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Psychology of MIND

Children and Scare Movies

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*Sound of Love and Protest*



How TV and Movies Frighten Children

and What We Can Do To Protect Them

        I have been doing research on the effects of TV on children for almost 25 years and I've
        been looking at children's fright reactions for more than 15. I have published at least 20
        scholarly articles on this topic, reporting on research involving thousands of children and
        hundreds of parents.  The research of many
        other scholars in fields such as developmental psychology and communications. And last but
        not least, I'm the parent of a young child myself.


          "Does Your Mother Know What You Do for a Living?" The evidence I present for intense emotional disturbances in children comes from personal accounts by people who have been exposed to frightening media in their own everyday lives. When we do observe children's reactions in the lab, we of course get parental permission. Plus, we only show children short clips of relatively mild scenes that the children would probably see anyway.

        This laboratory research is not intended to demonstrate harm, but rather to compare emotional reactions to slightly different
        versions of the same program or to the same program when viewed under different
        circumstances. We would never intentionally produce the type of anguish our research shows is so common in today's media environment.

         "Mommy, I'm Scared"  explains that different fear-reducing strategies work
        for children of different ages. For example, words and explanations are relatively ineffective
        for children up to the age of 7 or 8. For younger children, the techniques that work best are
        nonverbal: a hug, a glass of water, or a distracting activity might help.  Older children are more
        responsive to reasoning, especially information on why the horrible thing can't happen to them
        or how they can prevent it from happening. For all ages, the sympathetic attention of a concerned
        adult is probably the best medicine.

         There are many good things for
        children to watch on TV. The solution I advocate is getting more involved in your children's viewing, watching TV with them, understanding the effects of different contents on different- aged children, and investing in some parent-friendly blocking technologies to help you shield your child from the most harmful fare when you're not in the room.

         The problem is, it's often very difficult for parents to predict what will frighten their
        child. The way children see TV and movies is very different from the way adults see it. For example, children under the age of
        about 7 are most affected by the way things look - grotesque monsters, ugly witches, and
        vicious-looking animals frighten them more than things that are really dangerous or could
        actually harm them. Fantasy stories that we easily dismiss as ridiculous and impossible can
        haunt children's nightmares for a very long time.

        Actually, learning the difference between what's real and what's make-believe is very
        difficult and complicated. Before the age of seven or eight, children don't fully grasp the
        distinction. Even though they may be able to tell you that a witch is make-believe, they don't understand that that means she can't come and get them in the night! And when children do understand that distinction, they're confronted with fiction, which involves stories that didn't actually happen, but is based on things that can and do happen. Fictitious stories about things that are threatening, like murder, kidnapping, and molestation, really frighten elementary school children and even teenagers.

         My research and interviews with parents show that these reactions are very common and
        that they're surprisingly intense and long-lasting. In one study, more than 90% of college students could recall and vividly describe a movie or TV show that had caused intense fears and severe emotional distress. Almost half of them had stomach problems or trouble sleeping,
        and a third of them said their response to one movie or TV show had lasted more than a year!
        Astoundingly, one-fourth of them said that they were still bothered by what they had seen
        many years earlier. Giving up swimming after seeing Jaws and persistent fears of animals or
        insects after seeing horror movies featuring these creatures are quite common effects. And in a recent random survey, almost half of the parents we contacted had noticed long-lasting media- induced fear reactions in their child during the previous year. The book is filled with fascinating first-person anecdotes and vignettes, written by people who remember their own intense reactions or report on their children's reactions.

        Television news is very frightening to children, and unfortunately it is becoming more so
        all the time. What's more, as children come to understand the difference between fantasy and
        reality, the news becomes scarier because children often worry that what they are seeing will happen to them. One of the scariest types of news stories for children is a story focusing on a child victim, unfortunately, we have so many of those these days. A mother called me from the East Coast to help her convince her daughter's school to stop showing news clips to fourth graders without screening them first. Her daughter had become enormously distressed over news coverage of the JonBenet Ramsey murder that she had seen in. school. Many parents watch the news while their children are in the room, thinking that their children aren't watching, but many of them are absorbing the news' disturbing messages.

        The parents need to know what the ratings don't say, as well as what they
        can't say. Movie ratings can be very misleading. Many  movies frighten preschoolers tremendously, and it's hard to know in advance what type of content will be in a movie. Television ratings have recently improved by adding content letters to let parents
        know whether it s sex, violence, or coarse language that caused a program to get its rating, but it s often hard to find out what a program's rating is, and not all networks are using the new system.  

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