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Viewer Discretion is Advised: Meaning and Implications

Viewer discretion is advised is a phrase you have, undoubtedly, heard or seen on television and in movies, but what does it mean?

Viewer discretion is advised is a content warning that precedes material that is not appropriate for children, advising the parent and viewer to use their own discretion or voluntary decision-making power to decide if they should watch it. Its use began as a response to public concerns about the harmful effects of television on the viewer and society.

While the intent is to protect children against distressing content, parents must develop media-literate children and encourage non-media activities to ensure content coming into the home does not have an outsized influence on their kids.

This guide explains what viewer discretion means and how it has been applied, traditionally in TV and movies, and more recently, on the internet. We explore its impact, limitations, and what you, as parents, can do to raise media-literate children.

The Meaning of “Viewer Discretion is Advised”

“Viewer discretion is advised,” sometimes shortened to “View discretion advised,” is a verbal and written disclaimer that precedes potentially sensitive content.

It warns viewers upfront that something upsetting may follow next, allowing them to either prepare themselves or decide to disengage altogether (source).

The Oxford Dictionary defines discretion as the freedom or power to decide what one should do in a particular situation (source). In other words, discretion is the choice to continue to read, listen, or watch the content that follows or to disengage and turn it off.

Be sure to keep resources like The Oxford English Dictionary and Dryer’s English Clarity and Style Guide close by — they will help you discover more definitions and their meanings. You can easily find both on Amazon.

Children, Tv, Child, Television, Home, People, Boy
Image by mojzagrebinfo via Pixabay

The viewer discretion warning was born out of the need to inform consumers of mass media and protect those most vulnerable, namely, children.

The intent was to offer a degree of media awareness and media literacy to navigate and filter content on television and in movies.


The first rating system was established for movies in 1984 by the Motion Picture Association of America or MPAA (source).

A rating system for TV would soon emerge as a result of growing public concerns in the 1990s about explicit sexual content, graphic violence, and strong profanity in television programs. 

Warnings to exercise viewer discretion coincided with the development of a television content rating system known as TV parental guidelines. 

Violence in television has been of particular concern since, despite frequent arguments to the contrary, research from numerous studies conducted over several decades shows a strong correlation between TV violence and increased social violence (source).

Let us take a more thorough look at the TV parental guidelines and discuss each rating and accompanying warning so that you can make an informed decision as to whether the content is acceptable to you.

TV Parental Guideline Ratings 

Parental guidelines were introduced by the television industry to ensure parents had access to information concerning the content nature and age appropriateness of television programs (source). 

The TV guidelines went into effect on January 1, 1997. The ratings were determined by individually participating broadcast and cable networks, and they apply to most TV programs except news, sports, commercials, and unedited movies on premium cable channels (source).

The parental guidelines have two elements, and the first element refers to the audience, which indicates the age level for which a television program is appropriate. These ratings include Y, Y7, G, PG, 14, and MA.

Y — all children

Y7 — children age seven and above

G — general audience 

PG — parental guidance suggested 

14 — children age 14 and above 

MA — adults only 

The second guideline element contains a content label that indicates a show may contain violence, sex, adult language, or suggestive dialogue.   

D — suggestive dialogue, which usually means talking about sex

FV — fantasy violence (children’s programming only)

L — coarse or crude language 

S — sexual situations 

V — violence 

The two guidelines are visible in each individual rating and preceded by the letters TV. Let’s run through them one by one, so you get a sense of what each rating entails and what different warning levels are out there.

A program for all children, specifically designed for very young children from the age of two. It contains no violence, nor is it expected to frighten or scare. No parental guidance required. 
DIRECTED TO OLDER CHILDRENA program for children age seven and above. The program contains mild fantasy and violence. May require parental guidance.
A program for children age seven and above. It contains fantasy violence that might be more intense or more combative than simply TVY7 programs. May require parental guidance.
A program suitable for all ages. Although not specially designed for children, these programs contain little to no violence, strong language, or sexual dialogue or situations. 
The program contains material that could be unsuitable for younger children. Parental guidance is advised for younger children.

Might contain some suggestive dialogue (D), infrequent coarse language (L), some sexual situations (S), or moderate violence (V).
A program intended for children ages 14 and older in the company of an adult. May be unsuitable for children under 14 years of age, and parental guidance is strongly recommended.

Programs could contain one or more of the following: intensely suggestive dialogue (D), strong coarse language (L), intense sexual situations (S), or intense violence (V).
A program specifically designed for adults and may be unsuitable for children under 17. This program may contain one or more of the following: crude indecent language (L), explicit sexual activity (S), or graphic violence (V).

Ratings appear in the top-left corner of your television screen at the beginning of each program. Many regular broadcast and cable television networks also display the rating after each commercial break.

Parental Controls: The V-Chip

The ratings are helpful to guide parents as to what content they deem suitable for children and what is not. In addition, the guidelines were designed to be used with an installed V-chip in television sets to restrict what children watch on TV.

Since 2000, chips have been mandatory for television sets and personal computers, including a television tuner and screen size of 13 inches or more. Parents can program the V-chip to block programs based on these parental guideline ratings. 

