media

What scared you as a child?

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. 

Want to learn more about…

fear experiences and also learn what 510 children from 5 countries told us about their nightmares from screen - Click here to check our book.

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.

What Teens Really Think About Their Social Media Lives: Tips for Storytellers

Social Media and Teens

© Photo by Jen Siska

© Photo by Jen Siska

In Common Sense Media’s latest research, teens share their experiences on everything from digital distraction to how social media makes them feel.

What teenagers look like they’re doing and what they’re actually doing can be two totally different things — especially when it comes to social media. A bored-looking ninth-grader could be majorly bonding with her new BFF on Snapchat. A 10th-grade gamer may complain loudly when you cut off his internet but be secretly relieved. An awkward eighth-grader may be YouTube’s hottest star. To find out what’s really going on in teens’ social media lives, Common Sense Media polled more than 1,100 13- to 17-year-olds in its latest nationally-representative research, Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences. The new study updates our 2012 study on teens and social media with surprising new findings that address many of parents’ most pressing concerns about issues such as cyberbullying,depression, and even the popularity of Facebook (spoiler alert: It’s not).

Why now? Today, 89 percent of teens have their own smartphones (compared with 41 percent in 2012). They grew up right alongside Instagram and Snapchat. They do research papers on Google Classroom, find emotional support on teen forums, share poetry on Tumblr, and may text “I love you” before they’d ever say it to your face. But concerns over the negative consequences of social media have grown in tandem with its popularity among teens. Grim reports on teen suicide, addiction,cyberbullying, and eroding social skills have caused many people, from parents to teachers to the tech industry itself, to look at social media as a potential contributor — if not the cause — of these issues. This survey clarifies some of those concerns and draws attention to the reasons some kids are deeply affected by — and connected to — their digital worlds.

Key Findings of Social Media Report & Actionable Insights:

  • Thumbs mostly up. Only a very few teens say that using social media has a negative effect on how they feel about themselves; many more say it has a positive effect. Twenty-five percent say social media makes them feel less lonely (compared to 3 percent who say more); eighteen percent say it makes them feel better about themselves (compared to 4 percent who say worse); and 16 percent say it makes them feel less depressed (compared to 3 percent who say more).

  • Managing devices is hit or miss. Many turn off, silence, or put away their phones at key times such as when going to sleep, having meals with people, visiting family, or doing homework. But many others do not: A significant number of teens say they “hardly ever” or “never” silence or put away their devices.

  • Less talking, more texting. In 2012, about half of all teens still said their favorite way to communicate with friends was in person; today less than a third say so. But more than half of all teens say that social media takes them away from personal relationships and distracts them from paying attention to the people they’re with.  

  • Vulnerable teens need extra support. Social media is significantly more important in the lives of vulnerable teens (those who rate themselves low on a social-emotional well-being scale). This group is more likely to say they’ve had a variety of negative responses to social media (such as feeling bad about themselves when nobody comments on or likes their posts). But they’re also more likely to say that social media has a positive rather than a negative effect on them.

Tips for Storytellers:

  • Show kids (and their parents) putting phones away or on “do not disturb” at key times, such as mealtimes or bedtime. Kids know social media can get in the way of important things, but they have a hard time regulating their own use. Modeling mindful and intentional use can help to normalize behaviors. It’s also worthwhile to depict kids who take phone breaks for a day or more to feel less distracted, or to avoid digital drama.

  • Highlight the teens who need the most help. An honest depiction of teen social media use for a depressed teen might include a teen feeling unusually happy after receiving online validation (through likes or replies), but also deeply affected by comparing themselves negatively to others online (like on Instagram), or not getting likes or feedback after posting something.

  • Show the creative side of media to inspire teens to use media to learn and grow. Teens express themselves in a variety of ways on social media: creating and sharing art, photography, poetry and other writing, and music. Take care to show kids creating with their mobile devices, and not just consuming or mindlessly scrolling.

To find out the latest on what teens are doing on social media, check out Common Sense Media.

Michael Robb, Ph.D.

Senior Director of Research, Common Sense

Caroline Knorr

Senior Parenting Editor, Common Sense

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