"Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children

Rapeutationists and DIRA zombies are preconditioned for violent behavior by cinema and video game violence.

"Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children

Postby admin » Wed Oct 23, 2013 1:23 am

"MOMMY, I'M SCARED": HOW TV AND MOVIES FRIGHTEN CHILDREN AND WHAT WE CAN DO TO PROTECT THEM
Advice from the expert on children and the media for today's parents and caregivers
by Joanne Cantor, Ph.D.
© 1998 by Joanne Cantor

NOTICE: THIS WORK MAY BE PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT

YOU ARE REQUIRED TO READ THE COPYRIGHT NOTICE AT THIS LINK BEFORE YOU READ THE FOLLOWING WORK, THAT IS AVAILABLE SOLELY FOR PRIVATE STUDY, SCHOLARSHIP OR RESEARCH PURSUANT TO 17 U.S.C. SECTION 107 AND 108. IN THE EVENT THAT THE LIBRARY DETERMINES THAT UNLAWFUL COPYING OF THIS WORK HAS OCCURRED, THE LIBRARY HAS THE RIGHT TO BLOCK THE I.P. ADDRESS AT WHICH THE UNLAWFUL COPYING APPEARED TO HAVE OCCURRED. THANK YOU FOR RESPECTING THE RIGHTS OF COPYRIGHT OWNERS.


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To my mother, Elizabeth M. Cantor, in loving memory

Table of Contents:

Back Cover
Preface
INTRODUCTION: Is Your Home Really Your Castle?
o Confronting the Resident Monster
CHAPTER ONE: The Suddenly Crowded Queen-Size Bed
o A Wake-Up Call to TV and Movie Fright
CHAPTER TWO: Through a Child's Eyes
o "I Had No Idea It Would Be So Scary"
CHAPTER THREE: Appearance, Appearance, Appearance
o Beauty's More Than Skin Deep
CHAPTER FOUR: The Trouble with Transformations
o "All of a Sudden, His Eyes Would Turn a Really Weird Shade of White... "
CHAPTER FIVE: "But It's Only Make-Believe"
o Fantasy, Fiction, and Fear
CHAPTER SIX: When Reality Is a Nightmare
o All the News That's Fit to Terrify
CHAPTER SEVEN: When Words Won't Work
o How to Help a Frightened Preschooler
CHAPTER EIGHT: Making Explanations Child-Friendly
o Reasoning That Comforts Kids
CHAPTER NINE: Why Kids Are Drawn to Scary Entertainment
o -- And What If They Like It Too Much?
CHAPTER TEN: Ratings Roulette
o The Perils of "Parental Guidance"
CHAPTER ELEVEN: Taming the Resident Monster
o Living with the Reality of Television, Movies, and Videos
Acknowledgments
Appendix
o Problems Frequently Caused by Scary Television and Movies
o The Most Troublesome Content for Different Ages
o Tips for Helping Frightened Preschoolers
o Tips for Making Explanations Reassuring to Children
o What You Should Know about the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Ratings
o A Guide to the Amended TV Parental Guidelines
o Contacts Regarding TV and Movie Ratings
Notes
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Re: "Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children

Postby admin » Wed Oct 23, 2013 1:24 am

Back Cover:

"This book is the best yet in helping 'parents to parent.' It should be in the homes of all parents and grandparents who care about our children." -- Robert E. McAfee, M.D., past president, American Medical Association


With just the touch of a button, anyone in your family can let entertainment into your living room. Unfortunately, a touch of that same button, located on the television remote control, also ushers in monsters, kidnappers, predators, and dark worlds where violence and disaster are the norms. How can you prevent those days, months, or even years of distress that a moment of misplaced viewing can cause or, if it's after the fact, how can you soothe your children?

Joanne Cantor, the expert on children and the media, will help you understand:

• What content is troublesome for which ages
• How to make explanations reassuring and offer genuine comfort to kids -- from preschoolers to teenagers
• What the television and movie rating systems are all about
• How parents can help their kids choose appropriate entertainment
• What tools and resources are available to support parents' efforts

With the help of this book, you'll learn how to make sure your family views wisely .. and sleeps well.

"Mixing common sense with child development research, "Mommy, I'm Scared" helps parents to understand how to talk with their kids about what they see on TV and why they should use the 'off' button more often." -- Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., is a professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an internationally recognized expert on children and television. She has worked with the national PTA on projects related to television and children and with the National Television Violence Study. She lives with her husband and young son.

Jacket photograph copyright 1994 Dick Luria/FPG
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Re: "Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children

Postby admin » Wed Oct 23, 2013 1:25 am

Preface

Every book author and every publisher struggles to find a title that will communicate what the book is about in a direct and immediate way. The title Mommy, I'm Scared was suggested to me by a collaborator early on, and it seems to resonate positively with many people, especially mothers. I chose this title because it's a phrase most mothers have heard, and it's also something most of us have probably uttered to our own mothers. But the title is not intended in any way to exclude the many others to whom children turn when they are frightened -- especially not fathers, grandparents, and other caregivers who often play an important, comforting role in the lives of children.

Although this book is based on my own academic research, my primary audience is parents and other people who take care of children. I have therefore tried to write it in a way that these readers would find the most interesting and the most helpful. As a parent myself, I know that parents want information that will help them understand their children better and that will give them useful suggestions about how to deal with specific child-rearing problems. In this book, my discussion of children's responses to frightening mass media is based on the findings of controlled research, but I have also filled these pages with illuminating, true examples, many of these presented in a child's or a parent's own words.

In the interest of this general readership, when I talk about research, I include only those elements of a study that will be most useful to people taking care of children. I am not including the names of my coauthors or other researchers or the dates of publication in the body of the text and I am not using footnotes, because I felt all these things might be distracting.

There is a secondary audience for this book, however: other researchers, medical and mental-health professionals, teachers, college professors, and students -- readers who may well want to know more about the research I'm describing and may want more concrete documentation of the arguments I am making. For them, I am including notes for each chapter at the back of the book. These notes give the full references for all the studies I am citing and direct the reader to further sources of information.

"Does Your Mother Know What You Do for a Living?"

"You show what to little kids in the name of science?" This question, in one form or another, has come my way many times as I make public appearances and discuss my research. And it's a very fair question. Now that I'm a parent myself, I understand the motivation behind it all the more. Any discussion of research on children, particularly when dealing with an emotion as powerful as fright, naturally arouses parental concern. Because much of this book rests on laboratory research, I would like to clarify exactly what kind of work I do with children.

One of the themes of this book is that frightening media depictions can indeed cause long-term damage. Obviously, it would be extremely unethical to try to "prove" this harm by exposing children to horrific movies in the lab and tracking their development over the years. Although this cannot, should not, and will not be done, other forms of research go a long way toward demonstrating that negative effects occur quite often. The evidence I present for intense emotional disturbances in children comes from personal accounts by people who have been exposed to frightening media not in the lab but in their everyday lives. I base these conclusions on case studies, retrospective reports, in-depth interviews, and surveys, including those of random samples of parents. Some social scientists are skeptical of effects that they cannot observe under strictly controlled conditions. However, when a child repeatedly wakes up screaming, "The Wicked Witch of the West is going to get me!" after viewing The Wizard of Oz, who among us would doubt that the movie prompted these nightmares?

When it comes to studying children's fright reactions in the lab, I, like any social scientist wishing to work with children, must jump a number of official hurdles put up for the child's protection, including obtaining approval by the Human Subjects Committee of my university and gaining the permission of school systems, teachers, parents, and, when appropriate, the children themselves. When requesting parents' permission, we always inform them about the media content their child might see and invite them to preview the program before giving their permission.

The goal in the experimental research we conduct is not to demonstrate harm. Rather, we try to compare the emotional reactions produced by slightly different versions of the same program or by the same program when viewed by different age groups or under different circumstances. For this purpose we need to use only relatively mild stimuli, and we normally expose children to only a brief excerpt of a scary program. We are always careful not to show children material that will be unduly terrifying or more frightening than material available in any number of widely viewed TV shows or movies. Also, we talk about the program with the children after they see it, and they have the opportunity to discuss any lingering fears they might have. To my knowledge, no child has suffered ill effects as a result of participation in this research. Certainly, no child or parent has reported any problems.

How Accurate Are Childhood Memories?

There has been a great deal of controversy among psychologists and social scientists over whether childhood memories reported in adulthood are accurate enough to be used as the basis for scientific research. Part of the controversy has arisen over news reports that adults have been encouraged or coached to dredge up memories of childhood abuse -- incidents that in many cases may never have happened. Although I base my major conclusions on more well controlled surveys and experiments, I do use adults' reports of their childhood memories when investigating the lingering effects of frightening television and movies.

For those reading this book who may be skeptical, I have a few arguments in defense of the accuracy of the retrospective reports included here. Recent research on the validity of childhood memories has concluded that answers to questions regarding childhood events tend to be more accurate when people are asked to report on specific events rather than to give a general evaluation of the tenor of their childhood experiences. It has also been found that parents tend to downplay the impact of negative events relative to what their children report.

Several factors increase my trust in these retrospective reports. First, the adults who write these reports achieve no advantage from exaggerating; if anything, reporting on an intense fright response seems to produce embarrassment. Second, most of these reports contain clear and vivid descriptions of programs and movies, accounts that turn out to be reasonably accurate when compared to the media fare in question. Third, there are great similarities between different adults' independently recalled reactions to the same programs and movies. Fourth, the age trends in these reports are generally consistent with the trends I have observed in controlled studies of immediate or short-term effects.

Finally, although it is possible that the duration of the reported effects may be overstated in some cases (what seemed like a month may have been only a week, for example), the fact that so many adults still report and reveal ongoing emotional disturbances that they trace back to these programs or movies suggests that these events produced extremely intense reactions and that we should not discount the importance of these long-term emotional memories.

-- Joanne Cantor, Ph.D.
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Re: "Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children

Postby admin » Wed Oct 23, 2013 1:29 am

INTRODUCTION: Is Your Home Really Your Castle?

Confronting the Resident Monster


Remember when your first child was born and you took great pains to childproof your home? You locked away the medications and poisonous cleaning agents, hid the knives and the power tools, put safety covers over the electrical outlets, and maybe placed a gate at the top of the stairs. If you're like many parents, you may even have decorated a room especially for your new baby with cheerful, bright colors and a crib that met the latest safety standards. You probably filled your baby's room with a variety of clean, safe, and adorable toys. When you bought something that your child would see or use, you started thinking about how she would react to it. Your child was going to be brought up in an environment that was not only physically safe but also felt happy and warm and comforting. No one who might harm your child would be invited into your home, and nobody could bring unsafe or inappropriate items to your child without your knowledge or say-so. You were the gatekeeper in charge of your castle-right?

Unfortunately, if you are like almost 100 percent of the parents in this country and you have a television, your home is full of uninvited virtual intruders of every stripe -- monsters, witches, vicious animals, rapists, child molesters, burglars, terrorists, and tornadoes, to name only a few -- all ready to disturb that child-friendly environment and pounce on your child's psyche at any moment. If you're concerned about the effect of these images on your child's mental health, you have two choices: Either you get rid of your television or you learn to tame this resident monster.

Chances are, you don't want to get rid of your TV. You probably enjoy watching it yourself and realize that there are many good programs for children. In fact, research now shows that educational television programming viewed at the preschool level can really improve children's chances for success much later in life. Why should you give up on the potential positive effects of television?

This book is for parents who feel that getting rid of their television is not the best option but who want to protect their children from preventable psychological harm. We have come a long way since the fifties, when we had only three channels to choose from and our choices ranged from Dragnet to Hopalong Cassidy to The Donna Reed Show. Thanks to cable and satellite transmission, we now have 36, 50, even 100 options or more at a time. As a result, today we probably have more television that can inform, entertain, and instruct our children than there was decades ago. At the same time, there is certainly a great deal more television that can unnerve, upset, and traumatize our children than previous generations ever imagined.

Television and movies, by their very nature, have the ability to introduce children to frightening images, events, and ideas, many of which they would not encounter in their entire lives without the mass media. We need to learn how our children are affected by these intruders so we can make better decisions about what they should watch and find ways to help them handle their reactions if they become inordinately troubled.
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Re: "Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children

Postby admin » Wed Oct 23, 2013 1:58 am

CHAPTER ONE: The Suddenly Crowded Queen-Size Bed

A Wake-Up Call to TV and Movie Fright


Every night, in homes all around the country, parents are being confronted by children in distress. Their children are trembling and sobbing or having nightmares or climbing into their parents' bed and refusing to sleep alone. Some of them are suddenly giving up activities that they once enjoyed, feeling anxious about being alone, or refusing to go to new places.

Are these children reacting to the bully who threatened them at school? Are they worried about the child molester who tried to entice them into his car? Are they anxious about the burglar who just broke into their home? Probably not. Most of these children are reacting to something that never even happened to them. They are traumatized by something they saw on television or in a movie. It's as simple as that. What is worse, the anxiety they are experiencing may not go away in days or even weeks. Often it will last months, years, and even longer.

From my fifteen years of research on mass media and children's fears, I am convinced that TV programs and movies are the number one preventable cause of nightmares and anxieties in children. What's more, although many parents are disturbed about the problem, most don't know how to predict what will frighten their child or what to do about it. That is why I've written this book.

That Midnight Visitor

Does the following story sound like something that's happened in your home?

Sara was watching Goosebumps with her seven-year-old son, Tim, but she was called out of the room when the phone rang. By the time she returned, Tim was staring in horror at gory and grotesque images from an episode of The X-Files. In the program, a man had a sore on his stomach, but it wasn't really a sore; it was his twin brother [!], who would growl and be nasty during the day and murder people viciously at night. Sara made Tim turn off the program, but the damage had been done: The whole family had a terrible night. Sara reports that Tim woke up in a fit and admitted that it was the program that had scared him. For a week, he insisted on sleeping in his parents' bed. After that, they made him go to sleep in his own bed, but they'd wake up and find him back in theirs. Sara was appalled. About a month after the incident, she said Tim was still scared. He was worried that the vicious creature could get into their house.

