Have you ever been afraid in front of the screen as a child?
We asked this question to 631 university students in eight different countries around the world. We found that universally, the vast majority of them could recall in great detail a childhood experience that scared them so deeply that it was burned in their memory – including the sight, sound, and emotions it aroused. Many of them related stories of how, till today, they will be wary of swimming in the ocean, sleep with a light on, and are petrified of clowns...
So what is it about TV and films that scare children? In this study we discovered the seven elements of fear: The threatening appearance of a character (remember the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz?)
A character behaving threateningly (like the profoundly evil character in A Nightmare on Elm Street)
A character children identify with being under threat and helpless (so many stories of participants recalling being traumatized by poor Bambi alone in the cold, dark forest after his mother was shot by the hunter...)
Stories that make children aware, for the first time, of threatening scenarios within their experience, or the possibility of these (“who would want to hurt the USA?” thought a shocked child after viewing the 9/11 news coverage)
Stories in which safe places are deliberately breached (Chucky the doll cuddled in bed turns to be sadistic)
Music and sound that signify danger (remember the dum dum, dum dum dum in Jaws?)
Scenes depicting injury and homicide (a T.Rex chewing on a bleeding human in Jurassic Park)
About 70% of the programs inducing fear that children were exposed to were not age-appropriate (e.g., thrillers, science fiction, violent action-adventures). But many programs that most parents and professionals would not consider problematic, induce fear reactions as well – from Disney animated movies to even educational programs. For example, little Dumbo’s trunk reaching out to his caged mother was painful to watch for many children. Similarly, scenes from the classic Wizard of Ozthat included the Witch and the monkeys elicited strong fear experiences.
Many of our participants shared impacts of a traumatic experience that haunts them in adulthood as well. Even as grown-ups, they check under their bed before going to sleep, they struggle emotionally with images of bodily harm that are stuck in their minds, they experience reoccurring nightmares, and they even confessed to discussing these issues currently with their therapist...
How does a child cope with such negative experiences? Just like older viewers, they avoid programs that scare them, they look for support of those around them, and they creatively develop mental strategies such as thinking about something happy before falling asleep.
What, then, should creators of content for children consider in trying to avoid traumatizing children?
Avoid severe fear experiences such as inflicting bodily harm or undermining children’s trusts in cuddling toys, and the safety of their home and family – they do not promote a positive relationship with oneself, others, and the environment.
Do not avoid dramatic tension altogether – children need to build resilience to threat and anxiety, but at the level that is appropriate for their level of development.
Encourage a thrill experience, rather than a fear one, an experience where the child feels safe being scared by offering predictable happy endings, employ humor to break the tension, avoid presenting bodily harm. Movies such as Toy Story,The Lion King or Harry Potter could be a thrill experience but just if the child is ready for it – and for most children that is after 7 – 8 years.
Parents, on their part, should –
Avoid exposing children to age-inappropriate content. They are not ready emotionally to watch thrillers as preschoolers!
Develop media literacy competencies in children: e.g., explain to them that the hero/ine of the series will be back next episode, that the music is meant to make you feel scared for fun, etc.
Be there with them when they experience tension and exhibit anxiety – reassure them of your support and protection, explain to them the difference between fantasy and reality, offer a favorite stuffed animal or blanket.
Stay away from potentially scary content before bedtime.
Do not leave any lingering fear to settle and become a phobia – help them process it, seek help if needed.
Maya Götz, Ph.D.,
Head of the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) and Head of the PRIX JEUNESSE Foundation.
Dafna Lemish, Ph.D.,
Professor and Associate Dean, The School of Communication and Information, Rutgers the State University of New Jersey.