There is a growing body of evidence that the mass media, especially television shows and movies, often induce fear and anxiety in children. Fear is an emotion characterized by the subjective feeling that one is in danger, and is usually accompanied by physiological reactions, including increased heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and other forms of arousal of the autonomic nervous system. Fear is often referred to as an intense response of short duration, whereas anxiety usually refers to lingering feelings of nervousness that endure over longer periods. Research shows that feelings of fear or anxiety produced by media exposure often result in sleep problems and can cause children to dread or avoid activities that they once considered non-threatening.
There are methodological challenges inherent in studying media-induced fears because it is unethical to show scary movies to children in order to prove that they cause nightmares and intense anxieties. Research on long-term fears, therefore, uses either surveys or a more detailed, retrospective approach, in which individuals report on their reactions to television shows and movies they have seen in the past. Research exploring the types of media images and events that scare different sub-groups of children is usually done experimentally, using short excerpts of relatively mild fare, often manipulated into different versions. Experiments sometimes supplement self-reports of feelings of fear with physiological measures, the coding of facial expressions, or behavioral measure of approach or avoidance.
There are important developmental differences in what frightens children in the media, and these are based on a child’s level of cognitive development. First, the importance of appearance decreases as a child’s age increases. Both experimental and survey research support the generalization that preschool children (approximately 3 – 6 years old) are more likely to be frightened by something that looks scary but is actually harmless (such as E.T., the kindly but weird-looking extra-terrestrial) than by something that looks attractive but is actually harmful (e.g., a beautiful villainess); for older elementary school children (approximately 7–11 years), appearance is much less influential, compared to the behavior or destructive potential of a character, animal, or object.
Second, as children mature, they become more disturbed by realistic, and less responsive to fantastic dangers depicted in the media. This change results from developmental trends in children’s understanding of the fantasy–reality distinction. Because of this, older elementary school children begin to be especially susceptible to fear produced by the news and other realistic presentations. Younger children are sometimes vulnerable to fear produced by the news as well, however, especially when the threat is explicitly visual, as in natural disasters.
A third developmental change is that as children mature, they become frightened by media depictions involving increasingly abstract concepts, such as world problems (e.g., the threat of war or famine) and invisible environmental threats (e.g., AIDS, anthrax). Themes that adolescents and young adults report as extremely disturbing include sexual assault and stalking, and attacks by supernatural and occult forces.
Retrospective studies show that fear produced by the mass media can be surprisingly long lasting and may result in seemingly irrational responses. For example, many adults who saw Jaws (a movie about a man-eating shark) before the age of 10 report that they are still afraid to swim not only in oceans, but in lakes and pools. Such long-term reactions involve the physiological responses of fear whenever the individual is reminded of an earlier traumatic experience. These reactions are consistent with recent research on the neurophysiology of fear, which suggests that traumatic incidents may leave virtually indelible memory traces.
A large amount of research has been conducted on the impact of the terrorist attacks on the US of September 11, 2001. These studies reveal that greater exposure to media coverage of the attacks was associated with more frequent symptoms of post-traumatic stress in both children and adults even a year or more later.
Strategies for coping with media-induced fears need to be tailored to the age of the child. Up to the age of approximately 7 years, nonverbal coping strategies work the best. These strategies, which do not depend on words or explanations, include removing children from the media situation, distracting them, giving them warmth and attention, and under some circumstances, desensitization (gradually exposing children to small, less threatening parts of a program). Children aged 8 years or older can benefit from verbal coping strategies, including logical explanations of why they are not in danger. If what they saw is pure fantasy, it helps children in this age group to be reminded that what they have seen could never happen. If the program depicts frightening events that can possibly occur, however, it may help to give older children information about why the specific event they have seen cannot happen to them or to give them empowering instructions on how to prevent it from occurring. Research shows that explanations that minimize the likelihood that a horrible event will occur (e.g., “that sort of thing is extremely rare”) are not effective. Teenagers and adults can also benefit from writing about what has frightened them.
Because it is often difficult to calm children’s media-induced fears, parents and caregivers are urged to be vigilant about what children are exposed to in the media, to seek information about a show’s contents in advance, and to err on the side of caution when unsure how a child will respond.
- Cantor, J. (1998). “Mommy, I’m scared”: How TV and movies frighten children and what we can do to protect them. San Diego, CA: Harvest/Harcourt Brace.
- Cantor, J. (2004). Teddy’s TV troubles. Madison, WI: Goblin Fern Press.
- Cantor, J. (2006). Why horror doesn’t die: The enduring and paradoxical effects of frightening entertainment. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (eds.), Psychology of entertainment. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 315 –327.
- LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
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