Or maybe this excerpt from a college student's paper reminds you of something that happened to you as a child:

I loved every minute of Poltergeist. It was like nothing I had ever seen. It was gory and scary and so exciting. Well, in broad daylight at least. That night at home was a completely different story. I was terrified, and I didn't know what to do. How could I tell my parents what I had done and that I was frightened from seeing a movie that they had specifically forbidden me to see? But I was in a state of emergency because the clown that was now under my bed was about to come out any minute if I didn't take immediate action. I built up my courage and successfully made it to my parents' room, constantly looking over my shoulder. I crawled in between my parents in bed, hoping that they wouldn't notice me, but they did. My mom asked me what was wrong, and I mumbled something about the clown and the tree outside my window that were trying to take me away. (By the way, there are no trees tall enough in New York City to reach a window on the seventh floor of an apartment building, and I have never even had a clown doll.) I'm sure my parents knew what I had done because they themselves had seen the movie almost a year earlier. I slept with them in their bed for two whole weeks.


If either of these anecdotes sounds familiar, rest assured that you have a lot of company. Events like these occur all the time, although they don't receive nearly the publicity that other effects of television do.

I started studying children's fright reactions to television and films in the early eighties. At the beginning of my research career, I had looked at some of the more widely studied effects of television, such as how viewing violence makes people more aggressive. But I started thinking about fear effects after several of my graduate students began telling me about their own children's frightened responses to television -- reactions they were at a loss to explain. I was reminded of my own experiences as a child. I remember the terror I felt every time I saw the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz and how uneasy listening to Peter and the Wolf on my record player made me feel. I remember finding it difficult to sleep at night after watching or listening to something scary, but I also remember not wanting to tell my mother about it. I still somehow wanted to see these things, and I certainly didn't want to be told I couldn't watch them -- I was the youngest of three children, and, after all, I didn't want to be treated like a baby!

When I began studying children's fright reactions to media, I was mainly interested in them as an academic researcher. Having studied developmental psychology, I was examining how a child's age affects the types of things that will be frightening. I wasn't initially studying long-term effects or the psychological harm caused by media viewing because you can't study these things in controlled laboratory experiments, the method I was trained in. But because I had such vivid memories of my own, and because I was hearing again and again from others who had had similar experiences, I came to the conclusion that studying children's facial expressions as they watched a scary scene or tabulating their ratings of how scared they felt immediately after watching a five-minute film clip was not enough.

So, at the beginning of each semester, I began asking my students to write short papers about anything on television or in a film that had frightened them. I was immediately struck by how deeply disturbed and distressed my students had been by a program or film, and I was amazed by the vividness and emotionality with which they wrote about their experiences. Almost all the students in these classes were able to recall and describe an incident that disturbed them greatly. Only the rare student reported never having been scared. But looking at these papers as a researcher, I still was unsure how widespread these reactions really were. Since students were putting their names on their papers, could some of them have been elaborating their stories to please their professor?

In order to reduce my doubts, I approached the same question differently. I arranged for first-year college students to be offered extra credit for filling out a brief questionnaire. I'll call this the retrospective study. To receive credit they had to answer the following question:

Have you ever been so frightened by a television show or movie that the emotional reaction stayed with you after the program was over?


Their choice was either to say "no," and be done with it, or to say "yes," and describe the experience in a one-page paper followed by a three-page questionnaire. Either response would earn them the same amount of credit. As I saw it, laziness or pressures from course assignments would lead many students to choose the easy "no" response. So I felt more confident that the students who took the trouble to complete the anonymous paper and questionnaire were indeed telling the truth and recounting an incident that had meant a great deal to them.

The response was overwhelming: Out of 103 students who were given this option for receiving extra credit, 96 chose the "yes" response and many of them provided graphic and emotional descriptions of the terror that had been provoked by a movie or TV show. Here are two typical excerpts from their descriptions:

After the movie [Jaws], I had nightmares for a week straight. Always the same one. I'm in a room filled with water with ducts in the walls. They would suddenly open and dozens of sharks would swim out. I felt trapped with no place to go. I would usually wake up in a sweat. Occasionally I'll still have that exact same dream. The movie didn't just affect me at night. To this day I'm afraid to go into the ocean, sometimes even a lake. I'm afraid that there will be a shark even if I know deep down that's impossible.

The movie that I saw that disturbed me very much was Friday the Thirteenth, Part 2. I watched this movie when I was fourteen years old and it scared me so much that I couldn't sleep for a whole month. I was scared of the name Jason and I hated standing under a thatched roof. At night I needed a night-light so that I could see everything around me. I was very conscious of the smallest little noise. I had nightmares about knives, chain saws, blood, screams, and hockey masks. I was very jumpy. This kind of slaughter film still has these effects on me.


These descriptions are very much like the hundreds of astonishingly intense examples I've collected from students in my classes and other people I have encountered or who have written to me. One fascinating aspect of the student papers is how much the students seem to get out of writing them. The memories of these incidents are extremely clear, ten and even fifteen years after the fact, and students find themselves using dramatic and emotional language that they rarely use elsewhere. When students talk about these experiences in class discussions, we can often hear the residue of fear in their voices. And although students are sometimes embarrassed to admit how intense and long-lasting their fear reactions were, they are usually quite relieved to learn that so many others in the class have had the same experience. Many students have reported that being encouraged to think about this traumatic incident reignited their fear. But they have often said that writing about it and learning why it may have happened helped them work through some of their anxieties and ended up reducing their fear in the long run.

A Fear That Lingers

Although the question the students answer is about any fear that lasted beyond the time of viewing, these reactions are typically not one-night affairs. In fact, almost two-thirds of the students in the retrospective study reported that their reactions had lasted a week or more. One-fifth of the students said they had not been able to get the movie or program off their mind, and almost half of them said that what they had seen had interfered with their eating or sleeping. You may have noticed that one of the anecdotes includes the phrase "To this day" to describe a movie's lingering effects. This expression is somewhat unusual in ordinary conversation, but as you read on, you will see that it comes up time and again when people talk about their experiences of TV and movie fright. Even though most of these college students were reporting on events that happened to them in their childhood or adolescence, one-fourth of them said that they were still feeling residues of the fear that the program or movie had produced.

Some skeptics might react to all this with a shrug of the shoulders; it is true that some children can see scary movies and not be greatly upset. But this should not lead us to belittle the harm done to millions of others who are more media sensitive.

Obviously, all children are different. One child's thrill is another child's trauma. Many children, even those who suffer afterward, say they enjoy watching scary movies and TV shows. Witness the eternal popularity of horror movies and the current fad in TV shows such as Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps. Many of us like the spine-tingling feeling of being scared as we identify with a TV or movie character who is in danger. This attitude, which I will discuss in more depth in chapter 9, is frequently seen in students' reports.

The real questions are: How much fright can a child take? When does the spine tingling cease to be fun? And when will the fun experienced while viewing come back to haunt a child in the night? And for how long? And how are children, or parents, for that matter, to know beforehand where a child's terror threshold may lie and which program or movie will cross it?

Although fright reactions to television and films have never been in the limelight of public discussion, over the years a number of psychologists and psychiatrists have claimed that these reactions may cause children to be plagued by nightmares, sleep disturbances, and bizarre fantasies. There have been several case studies in medical journals telling about young people who had to be hospitalized for several days or weeks after watching horror movies such as The Exorcist and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. One recent article reported that two children had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis usually reserved for Vietnam War veterans and victims of physical violence, as a result of watching a horror movie on television. One of the children described in the article was hospitalized for eight weeks.

Obviously these are extreme cases. But, I, too, have received reports indicating that medical attention was necessary as a result of viewing a film. Here's one example:

I remember the time ABC broadcast the controversial made-for-television movie The Day After in 1983. The show terrified me. For several weeks I was absolutely certain there would be a nuclear war. I had literally become obsessed with the concept of worldwide atomic destruction. I was obsessed to the extent where I would actually wake up around 5 A.M. every morning so frightened I would crawl into bed with my parents. I further would not leave my mother's side -- not even to go to the bathroom. And I stopped eating. I became very sick after many weeks with this irrational behavior and had to be taken to the doctor.


This anecdote came from one of the students in the retrospective study. A few years later I met him when he took my course on the effects of the mass media. At that time he told me that he actually had been hospitalized because of his reaction to The Day After, but that he had been too embarrassed to admit that fact earlier, even though he knew his paper was anonymous.

Another student cited Jaws as the source of her panic attacks. After describing how she quit the swim team in the middle of a race (in a pool, mind you!) the day after seeing the movie, she continued:

The movie Jaws affected me in worse ways than a fear for pools. During the summer going into my sophomore year in college, I returned to summer camp after a seven-year hiatus. On the first day, all counselors had to take a swim test in the lake. Needless to say, I refused to get in, failed my test, and haven't gotten in the lake for the past three summers. Every time my campers had swimming, every time I almost got playfully tossed in, and every time I was even near the lake, I would experience small panic-anxiety attacks. I would always have a persistent fear for the water and I could never get too close to the lake. Consequently, these panic-anxiety attacks started to take a toll on my body, eventually wearing me down until I had trouble walking up even the smallest hill. My heart would race uncontrollably fast and my emotions would change constantly; I was laughing one moment and crying the next .... I don't know if I have overcome my phobia since I am not around camp during the year, but because of my panic-anxiety attacks, I get extremely claustrophobic in elevators.


Although these last two cases may be exceptional, what I've discovered through my research is that intense and long-lasting media-induced fears are far more common than we think and often linger well into adulthood. There are many, many people who admit, like two of the students already quoted, that they are afraid to swim in oceans or even lakes or pools since watching jaws. Granted, it is not that odd that many people think of that great white shark whenever they swim in the ocean (I know 1do!), but when people give up swimming in lakes or pools because they once saw a movie about a shark in the ocean, we should indeed be concerned. For these people, a few hours of entertainment has altered their lives.

Many other people suffer the enduring effects of watching Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho:

My phobia of taking a shower without anyone in the house began in October of 1973.... No matter how silly and childish it may seem, five years older and wiser, I still find myself peering around the shower curtain in fear of seeing the beholder of my death.


Jaws and Psycho may be the most well-known examples, but there are many, many other shows and movies that have produced effects that won't go away:

For years (I'm serious) this movie [When a Stranger Calls] has haunted me. For the months following this experience, whenever I was home alone and the phone rang, I feared that the calls were coming from somebody upstairs in my house. A few years ago we moved to a new house where the phones have a panel to show what lines are in use. If I am home alone, I think I subconsciously check to make sure that no other line is being used whenever the phone rings.


This student's addition of the expression "I'm serious" reflects another interesting aspect of students' papers. The writer seems to be suggesting that the duration of her response is so unreasonable or unusual that I might not believe her. Most of the students who write these papers have no idea how many others have experienced the same effects.

Quite frequently, students talk (sometimes sheepishly) about the elaborate rituals they have developed for coping with their fears. Often these procedures are maintained over long periods of time, sometimes into college. One student reported that she still "protects" herself while sleeping:

When I was around six years old I watched a horror movie about vampires and werewolves preying on innocent people. One behavior that started after this viewing experience is one I still use today. I was convinced vampires would come when I was sleeping, bite my neck, and suck out all my blood. In order to prevent this horrible way of dying, I place a special blanket partially around my neck before I go to sleep. The blanket acts as a barrier between me and the vampire's fangs.


Another student titled her paper "The Bedtime Jump." It began as follows:

To this day, I still leap into my bedroom the door after I turn out the light, hoping to avoid any creepy crawly bugs, creatures, or anything else that might run across my feet in the dark. Even though I am almost positive that there really isn't anything on the floor, I do the bedtime jump rather than risk it. I think it all started with the spider movie I watched when I was five or six years old.


And then there's the perennial shower ritual derived from Psycho:

For almost two years this had such an impact on me that I would never take a shower unless the curtain was three-fourths open so I could see in the mirror across from the shower that no one else was in the bathroom. I even locked the door at all times. But even that wasn't enough, so I also pulled out the drawer alongside the door so in case someone got the door unlocked, they wouldn't be able to open the door past the drawer.


Although some of the rituals are almost ludicrous, some of the recollections are poignant. The following was the entire description given by one young woman in the retrospective study, who was told that the expected length of the paper was about a page:

The only movie that had any lasting impact causing me fear was The Wizard of Oz when I was little. I used to sit and cry when the mean witch came on and my parents and older siblings would laugh at me. Then I couldn't sleep 'cause I thought the witch would come and get me.


Another description reflects how enduring the impact was, even though the memory of the movie itself was vague:

Although I don't know the name of the film or very much else about it, I can't get the images to leave my mind no matter how hard I try.


Finally, here is an example of a movie that tapped into or intensified a young man's long-term feelings of paranoia:

Silence of the Lambs has always disturbed me. It is so disturbing because there are people like this out there. They're psychotic and don't care about anything. They like to play with your mind and drive you crazy. Who knows, it may be your best friend. They are out there somewhere, and they may be coming after you or me.


We need to keep in mind here that these are not the reports of psychiatric patients or of young people in trouble. These are university students who, by making it to college, have shown themselves to be relatively successful in their life adjustment. These are not our weakest and most vulnerable young people. And still, something that they never experienced firsthand, but that reached them only via TV or in a movie, has had so profound and distressing an emotional impact. Many of the symptoms they report, such as avoidance of specific activities (especially when there is no rational basis for avoidance), high anxiety levels, recurrent obsessive thoughts, and sleep disturbances, are well-known symptoms of both phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder. Imagine the effects on children who are emotionally at risk!

Spillover Effects

"But he'll get over it," some might say. "A good scare never hurt anyone!" "So what if they worried a bit or had nightmares about a movie? There are lots of things in this world to worry about, so why not this?" As a parent of a young child, I can't really empathize with this attitude. It seems obvious to me that as parents we should want to prevent nightmares and sleep disturbances in our children if we can. And, of course, it's not just emotional distress we need to be concerned with. As some of these examples suggest, the fears induced by media exposure can spill over into everyday life and interfere with otherwise normal activities.

Because I was hearing so many stories of these spillover effects, my colleagues and I designed a study to observe them in a mild form immediately after viewing and to answer a couple of questions: Would watching typical dramatic scenes where people are seriously hurt or die make children worry that they are more likely to become victims of similar accidents? And would seeing scenes like these make children more reluctant to engage in normal activities related to what they had witnessed?

