familiar surroundings, while providing all the intrigue and personal dynamics that have made the reality genre so popular. If your teen is more of an Amazing Race fan, she might like Rough Science (, which transports a team of five scientists to remote locations and leaves them to complete a series of tasks with only rudimentary tools.
  • Feature characters who have full lives and healthy relationships.
    The early teen years are a crucial time for development of healthy self-esteem and social values, so guide your teen toward programs that explore a range of positive human values. Teens who watch too many TV programs or video games that feature violent or selfish messages may develop an "I don't care" attitude. Combat such indifference by introducing them to a new kind of American Idol: The New Heroes profiles 14 daring people from around the world who combat poverty and illness and bring education and opportunity to marginalized groups.
  • Offer rich news and information.
    People's opinions and understanding of the world often are a reflection of their sources of information. The richer the sources, the wider and deeper the base of knowledge. Seeking out programs that cover current events and present teen issues without pandering to them or treating them like a group to fear or avoid, can get teens in the habit of asking questions they might not otherwise ask. The Frontline documentary Digital Nation, for example, examines how digital media has transformed how we live and encourages viewers to take a look at their use of technology.
  • Limit commercial content.
    Programs that are free from commercial messages and interruptions allow the focus to be entirely on the programming. Teens have both the ability to enjoy commercial-free programming and appreciate how it is an alternative to what is more commonplace.
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