If you need help on how to program the V-chip on your television set, check out the Federal Communications Commission ‘s guidelines or your equipment manual for specific instructions.

Is “Viewer Discretion Advised,” Advisable?

With comparatively little research done on the impact and effects of viewer discretion warnings, and ambiguous outcomes on that little, many have used this as grounds for debate about its usage and whether its intent, to protect children, is being met.

One study by Brad J. Bushman of the Institute for Social Research pointed out how warning labels often have a troubling side effect. Rather than restrict, warning labels tend to increase the desire to watch violent programs (source).

A television program with a “viewer discretion is advised” warning might attract more viewers, and many broadcast and cable networks a well-aware that this is the case.

This point emphasizes the importance of the parent’s discretion in keeping their children away from potentially harmful content.

Despite criticism about the clarity and transparency of parental guidelines, few people will argue they should not exist at all. Most people agree that some degree of parental guidance is required for children to ensure their safety and well-being. 

Be Aware of Triggers! 

As parents, it is important to be aware of the bigger picture. Although viewer discretion, originally, was limited to television and movies, the warnings now appear prominently on the internet, especially social media. 

Content Warnings versus Trigger Warnings 

Navigating online media is difficult for adults, let alone children. Apart from content warnings, you might have come across trigger warnings online. If you have not, not to worry, this section will briefly explain what they are.

Although people use the terms “content warning,” such as “viewer discretion is advised,” and “trigger warning” interchangeably, there is a difference. 

A content warning, or disclaimer, is a broad warning that flags something that might upset someone, or even just make them feel bad, without referring to a traumatic experience. 

A trigger warning is a specific variety of content warning for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders. It intends to prevent people who have experienced trauma from being exposed to something that might trigger a physical or mental reaction (source). 

Although the list of potential trigger warnings is infinite, common triggers include discussion of (source): 

  • Sexual Assault
  • Abuse
  • Child abuse/pedophilia/incest
  • Animal cruelty or animal death
  • Self-harm and suicide
  • Eating disorders, body hatred, and fatphobia
  • Violence
  • Pornographic content
  • Kidnapping and abduction
  • Death or dying
  • Pregnancy/Childbirth
  • Miscarriages/Abortion
  • Blood
  • Mental illness and ableism
  • Racism and racial slurs
  • Sexism and misogyny
  • Classism
  • Hateful language directed at religious groups (e.g., Islamophobia, antisemitism)

Notably, new research suggests that trigger warnings may do more harm than good.

Firstly, they do little to minimize the fall-out when dealing with the content. Secondly, trigger warnings might exacerbate cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and interfere with recovery (source).

With few alternatives at hand and with a generation increasingly interacting online and over-involved in media, the impetus is on parents to help guide children on the web. 

What You Can Do as Parents!

The media landscape is completely different from what many parents grew up around, so it can be overwhelming at times. The presence of media is so pervasive that estimates are that there are more TV sets in America than there are toilets (source).

In 1970, children began regularly watching TV at about age four, whereas today, children begin interacting with digital media as young as four months (source)! So how do you navigate this media landscape with your children?

Develop A Family Media Plan 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends developing healthy media use habits early on.

They discourage any screen media for children under 18 months and to restrict screen time to a max of one hour daily for children of two years old and older.

When allowing screen time, make sure to pick high-quality programs, such as Children’s Educational Television, and co-watch with your child and actively engage with them. 

The AAP created an interactive family media plan that enables you to create media rules at home that fit your values and needs and develop an individual-based media plan for each family member.

The family media plan will promote communication about what is allowed in your household and what is not, the benefits and risks associated with media, and develop media awareness and literacy in your children. 

Plus, don’t forget to schedule, plan, and prioritize daily critical health behaviors that are central to child health. Think about all those non-media related times spent such as sleep, exercise, school work, and socialization.

For more on this topic, read our article, “Why Parents Should Monitor Their Child’s Internet Usage.”

Old School 

Most children do not find their parents particularly hip or trendy and, however you might feel about this, rest assured that old-school, non-media activities, such as unstructured play, are essential in Early Childhood Development. 

Not only does play stimulate creativity and encourage problem-solving, but it also builds social skills and helps children process their emotions.

For older children, think of family game night, gardening, sports, or any other family-focused, non-media activity that warrants problem-solving and teamwork. 

Why Boredom is Anything But Boring

Boredom gets a bad wrap, but research shows that constructive boredom in children is essential to their mental and emotional development. Boredom fosters creativity, independence, and creates tools that children need to navigate the busy world around them (source).

In order to be constructive in boredom, they will need your help as parents, but practice makes perfect, right?

Final Thoughts 

“Viewer discretion is advised” is a displayed warning, often repeated audibly as well, that flags potentially upsetting content to viewers. Its intent is to alert parents and inform them of the content and age-appropriateness of television programs.

Viewer discretion has been helpful in rating content on television and movies. Most would agree it protects children to some degree and ensures they engage with media in a safer and more responsible way.

As parents, you are of vital importance in raising media-literate children. Through the creation of a family media plan, prioritizing non-media activities, or constructively using boredom, you will limit the risks associated with media exposure. 

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