We started with an episode from Little House on the Prairie. Although nothing could possibly sound more harmless than the title of this program (which is still on the air in reruns), it was among the top-ten fear-producing shows according to a survey of parents my collaborators and I conducted in the early eighties. Although the series offers a sensitive portrayal of a family facing joys and hardships, it addresses an enormous array of controversial and threatening issues, such as murder, child molestation, and accidental death. The scene we chose was from an episode in which a school for the blind burns down and several people are trapped inside and die in the fire.

We showed the children in our experiment either a five-minute clip from this program or a scene from a movie in which people enjoyed cooking dinner over a campfire without any threat of danger or harm. Still other children saw film clips involving different activities. We then gave the children a questionnaire asking them about a variety of issues. We asked them, for example, how worried they were that various things would happen to them, including being injured in a fire. Lo and behold, those children who had just seen the excerpt from Little House on the Prairie were more worried about fires than both the children who saw the other fire scene and children who saw scenes that didn't involve fire at all. What is more telling is that when we later asked them how interested they would be in getting involved in various activities, the kids who had seen Little House on the Prairie were less interested than all the others in building a fire in a fireplace. We also found the same type of effect for another movie scene, which showed a drowning. Those children who had just seen that tragic event thought they were more likely to be involved in a dangerous situation in the water, and they were less interested in learning how to paddle a canoe than the other children in the study.

Obviously, what we produced in this controlled experiment was a mild effect that probably did not last very long. We tried to make sure of this by talking to the children about any continuing fears they might have and using this opportunity to go over guidelines regarding fire and water safety. I think that the minor effect we observed in the lab is in some ways similar to the strong effects I repeatedly see in students' retrospective reports and parents' reports of their children's long-term reactions. For example, one mother I talked to reported that her daughter had learned to ski at the age of four and loved it. However, she abruptly refused to ski anymore after she saw an episode of Rescue 911 in which a child fell from a chairlift and was shown hanging dangerously by a rope until she was rescued.

Another mother sent me this report:

When our youngest daughter was about five, we were traveling in the northwest. One night we watched a James Bond movie on television, containing a scene of a shark that was released into a swimming pool from a grate in the side of the pool. For several days thereafter our daughter refused to go into swimming pools, even at the insistent urging of her older brother and sister. For several years she claimed to be nervous about going into pools where it looked like an underwater shark cage could be hidden.


The realization that a movie may have interfered with swimming is one of the most common themes in students' papers:

It hadn't occurred to me until just now, but there s probably a connection between having seen and been scared by this movie [Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory] and my extreme fear of having to jump off the diving board at our local YWCA pool. I wasn't scared about the water but worried about coming too close to the grating at the bottom of the pool; I feared that if I got too close, I would get sucked in.


Sometimes students admit their reaction caused friction with their parents:

One of two frightful experiences I had with television when I was younger was viewing A Nightmare on Elm Street. I was probably only in second grade when I viewed it. The basic premise was that there was a killer who attacked you in your dreams, but could actually kill you by doing this. He wore a glove with knives attached, and he typically kept this in the basement, usually near the furnace.

After this incident, I would not go down into our basement, which isn't very creepy, it's decorated. This lasted several months. Once I was willing to go downstairs in the furnished part, I was still petrified to go into the back storage pantry, where our furnace was also located. This made my mom angry because for many years I was too afraid to go in the back room to get food for her. I remember clearly the first time I was actually brave enough to venture there with a flashlight to see near the furnace, and it wasn't until I was in junior high school. To this day, I am still a bit wary of basements, not because they are creepy but because I imagine the possibility that someone really is lurking there like in the movie.


Sometimes students express intense frustration at their reactions:

I was so affected by this movie [Creepshow 2], that I was afraid of going into any of the lakes around my house in fear that an unsuspecting group of lily pads might turn out to be a killer blob. To tell you the truth, since the time I saw that movie, I have honestly never swum in a lake again nor have I gotten up the guts to watch that segment again. If that is not a fright reaction, fifteen years of avoiding lakes because of a stupid movie, then I don't know what is.


What's a Parent to Do?

Why didn't the parents prevent this from happening? you might ask. Good question. A lot of the parents probably did not know it was happening until it was too late. A repeated theme in many students' reports is that they watched without their parents' knowledge and that they were hesitant to admit they'd been frightened. Our research shows that although many parents are left in the dark, so to speak, many mothers and fathers know about their children's fears all too well, like those whose stories have been reported in this chapter.

To explore more systematically what parents know, or think they know, about children's fright reactions, my colleagues and I recently conducted a phone survey in Madison, Wisconsin, calling a random sample of close to three hundred parents who had children in kindergarten through sixth grade. Quite a sizable number (43 percent) of these parents reported that their child had been frightened by something on television and that the fear had lasted beyond the time of viewing. Given the tendency of many children to keep their fear to themselves, these parents' reports may be merely the tip of the iceberg. The stories they told revealed an array of fright reactions similar to those I see in students' papers: One child vomited and could not sleep after watching Are You Afraid of the Dark?; another stopped helping his mother cook, something he had previously enjoyed, after seeing a Rescue 911 episode in which a child was burned while cooking; another refused to participate in any outdoor activity after seeing My Girl, a movie in which the popular child actor Macaulay Culkin plays a character who dies after being attacked by a swarm of bees; two children were so scared by TV shows that they were uncomfortable going anywhere alone; and one child began hiding inside the house after viewing The X-Files, fearful that someone was watching her. Night terrors, sleep disturbances, fear of the dark, fear of going to bed alone, and clinging to parents in tears were fairly common responses.

The movies parents named as frightening on this survey ranged from Disney movies such as Dumbo and Sleeping Beauty to Ghostbusters, Kindergarten Cop, and Silence of the Lambs. Many parents were surprised by their children's intense reactions and felt powerless when it came to stemming the source. One mother, for example, said it bothered her that there were no warnings before advertisements for frightening or violent movies, which can pop up on TV at almost any time.

What the phone survey suggests, then, is that these adverse effects exist not just in the memories of college students. They are important enough and obvious enough to have been noticed by many parents. Although many children undoubtedly keep their distress to themselves, quite a few involve their parents in their problem either by choice or because they can't help it.

Why There's No Easy Solution

After reading all these examples of children who have been traumatized by such a wide variety of television and film offerings, you might be wondering if there is any escape from these horrors, short of donating your TV to charity. The distressing fact is, however, that even if yours is one of the few families who don't have a TV or who guard their children's access to it with vigilance, what your child sees is not always in your control.

For one thing, many children like to watch scary programs, and some will try to overcome parental restrictions. Students' reports are full of inventive ways they have found to see forbidden shows without their parents' knowledge.

For another, young children are often exposed to what their older brothers and sisters or baby-sitters are watching. And even the most cautious and aware parents can't always prevent their children from seeing scary shows at the homes of friends or at school or day care. Different families, teachers, and caregivers often have different attitudes about television. Many parents are hesitant to convey their restrictions to the parents of their children's friends for fear of looking old-fashioned or being perceived as controlling.

Even assuming, though, that what your child sees is largely within your control, there are still complicating issues that need to be faced. "Just don't let your children watch horror movies or scary TV shows," you might say. But it's not that simple. It is often very hard for parents to predict what will disturb their children. "I had no idea it would scare him!" is a frequent refrain. Can a parent be fairly blamed for expecting a movie called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory -- or, for that matter, Sleeping Beauty or Dumb -- to be benign? The way children see things and make sense of them is very different from the way we adults see the world and reason about it -- an idea I will explain in detail over the course of this book.

"But my child knows what's real and what's make-believe," you might say. Again, things are not as straightforward as they appear. As this book will explain, younger children have a difficult time differentiating fantasy from reality. And even when they begin to know what's real and what's make-believe, there are many reasons why make-believe is scary, too.

And then there's the news, which is not make-believe. News stories about such horrors as the Persian Gulf War, the Oklahoma City bombing, the abduction and murder of children, and even tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes have been deeply upsetting to many children. A vigilant parent might avoid watching the news with children around, but what about that dreaded bulletin about the terrorist bombing of a jetliner that can crop up at any moment? Real stories such as these, that raise genuine threats to all of us, are especially challenging for parents to help their children handle.

Finally, entertainment fare in general has become more graphic and horrifying. The myriad cable channels and booming video-rental business ensure that there is virtually no escape from at least occasional exposure to frightening TV shows and movies. Even advertisements for scary movies have left some children traumatized.

For all these reasons, you need advice not only on how to prevent your child's fright reactions but also on the best ways to help your child cope with something scary while watching it and the best strategies to deal with your child's fright once it occurs.

How This Book Can Help

I want to say at the outset that my goal in writing this book is not to launch a crusade against all potentially scary TV and movie material. I am not out to ban Snow White, for example, simply because some young children have nightmares about the wicked queen. Rather, by examining this long-neglected topic, I wish to accomplish four things:

Sound an alert for parents. You may not know how much frightening material your child is viewing or whether it's causing more harm than you realize. Unless you know how pervasive media-induced fright reactions are and how intense and long-lasting they can be, you probably won't know how important it is to be careful about what your child views. And you may not know the right questions to pose when he wakes up in the middle of a nightmare or suddenly refuses to engage in an activity you thought he enjoyed.

Help you predict the kind of material that is likely to scare your child. I will use concepts from developmental psychology to explain which aspects of TV shows and movies frighten children at different ages, and why. Children and adults have different ways of interpreting what they see, and parents who wish to make sensible judgments about what their child can handle must learn to consider material from a child's point of view. Providing you with this knowledge will help you decide for yourself whether a particular movie or TV show may be too scary for your child -- and reduce your need to rely on reviewers, marketing campaigns, your child's friends, or other parents. I hope it will also give you confidence in your own judgments and help you communicate the basis for your choices in a way that seems reasonable to the other people who take care of your children.

Guide you in calming your child's fears. Based on the many studies and interviews I have conducted and on principles of child development, I will explain different techniques for calming fears and show how some strategies that work for older kids are ineffective for younger ones and vice versa. In addition, by explaining the reasons why certain techniques are appropriate for certain ages, I hope to enable you to tailor your own coping strategies to the specific needs of your child.

Advise you on how best to shield your child from traumatic content. Your child may want to watch scary programs even if they produce negative side-effects. I'll explain some of the psychological reasons for this, discuss ways to communicate tactfully about viewing restrictions, and describe some additional resources available to parents, such as program ratings and TV-blocking technologies.

One way I believe that this book will distinguish itself from other literature you have read on children and television is that I will not just be giving advice; I will be explaining the psychology behind the advice so that you can apply these principles to new programs and in new situations. My conclusions are based not only on the findings of others but on fifteen years of my own research, including observations of children as they watch television, surveys of parents, and the vivid recollections of hundreds of young adults as they look back on their earlier fright experiences.

It is my greatest hope that parents, grandparents, teachers, and other caregivers will turn to this book for aid and comfort -- and pass that on to the children in their lives.
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Re: "Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children

Postby admin » Wed Oct 23, 2013 6:43 pm

CHAPTER TWO: Through a Child's Eyes

"I Had No Idea It Would Be So Scary"


Why is it so hard to know when your child will be frightened by TV? There are two big issues here. One is that when our children are not under our direct supervision, they see programs we might restrict them from viewing if we knew they were watching them. The other is that, even when we are aware of what our children are watching, it is difficult for most parents to predict what will frighten them.

Why We Don't Know What They're Watching

When I was about six or seven years old my parents went out for the evening and left me with a baby-sitter. The CBS network was carrying a movie that night which dealt with a literal swarm of tarantulas taking over a small town and biting all of the inhabitants until they succumbed to the poison of the tarantulas' venom. My parents had instructed the baby-sitter to not let me watch this film, but the baby-sitter was watching it and I just went into the room and sat down. She did nothing to stop me. . . . While the scenes were a little frightening then, the feelings have remained, and every time I see a spider I think of this movie.... [O]verall, it is hard to believe that exposure to this one film fifteen years ago could have this lasting effect.


An undeniable fact of family life is that most parents do not have total control over their children's exposure to television and films. With busy, working parents, multiple TV sets in the home, and media available at schools, day care, and at the houses of friends, very few parents have the security of knowing exactly when their children are watching TV or what they're viewing. And, even if your child is not especially interested in watching scary material, there are many forces that make it more likely that your child will come upon something distressing.

Our retrospective study of college students showed that more than half of those who reported a long-term fright reaction had not particularly wanted to see the program that had caused them to be so upset. They saw it for other reasons. Often, we see what I have come to call the baby-sitter effect, which was exemplified at the beginning of this chapter.

Another frequent scenario is that older brothers and sisters are interested in a scary movie, and the younger siblings just happen to be there. One young man reported on his younger sister's fright response and said he still felt responsible for what had happened to her many years earlier:

When Poltergeist came out on cable in the early 1980s, my brother, my younger sister, and I sat down in front of the television to watch this unexpected horror film. My brother and I were fine, but my younger sister was affected by this movie in an extreme way. My sister was around ten years old when she experienced this film and it wasn't till she was thirteen that she was able to fall asleep in her bed rather than in our mother and father's .... Today, I really feel terrible for my sister that she had to go through this. Is it possible that she would be a different person today if she hadn't watched the scariest movie of all time, according to her?


Often children see frightening movies at a friend's house. Sometimes the absence of parental restrictions is coupled with peer pressure to be brave and macho:

When I was seven years old, I watched (although it felt like I witnessed) Friday the Thirteenth, Part 2. My family didn't have cable television or any movie channels but my friend Mark's family did. One day, just he and I watched Jason Voorhees chop up and mutilate a camp full of oversexed teenagers. I hadn't seen an R-rated movie before this gruesome experience. It blew me away. I stayed for the entirety of the film because I didn't want Mark to think I was a "wussy," and I was also morbidly fascinated by something I'd never been exposed to. After viewing the film, I had nightmares for weeks. I would even lie awake at night (with all the lights on) wondering how long it would take Jason and his twenty-inch blade to find me!


Even a movie promo can induce lasting fears:

When I was about eleven years old there was a movie on TV called The Burning Bed. It was, I believe, the story of an abused wife who gets fed up and douses her husband with gasoline while he's sleeping. She starts the bed on fire and he burns to death (I assume). I never watched the movie but I saw the ad for it on TV and it scared me to death .... I never really worried that someone would start my bed on fire, but I was suddenly certain that we were going to have a house fire which would eventually reach my bedroom and my bed. I would lie awake as long as I could, trying to stay alert, trying to smell the smoke that I knew was going to come creeping under my door.


Although many fright stories reveal that children's exposure to scary movies was due to chance or to the viewing choices of people around them, quite a few others tell about children who really wanted to see the movie that ultimately scared them. Many students report viewing in secret, against their parents' wishes:

When I was about ten years old my mother and father were planning to watch An American Werewolf in London on television .... I wanted to stay up and watch it with them. My mother explained to me that she did not feel that it would be a good idea. Needless to say, I was upset and determined to watch the man turn into a werewolf. They put me to bed and the movie started. I waited fifteen minutes and then sneaked into our living room. My parents could not see me because the couch was positioned with their backs to me.


The young girl who confessed this intrigue watched the movie for only about a half hour and returned to her bed without getting caught. But her fright response prevented her from pulling off her caper successfully:

That night I had an awful dream. I dreamt that a pack of werewolves was surrounding my bed. They were all drooling blood and growling. They did not jump on my bed to eat me, so I felt safe. This allowed me to dream that I was going back to sleep again. But then I realized that I had to go to the bathroom. Here was the problem: If I relieved my bodily function properly, I would be eaten and slashed by many werewolves. Therefore, I could not get off my bed. This dream seemed so real to me that I actually ended up peeing in my bed. I explained to my mother what happened. I got grounded, but we remember this episode as if it happened yesterday.


Why We Can't Tell What They're "Seeing"

Perhaps many adults would expect shows like Friday the Thirteenth and Poltergeist to be scary, at least if they saw them first. Presumably if parents had been aware that their children were viewing these shows, they might not have been surprised by their reactions. But many other offerings that produce fright seem utterly harmless. Little House on the Prairie is a prime example of a title that sounds just too family-friendly to invite parental concern. (I've noticed that students are especially embarrassed to mention that program in class discussions of their fright, particularly because of its name and reputation.) Parents who are trying to be vigilant are often misled by titles, advertising and promotional gimmicks, the presence of a particular actor, the source or studio producing a movie, or a movie's Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating. One concerned parent describes being mistakenly reassured:

My children had been wanting to see the movie Jumanji since it starred Robin Williams and they had enjoyed watching other Robin Williams movies like Mrs. Doubtfire. It seemed, from the previews I'd seen, to be an entertaining movie for children. It was rated PC. I hadn't heard anything negative about it, so we rented it. My thirteen-year-old thought it was funny and enjoyed it immensely. My eight-year-old was a bit fearful of it but still entertained by it. My six-year-old, who's normally very daring and adventurous, was terrified of the elephants and rhinoceroses and other huge animals chasing people through houses and refused to leave my side the rest of the day, despite my assurances that it was just a movie and couldn't really happen.


This mother was facing a problem that is confronted by most families with more than one child: the difficulty of selecting a movie that will entertain the older children without traumatizing the younger ones. I will return to this problem in a later chapter because there's no easy solution to it. For a large portion of what is available in the media, what is right for one age group is definitely wrong for another.

In addition, this mother was relying on the MPAA rating of PG: "Parental Guidance Suggested," and she assumed that the movie would be relatively mild in its impact. In a later chapter, I will discuss this rating system in more detail and explain why it is so hard to rely on movie ratings in making viewing choices for children.

Even G-rated movies, those that are supposed to be for "General Audiences," including children, often aren't that safe for young children. Most parents mistakenly assume that a G rating means there's nothing to worry about. Animated, G-rated fairy tale and adventure features provide a good example of this misunderstanding. These movies are a staple of preschooler entertainment, yet when viewed by young children, they often produce fears that last well beyond the time of viewing. I have received reports of children's persistent fears related to many of these features, from Bambi, Dumbo, and Pinocchio to Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Parents who report their children's reactions to these movies are often surprised by the intensity of their child's response.

Why not attack fairy tales, then, you might ask? You may have heard the argument that children's folk stories, and fairy tales, in particular, have always had scary and gruesome elements. Some well-known psychoanalysts have proposed that these stories allow children to work through "traumas that are seething in the unconscious." First, let me say that I have never seen any evidence that fairy tales have this positive effect. But even if such "unconscious" effects might occur from hearing or reading fairy tales, reading a story or being read to is very different from watching television and movies, particularly for young children.

One way in which written fairy tales differ from television and movies is in the way they are usually received by the child. Children who are old enough to read the words can pace themselves according to how much they can handle, and the story will become only as frightening as their imagination lets it be. But, in any event, most children are first exposed to fairy tales by listening to an adult read the words to them. In viewing situations, in contrast, the adult mediator is gone, and often no adult is present at all.

I remember the first time I read the book version of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to my then four-year-old son. Although I myself had seen the movie as a child, I couldn't help being unnerved as I read aloud that the wicked queen ordered the huntsman to cut out Snow White's heart because she was jealous of the girl's beauty. I found myself doing a bit of selective editing then and there, doling out the story in smaller, gentler doses, because I was sensitive to the impact it would have. I also noticed how frightening my son found some of the visual images in the book, which were stills taken from the animated Disney feature. I was very glad he was first exposed to this story with me as a "translator" and reassuring presence, rather than having the movie or video version thrust upon him full force.

Had he first seen the movie or video, he would have seen the entire story (or all that he could take!) without editing for his needs, and the visual images would not only have been larger, they would have been in motion. Illustrations in a book are generally less frightening than motion pictures because our brains are wired to react more intensely to moving images (especially threatening images that seem to be coming toward us). I particularly remember my own fear as a child watching Snow White when the heroine was lost in the forest. What at first looked like normal trees suddenly sprouted bright yellow eyes and took on the appearance of monsters that grabbed at her as she tried unsuccessfully to escape. Animated adventure features are especially full of grotesque, evil characters who move rapidly and threateningly toward their intended victims and seemingly toward the viewing audience as well.

One young man's memory illustrates the intensity of a child's reaction to a classic Disney film:

When I was seven my sister took me to a showing of Alice in Wonderland. Throughout the movie I felt uncomfortable with the world that Alice was blundering through. One thing that really frightened me was the grinning Cheshire Cat character. Its evil smile and hissing speech had a lasting effect on me. For years afterward I was afraid of cats and don't care for them even now. But the most intense fear that I have ever experienced was the portion of the movie where Alice is captured by the Queen and her army of "card-men." When the Queen screamed, "Off with her head!" I snapped. I started to cry and hid beneath my seat, cowering from the images on the screen. I remember being unable to sleep well for about a week after the experience. My parents had to go to great lengths to assure me that no one was going to behead me while I slept.... One thing that I think had an impact on the intensity of my experience was the fact that my parents were not sitting next to me. Without them I was literally at the mercy of the images on the screen.


But why is it, you may ask, that young children respond so intensely to these apparently fun, animated, totally unrealistic movies? Don't they know (and don't we tell them often enough) that what is shown in them is totally unreal and could never happen? Isn't it unreasonable for children to be frightened by these movies that are intended mainly for their entertainment? What's going on here?

What's going on here is that young children are viewing these movies through a child's eyes. What we are seeing as adults and what they are seeing as children are, for all intents and purposes, entirely different movies. It is difficult for parents, but extremely important, to be able to see television and movies in the way their child will see them.

The young man who recalled his reaction to Alice in Wonderland showed some insight into this issue while trying to explain the intensity of his reaction:

A small child tends to believe what is presented to him and take it at face value. I took the Cheshire Cat and the beheading to be real and transferred it to my own life.


The Importance of Understanding Child Development

I became interested in studying children's fright reactions to television partly because of the unpredictability of these effects. I didn't find it especially odd that people were having nightmares from Jaws or Psycho, but it intrigued me that so many parents were perplexed about their children's reactions to movies and programs that they did not expect would frighten them. I also found it fascinating that children of different ages seemed to be frightened by different types of programs and events. It might seem logical to expect that the youngest children would be the most frightened by just about every scary image, and that as children matured, all media offerings would become less frightening. But this is not what I was observing. As children get older, some things become less frightening, but other things that have not been disturbing in the past suddenly begin to terrorize.

My approach was to turn to developmental psychology for insights. What do child psychologists know, I wondered, about how children see and reason about the world at different ages? To begin to answer this question I immersed myself in the writings of Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist who is generally credited with being the founder of the field of developmental psychology. Like many great researchers, Piaget stumbled onto the field that he made his life's work somewhat by accident.

Early in his career, Piaget was hired to help produce items for intelligence tests. In other words, he was developing questions that would reflect children's intellectual development. What came to fascinate Piaget more than differentiating between the smarter kids, who got the right answers, and the less smart kids, who did not, was the types of errors that young children made consistently. You might expect, for example, that up to a certain age, children would not know the right answer to a particular problem and that they therefore would be uncertain or choose a variety of wrong responses. Instead, what Piaget observed was that for some tasks, the young children who got them wrong would respond without hesitation. And not only would they be sure they were right, they would all choose the same "wrong" answer. What adults saw as the wrong answer was clearly "right" for them.

A typical task involved showing children two ball-shaped globs of clay that were the same size. After getting them to agree that both balls had the same amount of clay, Piaget would let them watch as he rolled one of the balls out into a long, thin, snake shape. Then he would ask whether they both still had the same amount of clay or whether one had more than the other. Piaget found that four- and five-year-olds usually replied without hesitation that the clay in the form of the snake had more. Nine- and ten-year-olds almost always recognized that the two globs of clay had the same amount. From observing many examples like this, Piaget became fascinated with what these younger children were seeing that their older counterparts were not, and he spent the rest of his eighty-odd years observing and chronicling how children of different ages see the world around them and make sense of it.

What, you may now be asking, does the shape of globs of clay have to do with children's fright reactions to television? Piaget did not focus on the topic of children's fears, but as I read about his research and the generalizations he made about children's thought processes, I couldn't help thinking that the types of viewing and reasoning differences Piaget observed in children would have direct effects on their emotional reactions to the images and events they received through television. What particularly fascinated me about these differences was that many of them weren't intuitively obvious. By the time we become adults, we forget many aspects of the way the world seemed to us as children.

What follows in the next few chapters is an examination of some of the major patterns that Piaget and other developmental psychologists have observed in the way children of different ages see the world and reason about it, and how these can be applied to understanding children's emotional reactions to television. In addition to explaining these concepts and giving examples, I will report on the research I have done that confirms these principles. I will also explain how you can use this information in guiding your children's viewing and helping them cope with any unwanted reactions they may have.

Of Ages, Stages, and Your Uniquely Individual Child

Before getting started on the specifics of how some basic principles of child development can help you understand your child's reactions to television, I want to inject a few words of caution about the use of age guidelines. One way in which research on child development is sometimes misunderstood is that people expect age guidelines to be absolute and inflexible. As you well know, not all children develop at exactly the same rate. Most age guidelines used in this book should be considered broad trends around which most children will group, but for which there may be many exceptions. For example, the age at which a child begins to be more frightened by real than by fantasy figures (as discussed in chapter 5) may vary somewhat from child to child. But it should be helpful to know that preschool children are generally more frightened by fantasy figures, and that by the end of elementary school most children are more frightened by things that could really happen.

Another thing to keep in mind is that although this book will focus on specific aspects of television programs, one at a time, all programs contain many elements that work together to affect the emotions of children. A fantasy program may be extremely vivid or not; it may contain eerie-sounding music or not; and it may deal with an issue that is of concern to your child at the moment of viewing or the whole idea may be entirely new. For example, a girl who we might otherwise expect to be too old or too young to react intensely to a particular type of show might be frightened because it relates to something that is currently going on in her family. In short, although we will be considering various elements of programs separately, they must be thought of as part of a whole when determining whether a particular program scares a particular child.

And, of course, we must never forget that you are the person who knows your child the best, and all the advice here should be considered in the context of what you already know about your child. Your child may be outgoing and adventurous or shy and hesitant to try new things. She may love or hate roller coasters, and she may be a sound sleeper or one whose sleep is easily disturbed. She may live in a dangerous neighborhood or in peaceful surroundings. She may or may not have already been exposed to the death or severe illness of family members. And she may already love or hate to watch scary things on television.

Finally, you may have more than one child, and even children in the same family can differ dramatically. All of the guidelines I will be providing here will need to be filtered through a knowledge of each child's personality and experiences. You may have one child for whom scary programs are a problem, and another who can't seem to get enough of them. This entire book should be helpful to you in dealing with your easily frightened child, but parts will also enhance your understanding of your thrill seekers. In that particular regard, chapters 9, 10, and 11 deal with why children like scary programs and how parents can discourage them from overexposure without accidentally making these programs more tantalizing.

With these considerations in mind, let us move on to some specifics of how young children's manner of thinking and seeing makes them respond with fright to programs and movies that few adults would expect to be traumatic.
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Re: "Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children

Postby admin » Wed Oct 23, 2013 7:26 pm

CHAPTER THREE: Appearance, Appearance, Appearance

Beauty's More Than Skin Deep


Even though the amazing powers of the Bionic Woman saved the day, the image of the monster stayed with me. Time and again my dreams contained at least some slow-motion footage of the creature that would cause me to wake up with a start.


A Picture's Worth a Million Words

About the time I was beginning to look at children's fright reactions from the perspective of child development, my husband and I built an addition onto our house. Toward the beginning of the construction process, an old friend dropped by with his three-year-old son, Sam. As we sat on our deck reminiscing about old times, Sam's attention became fully fixated upon the large crater in the ground right next to where we were sitting. The sight was, objectively speaking, horrible. Right after the construction crews had dug the hole, we had had torrential rains, and the area was in complete disarray. With the demolition work that had been carried out in preparation for the construction, the yard looked more like the site of a bombing than the place where a handsome new room would soon be built. Sam repeatedly interrupted us, asking the same question over and over. "What's that hole?" he would say, and we would repeatedly answer, saying something like "That's where they're going to build our new living room." During each explanation, Sam would turn toward us and away from the hole, and then nod his head as if he understood. But the next time he turned his head and saw the hole, the explanation would evaporate from his mind, and he would anxiously ask the same question again. After repeated attempts on our part to explain what the hole was for, and after a good deal of irritation on the part of Sam's father, we simply gave up.

Although we failed to reassure Sam, my familiarity with Piaget made me realize that he was exhibiting an important characteristic of the way preschool children react to the world around them: The visual image Sam was dealing with was simply too powerful to be explained away in words.

Research shows that very young children respond to things mainly in terms of how they appear. When Piaget tried to analyze young children's reactions to different-shaped globs of clay, he reasoned that one of their problems was that the longer, thinner glob looked bigger. A follower of Piaget noted that young children focus on and react to whatever "clamors loudest for their attention," often ignoring other things that are available to see and hear. In the clay test, the length of the glob seems to grab children's attention more easily than its circumference.

In general, what clamors loudest for the young child's attention is whatever is the most immediately and easily perceived -- whatever is the most vividly visual or makes the most intense noise and whatever needs no learning or interpretation to appreciate. Often what grabs the child's attention the most is what something looks like, but sometimes sounds that are striking or peculiar do the same thing. I'll focus first on the effect of visual appearance because we know the most about this.

If you ask preschool children to group a set of pictures according to which things go together, they will usually match items that look alike. They might pair things that are the same color or the same size or the same shape and show little concern for things that belong together for other reasons. Suppose we give preschoolers four pictures: a blue hammer, a red saw, a blue fork, and a red plate. These children are likely to match the two red things and the two blue things. But as they come closer to the age of seven or so, they are more and more likely to say that the hammer goes with the saw and the fork goes with the plate because older children give color less importance and begin to think about things belonging together that are used together or have a similar function. Color is a much more obvious visual characteristic of these items; their function is something that is learned over time.

The implications of these findings for the types of things that should frighten children on television seemed clear to me. If young children react most strongly to the appearance of things when they are asked to sort them, shouldn't looks count the most heavily in what frightens them? If this is the case, things that look scary should be the most frightening to preschool children. The first thing my colleagues and I did to explore this idea was to ask parents which programs and movies had frightened their children the most. We gave a written questionnaire to parents of children from eleven preschools and eight elementary schools, asking them to list the television shows or movies that had caused the most fear and distress in their child. The results suggested that I might be right. What frightened preschoolers the most according to parents? The Incredible Hulk, an adventure program starring a monstrous-looking superhero, and The Wizard of Oz. Both of these shows feature grotesque, green-faced, scary-looking characters.

We can see the importance of appearance in the retrospective reports of many college students who remember their fear of the Hulk:

I can still vividly recall every detail -- the green skin, the bulging biceps, and the gnarly black mop of hair.


Similarly, when college students talk about their nightmares from The Wizard of Oz, many of them emphasize the frightening appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West. Here are some typical examples:

For me, the thing that topped all of these was the Wicked Witch of the West from the movie classic The Wizard of Oz. Her scary, screeching voice, her green skin, her broomstick, and her big black hat all haunted me for years after first seeing the movie at age six.

The witches and the monkeys caused me to either run out of the room or at least close my eyes.... The images are so vivid with the witch's green face and ugly features along with that horrifying voice and laugh.


Many other memories of fright experienced by young children also focus on visual aspects of the terror-producing movie or TV show. Here's a typical example:

When I was five or six years old, I viewed the movie Tarantulas. It was a black-and-white B-rated [sic] film that would strike many people as either funny or silly if viewed at an older age. The contents of the movie escape my mind except that I am still left with the lingering image of an ungodly-sized tarantula walking over a city as mass crowds run from the forthcoming destruction .... Nothing has scared me quite like that since, and I sometimes wonder if my keen dislike of spiders and spidery things stems from my initial step past the boundaries of reality, dealing with that tarantula.


The next example shows a college student's memory of watching Star Trek when he was four years old. Note the striking detail of the writer's memory and his keen emphasis on the visual images:

Throughout the entire episode, people dropped like flies, yet watching the corpses pile up is not what truly terrified me. What sent shivers up my spine was seeing what this "salt vampire" really looked like. Ugly would have been an understatement. This creature had deeply inset black eyes, a large gaping mouth which sported several sharp fangs, and was covered from head to toe with long, unkempt, dirty gray hair. Another notable feature was the creature's suction cup-like "salt-suckers" on its palms and fingers, which it used to extract the victim's salt directly from their face (yeech!). I distinctly remember that those "suckers" unnerved me more than anything else. This was easily the scariest thing that this particular four-year-old had ever seen. The image of this grotesquely hideous creature kept me awake the entire night. I had this fear that a salt vampire was going to grab me from underneath my bed, suck out my face, and end my life.


When Appearance Competes with Other Factors

Although the anecdotes were fascinating and the survey research was encouraging, I knew I needed to study the effect of appearance more systematically. Older children and adults are also sometimes upset by gory, grotesque images. What I really wanted to know was whether young children are more sensitive to grotesque visual images than older children. Although we had many more examples of intense reactions to scary-looking characters in younger than in older children, my colleagues and I answered the question about how sensitive to appearance different age groups are by doing a controlled experiment.

As I explained earlier, developmental research on matching tasks shows that in addition to being more likely to respond to how things look, preschool children are less likely than older children to respond to other aspects of a situation. As children move into the middle and later elementary-school years, they give other types of information more weight -- information that is not as closely tied to appearance. What we wanted to do in our research, then, was to test the idea that younger children are more sensitive to the appearance of characters than older children, and that older children are more sensitive than younger children to other aspects of a program, such as what the character says or does or the character's good or evil intentions.

We produced a video in four versions so that we could systematically vary both the appearance and the behavior of a character while leaving the story identical in every other respect. In our video, the main character, an old woman, was created with two very different appearances: She appeared either ugly and witchlike or attractive and grandmotherly. In the story, the old woman was seen to behave either kindly or cruelly.

The story involves two curious children who enter an old woman's house, uninvited, to retrieve their wandering dog. When they suddenly hear her voice, they hide under her dining-room table and watch as she discovers a stray cat in her front hall. In the "kind" scenario, the old woman welcomes the cat, cuddling it in her arms, and cheerfully feeds it a bowl of cream. In the "cruel" scenario, she yells at the cat, throws it down the basement stairs, and threatens to starve it. The video does not have a true ending. The tape stops just as the old woman is about to find the children.

There were four versions of the story: one in which the main character was ugly and kind; one in which she was ugly and cruel; one in which she was attractive and kind; and one in which she was attractive and cruel. In the experiment, we showed our videos to children in three age groups. The youngest children were between three and five; children in the middle group were six or seven; and those in the oldest group were nine or ten. Each child saw only one of the four versions.

What we found in this experiment was just what we expected. When we asked the children to rate how nice or mean the old lady was, the youngest group was most affected by how the old woman looked and least affected by how she had behaved. On the whole, the youngest children tended to think the woman was nice when she was attractive and mean when she was ugly. As the age of the children increased, the woman's looks made less and less of a difference. At the same time, the woman's behavior became more important as the children got older. In addition, when they were asked to predict what the woman would do to the children when she found them, the youngest group was strongly affected by the way she looked. Her pleasant looks made them more likely to say she would serve the children cookies, and her ugly looks made more of them think she would lock them up in a closet! Older children's expectations were not affected by what she looked like. Only her prior behavior influenced their predictions.

It is important to note that this study did not show that appearances never affect the reactions of older children. In fact, we did a second study where we showed children pictures of the old woman and asked them how they expected her to behave in a TV program. Without information about her behavior, children in all three age groups expected the ugly woman to be mean and the attractive woman to be nice. All children, and even adults, engage in stereotyping to some extent. What the first experiment showed is that when a situation involves both vivid appearances and other information that is less obviously visual, younger children are more influenced by appearance and less influenced by the other information than older children are.

As a generalization, then, we can say that preschool children are more likely to be frightened by something that looks scary but is actually harmless than by something that looks attractive but is actually harmful. As children get older, they come to understand that looks and behavior may be inconsistent, and they are frightened by things that cause harm but do not necessarily have a vivid visual presence. The Amityville Horror is a good example of a movie with a dangerous but largely invisible evil force. In the survey we conducted in the early eighties, this movie was reported to have scared many more older children than younger ones.

The Day After is another good example of a movie that frightened older children more than younger ones because the threat it depicted was more abstract than vividly visual. This made-for-TV movie depicted a Kansas community in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Prior to its airing, the program was described as "bringing the unwatchable to TV" and "the starkest nightmare ever broadcast."

Although some national education groups and many elementary schools urged that younger children be shielded from viewing the movie, we felt that this advice was misplaced. The movie's major theme involves the abstract threat of nuclear annihilation, with the real horror of the movie coming from the contemplation of the end of civilization as we know it. These are terrifying concepts, yet they are beyond the mental capacity of the young child and cannot be conveyed in pictures.

Contrary to general expectations, we thought the movie would be more terrifying the more the viewer had the mental capacity to grasp these abstract themes. When we conducted a random phone survey of parents the night after the movie aired, we found that children under twelve were much less disturbed by the film than were teenagers. (In fact, the parents reported being more disturbed than their children!) The very youngest children who saw the movie (three- to seven-year-olds) were not at all upset. Indeed, when parents of the youngest group of children were asked whether any TV shows or movies had scared their child more than The Day After, they named such apparently benign offerings as the animated movie Charlotte's Web and the children's show Captain Kangaroo. Parents of teenagers, in contrast, said that The Day After had been the most frightening thing their child had seen all year.

These results are not surprising when you consider the cognitive abilities of young children. Public opinion about the movie's effects was based on an adult view of the movie rather than an understanding that young children would be relatively unmoved by the film's abstract, while admittedly devastating, implications.

The Wicked Beauty and the Kindhearted Beast

The fact that preschool children react mainly on the basis of appearance is especially important when they confront situations in which physical appearance contrasts with other aspects of a character or situation. In the typical story where you have an ugly villain and a handsome hero or beautiful heroine, preschool children generally have no problem understanding the intended characterization. But they often react in unexpected ways when the hero is ugly or an evil character is beautiful.

On a personal note, this explains my puzzlement the first time I saw Gone with the Wind at about the age of five. I was so impressed with Scarlett O'Hara's beauty that I remember not being able to understand why everybody was criticizing her for being selfish and coldhearted. She was so beautiful, and to me she could do no wrong. It wasn't until I was much older that I could put looks aside and make any sense of the story line.

The monstrous but admirable Incredible Hulk is another good example of a hero bound to be misunderstood by young children. I have even received several retrospective reports from students who were frightened by The Count on Sesame Street. Although this muppet is there to teach numbers and not to frighten kids, some children are alarmed by his vampire-like appearance. And of course, there's E.T., that lovable extraterrestrial from the movie of the same name. Many parents have reported how frightened their preschoolers were of the central character of this heartwarming movie. It didn't matter to these children how kind and sweet and helpful E.T. was, nor how many times parents tried to explain the creature's lovable nature; children were still extremely upset.

In trying to predict whether a television show or movie will frighten children up to about six or seven, then, it is most important to first look at the visual images that will confront them. If these images are gory or grotesque, my advice is to wait.

The following description recounts a sad example of the impact of parents not anticipating the power of grotesque visual images:

When I was five years old, my parents took me to a drive-in theater to see a movie. They chose an adult-oriented film, The Elephant Man, because they thought that I would fall asleep in the car. They regret making that assumption to this day. Surprisingly, I stayed awake through the whole film, absorbing enough of it to be traumatized for the next couple of years. The movie is a true story based on the life of John Merrick, a nineteenth-century Englishman who was afflicted with a disease that left him horribly deformed. He became part of a freak show and always wore a paper bag over his head so that people couldn't see his horribly disfigured face. When I saw the Elephant Man in the movie, I thought he was the ugliest, meanest monster I had ever seen. In an attempt to ease my fears, my father would always explain that the Elephant Man wasn't a monster; he was really a nice man that everybody just misunderstood. The Elephant Man would never hurt a little girl, he said, and he couldn't help it that he had a disfiguring disease.

I don't think for my parents slept very much during the next two years. I had terrible nightmares that the Elephant Man with a paper bag over his head was chasing after me. I would wake up screaming and crying, then I would be too afraid to close my eyes again. I was sure that he was hiding in my closet, under my bed, or behind the shower curtain in the bathroom.


This example is telling not only because of the intensity of the fear that the movie produced, but because it shows how the visual image overpowered the message of the film in this child's mind. Adults, too, might be woefully upset after viewing this movie. As adults, though, we would probably empathize with Merrick as a victim, and perhaps we would feel shame that our society so mistreats individuals whose only crime is to be unsightly. That message was lost on this young child. To her, the Elephant Man was the villain, and he appeared in her dreams as her attacker. This response is not unusual. As we will see in the next chapter, many nightmares about the Incredible Hulk involve fears of being attacked by this benevolent but grotesque creature.

Are Some Images Naturally Scary?

But why are young children so quick to consider certain images scary? Just what makes something attractive or repulsive to a child or, for that matter, to most of us? Many people have noted that beauty is often defined by the norms of a particular culture and that standards of beauty are learned, to a certain extent. There is great variation in what people find beautiful in another person, and no doubt there are great differences in what people call ugly.

But what is it that causes certain visual images to be repulsive and scary instantaneously, even to infants and very young children? Young children do not have to be taught to fear ugly witches and creepy-looking monsters; they do this automatically. And many of us have what seems to be an inbred fear of snakes. Are we born with the predisposition to recoil in terror at certain visual images?

Well, it seems that we are, and there's a good reason for this tendency. If we look at the theory of evolution, it suggests that species that are alive today are here because they had certain characteristics that helped many of them survive long enough to produce offspring. One such tendency might be an innate capacity to fear things that are likely to be harmful and to respond quickly to the sight of danger. An evolutionary view would suggest that the animals we most readily fear, even today, look similar to those that were the most threatening to the survival of our species' ancestors. Research shows that without learning, humans easily become frightened by some things that may or may not be dangerous. Certain types of animals, for example, especially snakes and spiders, more readily evoke fear than other types. Somehow a snake seems easier to fear than a bear, although the bear may well be more dangerous to us. Perhaps because of our evolutionary past, most children find certain animals repulsive and others cute, although they may adjust their reactions as they mature and get to know the animals better.

Other visual images also seem to upset and frighten us automatically. We seem predisposed to be repulsed by the graphic display of injuries. This tendency makes evolutionary sense, too, since the presence of a mutilated corpse or a severely bloodied and injured animal probably meant to our ancestors that a predator was close at hand and that they were in danger as well.

A third type of visual image that automatically repels and scares us is physical deformity. Part of our response may be due to the association of deformities with injuries and disease, and part may be due to the justifiable fear of unknown species. We automatically recoil (even if we learn to control this response as adults) at disfigured faces and deformed limbs. We also respond with distress to distortions of what we come to view as natural. We feel somehow that it is natural to be born with one head, one nose, and one mouth, but two eyes and two ears. We also expect that the head should be attached to the body between the two shoulders. A perfectly normal head attached to the stomach would indeed be disturbing. Deviations from what seems natural are scary. This is where monsters come in.

A monster is simply a distortion of the natural form of a familiar being. Monsters resemble a normal being in many ways but differ in other crucial ways: variations in size (giants and dwarfs), shape (characters with misshapen heads or hunchbacks, for example), skin color or texture (like green faces or hairy bodies), or the number of certain features (one-eyed, three-armed aliens). These things automatically scare us.

And what makes a nondeformed character look scary? Perhaps characteristics that seem likely to be used violently, such as enormous muscles, sharp teeth, and claw-like fingernails. And what makes normal facial features scary? Perhaps the facial features that scare us the most remind us of facial expressions that frighten us, such as those exhibiting anger or fear.

In sum, certain types of animals, the graphic display of injuries, distortions of natural forms, and violent-looking characters all seem designed to immediately upset and frighten us. The makers of horror movies understand this very well and they populate their films with scary images for maximum impact. Young children don't need to be taught to fear them.

What Makes Young Children So Susceptible?

Piaget argued that part of the reason young children react to things differently is biological: The brain actually needs to grow and develop before children can interpret certain things in more mature ways. Although he could not be specific about how the brain functioned or developed, recent findings in neuroscience may now be providing an explanation. Researchers have identified a small part of the brain called the amygdala as the center where innately threatening sights and sounds are received. According to recent research, this region of the brain immediately makes the body respond in fear to certain images, particularly those that signal danger. When this occurs, the body exhibits the so-called fight or flight response, and we experience fear unless or until higher-order processes in other parts of the brain tell it the equivalent of "Never mind, you're not really in danger." The cerebral cortex, where this higher-level processing goes on, is not well developed in younger children. Therefore, it will not be as effective in turning off the immediate fright response. Younger children may remain frightened by the visual image or sound because their brainpower is not sufficient to undo the automatic response. As children get older, however, it seems that their brains develop enough to begin to override their immediate response to scary images. They may still have an initial response of fear, but it goes away more quickly as they are able to put it into the perspective of what else they have come to know. The tendency to be overpowered by visual images, then, is probably a physiologically based response that must be outgrown. Up to the right age, no amount of reasoning will take it away.

Of Shrieks, Screams, and Squeaking Violins

What about young children's susceptibility to eerie sounds? Earlier, I referred to the fact that certain types of intense or peculiar noises, as well as vivid visual images, have the capacity to grab young children's attention. You may remember that the descriptions of the Wicked Witch at the beginning of this chapter referred to the sounds she made as well as her looks. Her "screeching voice" and "horrifying ... laugh" seemed to traumatize these children as much as her pointy features and green skin. Many, many retrospective accounts of scary movies recall the sounds of bloodcurdling yells and musical soundtracks that mimic the noise of an attack or a victim's screams.

The sounds that readily terrorize young children do not come from words. They come from auditory cues that even animals respond to. Long before children learn to understand and use language, they can differentiate between an angry and a loving tone of voice. Sudden loud, unexplained noises make all of us jump before we are even consciously aware of them; the roar or growl of a predator and the shrieks and screams of victims evoke fear in animals as they do in us. Again, it seems that we must be responding to the sounds that our ancestors had to be sensitive to in order to survive.

I remember an incident that happened to my family several years ago when we visited the Milwaukee Public Museum. We were relieved to see that our one-and-a-half-year-old son was enjoying many of the static displays of large dinosaurs and stampeding buffaloes. But we weren't prepared for the terror he experienced as we neared the re-creation of a tropical rain forest. Before we even entered that area, Alex cried out in distress and begged us not to go in there. We could tell he was responding to the sounds that were emanating from these rooms. These were the alarm sounds, we figured out later, that monkeys emit when in extreme danger. The sounds did not mean much to us, but they undoubtedly spoke volumes to Alex. No amount of coaxing was able to convince him to enter that space. It seems that in many cases, soundtracks that make our hair stand on end are likely to frighten very young children even if these children don't understand anything about what's going on in the movie.

Taking Your Child's Perspective

The implications of younger children's hypersensitivity to certain sounds and images are dramatic. Young children can be traumatized by brief exposure to a single bizarre visual or auditory image. It is easy to observe this effect on Halloween, when there are many images involving creepy or vicious animals and distorted or gruesomely injured characters. The popular haunted house that children are invited to explore provides a potpourri of all the images and sounds we readily fear. Older children often find this enjoyable. The problem is that for a very young child, these images can echo vividly in their minds, which do not yet have the ability to moderate their effects.

In scary movies and television programs, we see the same thing. Your young child, up to the age of six or seven, is responding most strongly to the most striking images and sounds and is getting much less of the meaning of the story than you or I would. To view a scary program from a young child's perspective, imagine that you're sitting in the front row of a darkened movie theater, that the volume is turned way up, and the dialogue is in a language you don't understand. You are at the mercy of these vivid visual images and sounds and don't have the brainpower to tune them out or reason them away. What is more, as we will see in chapter 5, what you are seeing is real.

Of course, this all suggests being cautious about what we let young children see. But beyond that, it also argues that we should be understanding of and patient with the intensity and duration of our children's responses. They cannot help it if they are overreacting, and they cannot help it if our reassuring words are unable to dim those images. Telling them it's not real or nagging them to snap out of it will not ease their fears. Fortunately, as we will see in later chapters, there are some things that can reduce their fears. But for the reasons I've explained here, nothing we can do for them after the fact comes anywhere near the effectiveness of prevention.
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Re: "Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children

Postby admin » Wed Oct 23, 2013 7:48 pm

CHAPTER FOUR: The Trouble with Transformations

"All of a Sudden, His Eyes Would Turn a Really Weird Shade of White ... "


One specific instance in which I can recall being completely and utterly mortified was watching The Incredible Hulk at the age of about six. I can vividly remember watching the show, in the dark, on the foot of my parents' bed -- scared to the point that I had to run out of the room and had a near impossible time going to bed later on. Interestingly, in retrospect, The Incredible Hulk was not created to be a frightening program. Whether intended to scare or not, that one instance clearly sticks out in my mind as the most scared I have ever been -- even more than at horror movies in which that is the intent.


If you're familiar with the series The Incredible Hulk, but were not in preschool when it aired in the early 1980s, you may be quite surprised at the intensity of this recollected reaction. However, this young child's fright was far from unusual. In fact, The Incredible Hulk is one of the most intensely disturbing of the shows I have studied in terms of how profoundly it affected preschool and early-elementary-school children.

Although by now I have received dozens of reports from people who were frightened by this program as children, my interest in The Incredible Hulk was stimulated not by reports of children's fear but by Piaget's descriptions of how children between the ages of three and seven respond to the things they see in the world around them. He named this the "preoperational" stage because it occurs before the child can perform some basic mental operations. The stage following the preoperational stage, spanning roughly ages seven to twelve, was termed "concrete operational," recognizing children's ability to perform such operations if a problem is presented in a concrete, perceptible form.

The characteristic of preoperational thought that first caught my attention was what Piaget described as the failure to understand transformations.

What Piaget was talking about was not an emotional response, nor a response to fantasy characters. He was referring to children's performance on test items like the globs-of-clay task I described in chapter 2. Piaget conducted many experiments testing children's ability to "conserve," that is, to see that objects or amounts remain the same even though their physical appearance may change. The classic conservation test began with showing children two identical glasses of water. After children agreed that there was the same amount of water in the two glasses, Piaget would tell the children to watch as he poured the water from one of the glasses into a third glass, of a different shape. Usually the new glass was a lot narrower than the first two glasses, so the water came up to a much higher level. Now Piaget would ask the child whether the new glass contained the same amount as the other glass, sitting right next to it, or whether the new glass had more or less than the other one.

As adults, we know that six ounces of water is six ounces of water, whether it's in a narrow or a wide glass. Yet children under age six or so usually do not see that the amount remains the same, even when the water is poured back and forth before their eyes. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of three- to five-year-olds routinely flunk the conservation test, saying that the narrow glass that's filled to a higher level holds more water. But by the age of nine or ten, almost all children pass this test.

Piaget noted that preschoolers had this same inability to conserve in a variety of physical areas. Not only that, he also found that it was very difficult to train them to get the answer right, even with repeated trials. When attempting to explain what was going on, Piaget proposed that the young child focuses his attention on the two end states of the process -- in this case, what the water looks like in the two different glasses. What the child somehow misses is the process of transformation that links the two (the pouring of the water from one glass to the other).

As I was reading about this research, I could not help thinking that this failure to understand transformations might affect children's reactions to the many physical transformations of characters that occur on television and in films, particularly in those that are scary. How would this inability to understand transformations affect children's responses to movies like Disney's Snow White, where the evil queen suddenly turns into a haggard old witch, or their reactions to werewolf movies, in which normal humans turn into vicious, hairy beasts before the viewer's eyes? At the time I was thinking about these issues, The Incredible Hulk was at the height of its popularity. Because its plot always showed the normal-looking, attractive main character suddenly being transformed into a grotesque monster, I thought to myself, "If Piaget is right about transformations, young children should have trouble with the transformation in this program, and that ought to make it especially scary for them." At the time, I didn't know quite how scary it was.

I soon discovered how frightening young children found this program when I looked at the results of the parent survey we conducted in the spring of 1981. Although we had not suggested any titles -- parents simply wrote in the names of the programs that had scared their child -- we found that The Incredible Hulk overwhelmed all other programs and movies in the replies of parents of young children. Fully 40 percent of the parents of preschoolers listed The Incredible Hulk as a program that had upset their child. In addition, 24 percent of the parents of first graders named it. These were the highest percentages of parents I've ever observed naming any program or movie as scary. And the interesting thing is, The Incredible Hulk wasn't supposed to be a scary program. Most parents didn't realize it was scary until their young child let them know about it.

After finding that young children did indeed find this program scary, at least according to their parents, we designed a study to learn more about the reasons for this reaction. We wanted to know, specifically, whether the transformation had something to do with young children's fear.

First, we put together a short video clip based on a typical episode of the program. In the episode we used, the hero, Dr. David Banner (played by the late Bill Bixby), is visiting a hospital when an explosion occurs and a worker is trapped under debris where a fire is quickly spreading. David first tries to lift the fallen objects to free the helpless, frightened worker, but he is not strong enough. Then, a second explosion hurls David against the wall, and this sets off the transformation.

During the transformation, the camera focuses on David's eyes as the pupils become very small, and then on his arms, shoulders, and muscles, which turn green and grow so fast that they rip out of his shirt. Then the camera shows his feet increasing in size so quickly that they burst through his shoes. Finally, the entire Hulk character is seen throwing off the remains of his tattered shirt. The Hulk (played by body-builder Lou Ferrigno) now has a green face, wild hair, and bushy eyebrows, in addition to a grotesquely muscular physique.

With his superhuman strength, the Hulk easily removes the debris that is trapping the worker, carries him out of danger, and sets him down gently. Then he races through the hospital corridor, inadvertently scaring hospital employees left and right, and exits, growling, by jumping through a plate-glass window.

Once we had put this clip together, we wanted to see whether children whom Piaget would consider preoperational would react differently from children in Piaget's concrete operational stage. So we recruited children in preschool and elementary school to watch our excerpt. The preschool group ranged in age from three to five years; the elementary-school children were nine to eleven years old.

What did we expect to happen? If Piaget was right that preschool children do not understand transformations, we expected that our younger group would not understand that when the Hulk emerges, he is still David, the good guy, and that, in spite of his appearance, he is there to help the victim of the explosion. We predicted, then, that the younger group of children would be most frightened during the portion of the program when the transformation occurred and in the period following it when the monstrous-looking Hulk was on the screen. Also, if, as Piaget led us to believe, the older children were able to understand the transformation, we expected them not to be frightened by this change. On the contrary, these children were expected to be the most frightened during the first part of the excerpt when the hospital worker was injured and when it seemed as though he would be unable to escape before the fire reached him.

We showed this excerpt to the children, one at a time. Immediately after it was over we asked the children to tell us how they had felt during each of the three critical portions of the program. We illustrated each portion for them with stills from the video. What I'll call the "David portion" showed the explosion, the man trapped beneath the debris, and David trying to rescue him. The "transformation portion" showed the Hulk's torso ripping out of his shirt, his feet breaking through his shoes, and the Hulk ripping off his tattered shirt as he emerges from the debris. Finally, the "Hulk portion" showed the Hulk carrying the worker to safety and escaping from the building.

When we looked at children's ratings of how they felt during the different portions of the program, we found exactly what we had expected. Younger children found the program the least scary during the David portion, but their fear increased somewhat during the transformation, and was at its highest during the portion in which the grotesque Hulk was shown doing his good deed and then escaping. The older children showed pretty much the opposite pattern: They were the most frightened during the David portion, when a character was in danger and no one was able to help him. Their fear was greatly reduced during both the transformation portion and the Hulk portion. These children apparently understood that David was becoming the superhuman Hulk and that he was using his powers to rescue the victim. The Hulk's grotesque appearance didn't faze them. Through further questioning, we also found that although the older children understood what was happening during the transformation, younger children generally were confused by it.

This study told us that Piaget's observations about transformations of physical form were helpful in explaining children's fright reactions to a very different type of transformation on television. The research seemed clear in isolating the transformation as a central part of young children's problem with the program. However, because of how we test children in the lab -- showing them only a short scene and discussing it with them immediately afterward -- the study did not give us any hint of how strongly children were reacting to this program when watching it at home.

"Tell Me When the Hulk's Gone"

Students who are undergraduates today were preschoolers when the Hulk was at its height of popularity, and I am now receiving numerous accounts of Hulk-reactions from the students in my classes and from other undergraduates participating in my research. The students' retrospective reports show reactions that were surprisingly intense. The following are recent accounts from students who chose The Incredible Hulk when asked to talk about a frightening TV experience:

I recall that whenever his eyes turned green (the first sign that the Hulk was coming), I would close my eyes, plug my ears, and go sit as close to my mother as I possibly could. I would also say, "Tell me when the Hulk's gone!"

Eventually, in the middle of the show, someone would hurt David Banner and all of a sudden his eyes would turn a really weird shade of white and he would begin to transform into the Hulk. I immediately turned around and hopped on my dad's lap, practically boring a hole in his side, trying to get away from the big green monster. Even though I knew David was safe because of the monster, I was still really freaked out.

Watching the metamorphosis enhanced my fear of the dark. I recall trembling as I walked down the long, dark hallway toward my bedroom at the end. I slowly passed all of the open doorways of dark rooms, inching closer to my bedroom, thankful as I passed each one that the Hulk had not been waiting behind a door to thrash me. Weeks and even months after watching one program, I was still afraid of walking down the hallway at night.


One thing I find interesting about these retrospective reports is that all of these students key in on the transformation itself as the main cause of their fright reaction. Even though this knowledge didn't help them reduce their fear, they seem to have been quite aware of what it was about the program that bothered them.

What is perhaps even more surprising about these reports is the intensity with which these children responded to the transformation. Each of these students reports a level of fear that we might expect from Jaws or Psycho, not from a mild-seeming action-adventure program with few pretensions of scariness.

Breaking a Fundamental Rule: The Loss of Trust

Thinking about the intensity of these responses, it seems clear to me that a simple failure to understand transformations is not sufficient to explain how profoundly this program frightened children. Not all transformations are upsetting. No one ever noticed children becoming upset during Piaget's conservation tests; nor do children ever seem alarmed when watching a science film showing water turning into ice or a bud becoming a flower. What is it about this transformation of a nice-looking hero into a monster that's so threatening to the young child? One student's description seems to hint at an explanation:

After the first few opening sounds, I could sense what was coming as I ran into my parents' bedroom to hide. I became terrified as I watched this perfectly normal and calm human being become transformed into this giant monster in just a matter of seconds. It made me feel like I couldn't trust people or predict what was going to happen next in life.


When you think about the perspective of young children, it really makes sense that they should be so sensitive to transformations of characters. Their reaction is a lot more than just failing to understand what is going on. As this student suggests, perhaps the transformation represents a breach of trust about a fundamental aspect of the way things are in the world -- something they have only recently come to understand and depend on.

Tolstoy once wrote: "From the newborn baby to the child of five is an appalling distance," and he certainly was right. Think of the enormous number of important things a child learns about the world from the time she is born until the preschool years. As you may remember from the birth of your own child, the newborn's behavior is at first a bundle of reflexes and random actions. She doesn't have much sense of the world around her. She doesn't see very well at first, and she reacts only to things that she can perceive directly.

One of the many things that babies learn during the first year is called "object permanence." Show a five-month-old baby a ball and then hide it under a blanket, and to her, it's gone. Over time, the young child learns that things still exist when they can't be seen and that they don't disappear by magic. The concept of "person identity" takes a while to develop, too. Before that concept develops, the baby doesn't realize that her mother is a unique being -- that is, she is one and only one person, no matter where she is seen or what she is wearing. This is one reason why parents do not usually observe separation anxiety before their baby is eight or nine months old. Without understanding this basic developmental concept, the mother of a nine-month-old might find it strange that it suddenly seems harder to drop her child off at day care than it was just a month before.

Other concepts related to identity take a long time to develop. For example, in one famous study, children between the ages of three and six were allowed to pet a tame and friendly cat, and then watched its hindquarters while a researcher placed a realistic mask of a vicious dog over the cat's face. Although the animal had never been out of their sight, many of the younger children believed that when the animal turned around, it had become a dog. As you might expect, these children showed more fear in the presence of this "new" animal than their older counterparts, who understood that the new appearance did not change who the animal was or whether it could hurt them. This study illustrates that little by little, children come to understand certain fundamental rules of the physical world. One of these is that people and animals have underlying identities that are not affected by momentary changes in their appearance.

Have you ever seen a toddler mistakenly walk up behind a woman he thinks is his mother and then recoil in horror and burst into tears when she turns around and he sees the stranger's face? If you have ever been that stranger, you may have been struck by the terror in the child's expression, and you may even have asked yourself, "OK, so I'm not his mother, but do I really look that dreadful today?"

Rest assured that you didn't look that bad. The intensity of the child's reaction was not due to any flaws in your physical appearance. To the young child who has not fully grasped the concept of person identity, you were his mother when he grabbed the back of your skirt, but his mother has just been transformed into a stranger before his eyes. Talk about scary!

That was the toddler ... After a while, of course, all children grasp the notion of person identity. By four or five years old, children have learned that this cannot happen. People stay the same -- they don't transform into new shapes, colors, or identities before your eyes. Phew! That's reassuring.

But then, there's television, where the things we see are a lot like the real world, but once in a while, the rules don't apply. A lot of things that children have spent several years learning by experience no longer work the same way all the time. Take gravity, for example. Children aren't born knowing that if they let something go, it falls to the ground, but over time, with lots of experience, they get the idea. The law that things fall if you let them go is pretty reliable. Of course, it's not always that way on television and in movies. Object permanence doesn't always work on TV, either. On TV, things that are there one second may suddenly disappear the next.

Person identity is another concept that children have come to trust by the time they're four or five. People don't suddenly transform themselves into something or someone else. A mask over someone's face is just a mask. You can pull it off, and it's still Daddy underneath. If you're walking along holding your mother's hand, you won't suddenly look up and find that she's turned into a witch.

So imagine that you're a child who has mastered this reassuring concept and you're watching television. There's a story about a very nice-looking, kind, and thoughtful man. Suddenly this character you've come to like and trust starts to grow very fast, turns green, and becomes a grotesque monster before your eyes -- this is scary. Maybe a physical transformation like this suddenly calls into question a lot of the reassuring principles you have come to rely on. If this man can suddenly change in this way, maybe other people can, too.

As we will see in the next chapter, preschool children are likely to react as though what they are seeing on television is real. Understanding how profoundly a character transformation violates the preschooler's sense of security may help to explain the intensity of these responses.

The Return of the Hulk -- and His Many Cousins

When I started working on this book I thought The Incredible Hulk would be useful merely as a historical example to illustrate what a transformation is and to show how a popular program that was based on a transformation had such a powerful effect on young children. But since then, I have discovered that the Hulk is back. Reruns of this program are now being shown during daytime hours on the Sci-Fi Channel, which is part of basic service on many cable systems. So today's children are likely to have the same reactions that occurred almost a generation ago.

But, of course, the Hulk is not alone. Transformations are a staple of scary movies, and we now know a bit more about why they are so upsetting to young children. Animated adventure features are full of transformations: As we saw in chapter 3, Snow White's evil queen becomes the wicked witch, and normal trees turn into grasping monsters. I have received reports of children being especially frightened when the evil Jafar in Aladdin suddenly transforms into a vicious cobra, and when naughty little boys in Pinocchio grow donkey ears and tails and then bray in panic as they notice what is happening to them.

We also see many scary transformations in popular movies that are not animated. In The Wizard of Oz, a particularly frightening scene has Dorothy seeing her beloved auntie Em in the Wicked Witch's crystal ball. Then suddenly, the aunt's reassuring face dissolves into that of the cruelly cackling witch. In Poltergeist, a child's dolls and toys that comfortingly surround her during the day turn grotesque and evil as night falls. And then there are those cuddly creatures in Gremlins, who suddenly become creepy looking and vicious. The list seems endless.

Many students have reported that Michael Jackson's "Thriller" had especially long-lasting fear effects, in part because of the pop singer's vivid transformation into a werewolf.

When I was about eight years old my family had dinner at their best friends' house. After dinner at around eight P.M. my parents' friends decided to put on a video. It was the Michael Jackson "Thriller" video. The video turned out to be nothing like I expected. It was about eight minutes long, and from what I remember Michael Jackson was on a date with a girl. He was talking, singing, and dancing. They were in the woods and then all of a sudden his eyes turned yellow and he turned into a werewolf. The girl ran through the woods to get away from him. Then he was dancing in the streets with a group of people that also had a scary appearance.

That evening I woke up in the middle of the night from a nightmare. I was wrong in thinking that once the video had finished it would be out of my mind forever. I dreamt the vivid images of Michael Jackson turning into a werewolf. I was so terrified to go back to sleep that I woke my mother up. Although she reassured me that it was just a nightmare, I could not get those vivid images out of my mind. For the next few weeks before I went to sleep, the video ran through my head, and some of the nights I had the same nightmare. This video made a lasting impression on me. Even when I see it now, I always get a weird feeling inside of me. I remember the restless nights I sat up thinking about the video.


I have noticed that current scary television programs that are popular with young children, such as Are You Afraid of the Dark?, also use the transformation quite heavily. A show I recently watched was about a witch who maintained her outwardly beautiful appearance by tricking young girls, with the promise of eternal beauty, into drinking a potion that transformed them into dogs. The witch's beauty was maintained by cutting out the tongues of the newly transformed dogs and eating them. (No kidding!) At the end, when one skeptical young girl discovers the witch's secret and sends her back to her real appearance by breaking her magic mirror, we witness the entire transformation of the beautiful woman into a shrieking thousand-year-old hag, and then finally into a skeleton. Not an easy image to take at any age!

Once in a while, a transformation goes from the grotesque to the beautiful, as happens at the end of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. When Belle's love releases the evil curse on the Beast, we see his various parts gradually change into those of a handsome young man. While these transformations can also be unsettling for young children, clearly the most frightening transformations are the more common ones that involve the metamorphosis of an attractive, harmless-looking character into a gruesome, grotesque one. This is very understandable, given what we learned in the last chapter about young children's over-response to grotesque visual images.

In screening programs for your young child, then, be especially on the lookout for transformations -- no matter how absurd they may seem from your standpoint. Remember, your child sees things very differently, and as I'll explain in the next chapter, for very young children, the images they are seeing are not only disturbing, what they are seeing is real.
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Re: "Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children

Postby admin » Wed Oct 23, 2013 8:15 pm

CHAPTER FIVE: "But It's Only Make-Believe"

Fantasy, Fiction, and Fear


An example that I will never forget is when I watched the movie Pinocchio. I saw this movie with my mother when I was about four or five years old. I really thought that what was happening in the movie was real. In the movie, if a child misbehaved, he or she was turned into a donkey. Also, if a child lied, their nose would grow. I really believed that this would happen to me if I was bad. I remember being extremely scared even a few weeks after I had seen the movie because I thought that the same thing would happen to me if I misbehaved.


This description serves as a vivid reminder that children often fully believe stories that we adults are quick to dismiss as fantastic or impossible. Developmental psychologists have noted that children only gradually come to understand the difference between reality and fantasy. And children learn to say that some things are real and others are make-believe long before they understand what it means to be make-believe. They will tell you that Peter Pan's Captain Hook is make-believe long before they stop worrying that he will capture them and feed them to the crocodile! This lack of understanding plays a key role in the things that frighten young children. Until children understand that something that is not real cannot pose a threat, they will be just as scared by TV shows and movies portraying fantasy outcomes as by those portraying real dangers. Indeed, often the young child will be more frightened by fantasy characters, because fantasy villains are usually ugly and grotesque. As children come to understand the distinction between fantasy and reality, they better appreciate that only real threats and dangers can harm them.

Why Learning What's Make-Believe Is So Difficult

As adults, we seem to take the distinction between fantasy and reality for granted. But put yourself in the situation of the very young child, and you will realize that differentiating between what's real and what's make-believe is not an easy task. At first, maybe it does seem simple. The newborn or infant believes what he sees, feels, hears, smells, and tastes to be true -- and, for the most part, it generally is. But soon the young child is exposed to things that are beyond his immediate experience. One way in which this happens is through language. Beyond seeing and feeling and hearing a dog, for example, a child can hear someone talk about a dog or have a book about a dog read to him. Through language and pictures, he learns about things that he doesn't experience directly. Over time, he comes to know that everything anyone says isn't necessarily true in the same way that something he witnesses himself is usually true. But it takes a long time to come to this realization.

Although parents often make a concerted effort to teach their children the difference between real and make-believe, we also have a few customs that undermine these efforts. Most parents make it a point to communicate the value of telling the truth, especially within the family. And yet most of us promote elaborate stories about Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, or the Easter Bunny. I'm not saying that the enjoyment of these cultural myths is inappropriate or wrong, but it does complicate the child's task of sorting out what's real and what's make-believe.

Piaget's take on this situation was to say that preschool, or preoperational, children do not distinguish play and reality as two distinct realms with different ground rules. My own family brought this issue home, so to speak, one Christmas a few years ago. We were visiting my husband's relatives, and as in millions of other families, all the young children hung their stockings on the mantel, leaving milk and cookies for Santa Claus. And like many parents, the adults warned the children to go right to bed because Santa wouldn't want to see them awake when he came to deliver their presents. By morning, of course, Santa had left presents and even drunk the milk and eaten one of the cookies. When the children were applauded for having gone right to sleep, one bright four-year-old among them replied, "I saw Santa last night! I stayed up and watched him, but he didn't see me!"

Now, how can you argue with a response like that? Was he telling an out-and-out lie? If so, he could hardly be blamed for imitating his parents' attitude toward the truth. Was he talking about a dream he had that he thought was true? Or was he playing by the ground rules he observed regarding Santa Claus? We'll never know for sure because we adults were too embarrassed to question him. But this incident illustrates one of the ways in which the border between what's real and what's make-believe becomes fuzzy.

Reality vs. Fantasy

Television is another factor that makes the distinction between fantasy and reality especially complicated. Many of the images on television and in movies are so similar to real life that it is tempting to believe, at first, that what is shown there is real. It takes a very long time for children to sort out this paradox.

The distinction, for television, is not simply one of "real" vs. "pretend." Children must learn many variations of the difference between real and make-believe. At first children believe that the things they are seeing are actually inside the television set -- that if they look inside, they'll find those things and that what's in there might actually be able to come out. Research suggests that by about the age of four or so, they understand that the things they are seeing are not actually in the box, but that is just the first step toward understanding television's many realities.

By about the age of seven or eight, according to research, children come to distinguish between things that are real and those that are make-believe on television. At first they judge what is make-believe by its format, concluding that all cartoons are make-believe and all live-action shows are real. But over time, they become conscious of the fact that certain things that they see in fantasy shows are physically impossible, whether they are shown through animation or live action. They understand, for example, that people don't fly the way Peter Pan and Superman do on television and in movies. They come to judge whether something on television is real on the basis of whether the things they see in a story actually exist in the real world. A police story is real, they will say, because there are police in the real world, but stories with certain types of villains, such as witches and monsters, are not real because these characters are not found in real life.

And how do children learn to distinguish between people, animals, and events that exist in the real world and those that do not? Surprisingly, there's no simple rule. Children just have to learn this by experience. There is no obvious distinguishing characteristic for what is plausible and what is fantastic. What is it about dragons that causes them to be make-believe, while dinosaurs are real? There's nothing in the way they look in pictures that could tip a child off. There are many things that are real that seem downright outrageous when you think about them: the fact that the pictures you see on television can come to your home invisibly through the air or the fact that planes can fly or, for that matter, the way babies are made. None of these ideas seems very realistic on the surface. Over time, we come to accept some very weird things as real, while we learn that other things are impossible. It's no wonder that children take a long time to understand what can and cannot happen.

In choosing programs for preschool children, then, you should not be reassured when a story contains scary elements that are physically impossible, such as a prince turning into a frog, a sorcerer casting evil spells, or a monster devouring a city. These outlandish happenings will not make the story any less compelling or frightening. Focus your attention on the elements of the story that were discussed in the previous two chapters: Are there dangerous-looking animals or grotesque characters? Do they make intense and disturbing sounds or threaten physical harm? Do normal-looking beings transform into hideous monsters?

Similarly, with realistic shows, what you need to look for when screening them for preschoolers is how disturbing they are in terms of these surface features, not whether they present realistic threats. By the time children reach the age of eight or so, however, it will matter to them whether programs are based on reality or not, and the real ones will be scarier.

Research confirms that as children get older, they become less and less scared by fantasy programs and movies, but they continue to be frightened -- and sometimes become more frightened -- by realistic portrayals. In the survey we conducted in the early eighties, in which we asked parents of children from kindergarten through fourth grade which programs and movies had frightened their child, we categorized the content as either fantasy (showing impossible events, as in The Wizard of Oz) or fiction (showing things that could possibly occur, as in Jaws). In the parents' responses, mentions of fantasy fare decreased as the child's age increased, and mentions of fictional offerings actually increased with age. Our more recent survey of parents of children in kindergarten, second, fourth, and sixth grade reconfirmed the importance of the fantasy-reality distinction in what frightens children. Although children in all grades were scared by such realistic offerings as Rescue 911, only children in the younger two groups had problems with such obviously fantastic offerings as Peter Pan, Batman, and The Wizard of Oz. When children themselves name the TV shows and movies that frighten them, we see the same trends. Evil witches and monsters recede in the nightmares of older elementary school children and are replaced by dangerous animals and vicious criminals. The following two examples are typical of what frightens this older group:

One night my Girl Scout troop had a slumber party. We all got ready for bed in our sleeping bags in front of the TV and watched Creepshow. It was a collection of short thrillers. Some were stupid, and a couple have stuck with me the rest of my life. One short story was about a man in his apartment. He had a few cockroaches; then they started to multiply. They were coming out of the drains and out of the light fixtures. Eventually they overwhelmed the man and killed him. They were all over him coming out of his nose and mouth. I believe that I have more than normal feelings of disgust when it comes to all sorts of bugs. It could be due to seeing these past images. Even today I can't sleep unless my mouth is shut. Who knows, a bug could crawl in when I was sleeping.

One of the few television programs that I can still clearly remember as having frightened me for a long time was the show Hunter. I was probably nine or ten years old at the time and my older brother was baby-sitting. He wanted to watch it, so I remember sitting down to watch it with him. It was an episode about a man who would kidnap little girls and then bury them alive. He had killed a number of them already when the show started and the two police detectives on the show caught him just as he was about to bury another one. They had already found the bodies of a few of the others. This was the first time that I had ever seen kidnapping on television or anywhere for that matter. I was scared for many nights after seeing the program that I would he kidnapped and buried alive by some psychopath.


Fiction: That Frightening Middle Ground

According to research, children by about the age of ten come to grasp more than simply what's possible and impossible in the media. They come to appreciate that some programs are scripted and acted for the purpose of telling a story. Before that time, they are likely to think that a family drama shows the real activities of a real family and that a realistic adventure story shows events that actually transpired.

Once children know that dramas and comedies contain actors speaking lines that were written for them, does this knowledge prevent them from being unduly scared by most entertainment offerings? If only this were the case! Unfortunately, fiction can be very scary.

When children come to understand that most programs and almost all movies are scripted and performed by actors, they at first think that all scripted stories are untrue. But over time, they learn that there is an important category between the programs that show real events that actually happened (such as the news and documentaries) and fantasies, which portray unreal, impossible events that could never happen in the real world. That intermediate category is fiction, which is the product of someone's imagination but is based on events that can and do occur.

There are several reasons why we respond so intensely to television shows and movies, even when we know that what we're seeing is fiction. First of all, we automatically fear certain dangerous things in real life, and we have an immediate fear reaction even when we see these things on the screen. Over time, and as we grow older, we may still have that initial reaction, but it is less intense as we distinguish between the scary things that are really present and can harm us and those that are only being represented to us on video or in film. We are also naturally inclined to empathize with other people's emotions, and as we become attached to characters in a movie, we often feel emotions similar to the ones they are feeling. Again, we can keep reminding ourselves that these are not real people, but for many of us, our emotions become strongly intertwined with those of the characters we view, and we sometimes care deeply about what happens to them. We also watch TV and movies for entertainment, and often we purposely throw ourselves into the story, adopting an attitude that is sometimes referred to as "the willing suspension of disbelief."

As adults, though, it seems that we ought to be able to leave our emotions in the theater after the movie is over. Even if we cared about the fictional heroine who was stalked by the psychopathic killer, we should not still be worrying days later if we saw her escape unharmed, should we? But we often continue to feel anxious, and for good reason. Because fiction is based on things that can and do happen, watching a scary program heightens our fears of real events like those in the program. A fictional story about the kidnapping of a young child may be entirely made up by the dramatist, and yet the elements of the story are real. Watching a program about a kidnapped young child intensifies our awareness of this risk. If we feel that it could happen to us (or our child) we will feel more threatened by that possibility, and this feeling of vulnerability is likely to last as long as our memory of the program. The more a fictionalized threat is similar to things that threaten us in our own lives, the more scared we will be, not just while watching, but afterward as well. This applies to children, too.

After the movie Jaws came out, it was children at the beach who suffered the most obvious spillover effects. I have received dozens of reports of ruined seaside vacations:

When the film Jaws arrived at the movie theaters, everyone considered it a "must-see" movie. Naturally, my friends and I attended this feature. This was the first "scary" movie my parents had allowed me to see. While I was quite aware of the immediate fright reaction induced by viewing this movie, I was naive to the possibility of any long-term or lingering effects.

About a year later, a vacation to the Florida coast caused the dreaded sensation to resurface. As we approached the shoreline, an alarm rifled through my body. I knew Jaws was circling just beyond the swimming markers. Consequently, I refused to enter the water. Subsequent vacations have yielded the same reaction. I think I was the only person in Hawaii who would not step into the ocean. I considered the surfers suicidal maniacs. Weren't they aware of the eminent risks?


It also seems that young girls just starting out on their baby-sitting careers were the most frightened by the movie When a Stranger Calls, which showed a baby-sitter being stalked by a psychopathic killer. The Friday the Thirteenth series did not make it any easier for teenagers going camping. The list goes on. You don't have to believe that any of these specific events ever really happened to feel threatened when engaging in activities similar to those of the victims in these movies. These movies heighten our awareness of dreadful possibilities.

When I was in (about) the third grade my friends and I had a slumber party, and we decided to watch a horror movie. In this movie a group of teenage girls were having a slumber party, and one by one throughout the movie they disappeared and were gruesomely murdered. The movie showed explicit details of their deaths, and one aspect that particularly affected me were the scenes of them pleading for their lives. I remember seeing the terror in their eyes as they begged to be spared, and I remember hoping each time that they would get away, and how awful I felt when they were murdered anyway. That night none of us could sleep, and every sound that we heard scared all of us to a point where we would scream, and we eventually ended up huddled together for the entire night to protect each other. We were so scared that none of us would even get up and go to the bathroom. Even after that night the images of the young girls begging for mercy stuck in my head. For many nights after that I had nightmares and difficulty sleeping, every sound I heard scared me, and I thought that some killer was coming to get me.


Children who find themselves in the same situation as the fictional victim become especially frightened by a plot that makes them acutely aware of what might happen to them. But scary programs do more than that. These movies contain all sorts of devices that engage our emotions more strongly than a simple reminder about possible risks. Scary movies and TV shows include a variety of elements that usually are not there when we face real threats in our own lives.

First, there's suspense. In the real world, when a vicious attack, major tragedy, or accident occurs, we usually have no forewarning. These things often happen very quickly, before the victim even realizes what is happening. However, the television or movie producer rarely lets things occur that way. Most scary programs and movies let us know what is going to happen or what might happen, and we become anxious well in advance of the horrifying outcome. Research shows that it's much more frightening this way. Because these shows are meant to be scary, the producer dramatizes the events to evoke the most intense emotions from the audience.

The movie was Friday the Thirteenth. This particular movie was very uncomfortable because it was suspense-filled. The reason I was scared was because I knew the people were going to die, yet I did not know the exact moment it was going to happen. The actual horror of the movie did not scare me (ex.: blood, people having their heads cut off). But when I was unable to know when the person was going to be killed, or where the killer Jason was, this is what bothered me.
Another element of frightening films that is absent when real threats occur is the musical score and other sound effects. It seems that music and sound effects dramatically affect our emotional reactions. Sudden loud noises shock and arouse us, and we automatically respond with fear to the shrieks and cries of victims.


Many retrospective reports of movie-induced fright refer to the power of sound effects and music. Here are a few examples:

... And the suspenseful music that accompanied the shark attacks is forever imprinted in my mind. I just have to play the [Jaws] music in my head when I'm swimming and I can really scare myself.

In the movie [Friday the Thirteenth] the sound was high and loud, and the music was scary. While I was watching the movie, I knew I did not like the music and the sound because it was the signal of killing. Every time I heard this kind of sound, I would know that more people would be killed, and they could not do anything to protect themselves.

One particular scene from the movie [Piranha] that had a great effect on me took place at a summer camp for kids. The children in the scene were participating in various summertime activities, including swimming in the lake. There were underwater camera shots of the swimmers' feet and of the killer fish approaching for the attack. Along with these shots were terrible spine-chilling sound effects supposedly coming from the fish and a scary type of music used to create suspense. At the moment of the attack people were screaming and frantically swimming to escape from the killer fish.


By using these dramatic devices, movies and TV shows aim to intensify our response and etch the scary scenes indelibly in our minds in a way that many real events do not. Remember, most vicious and brutal attacks are not witnessed by anyone; even the victim may be taken by surprise. Loved ones of the victim usually only hear about the attack and are left to imagine what it must have been like. But television and movies enact these attacks in lurid detail, exposing us to horrid scenes we might never experience in our entire lives. These images will be especially riveting for children and teenagers, who have less experience with such fictional stories and a less mature understanding of how movies and TV programs use special features to manipulate their emotions. Because these elements are so vivid, children are especially susceptible to their terror-intensifying effects.

The Vulnerable Female

If there is any fictional theme that repeats and repeats itself in the horror stories I receive from college students, it's the theme of the violent victimization of young women, usually by men. Often the theme involves sexual assault, and as you would expect, the most intense reactions to these plots come from female viewers. Content analyses have shown that in horror movies, attacks against men are usually over and done with quickly, but attacks against women are longer and more drawn out, making the viewer see the female victims suffer more and show more fear. This is one theme that has an intense impact not only on young teenage girls but on women in college as well. The following example is typical:

The action that sparked my fear response was a violent, very graphic portrayal of an attempted rape with a young girl as the victim. The scene used fast cutting, close-ups, suspenseful music, and the sound of the girl crying to aid in its intensity. During the entire scene I felt tense. It was as though I didn't notice the other things around me. I was truly frightened. I experienced empathy for the victim and uncomfortable thoughts that these acts occur every day in the real world. I tried to imagine what must have been running through the young girl's head. All I could say over and over again was "That's so horrible, how awful!" The imagery of the rape scene seemed to haunt me as I sat down to begin studying. I couldn't get the scene out of my head.


This description shows that the woman who wrote it had an awareness of the various production techniques that were used to intensify her response. But she was also aware of the importance of the theme of female victimization:

The intensity of my response has to do with my close identification with the subject matter at hand. Forced sexual acts are a major concern and fear of many women in the real world. My fear response was more intense in this case because I could relate to and identify with the underlying implications of the scene. To me this was not a random act of violence; it was an issue that hit close to home.


The fact that television dramas and movies play on women's fears of victimization comes up over and over again in women's memories of their media traumas. For example:

One of the scariest things I have ever seen was on Beverly Hills, 90210 sophomore year in college. Now, I know that this sounds like the silliest thing that you have ever heard -- a twenty-year-old girl being afraid of a show as bad as 90210, but it is true. Let me explain. Two years ago there was a plot about Donna and a stalker. Being that she was the only virgin on the show, this news was particularly surprising. Anyway, the point is that the whole episode that week revolved around this guy breaking into Donna's beautiful beachfront apartment, sneaking around in the dark, and then getting very close to raping her. Obviously, he did not get the chance to rape her since Donna s boyfriend, David, arrived in the nick of time. But he got pretty damn close -- way too close for my comfort. This somewhat-normal-appearing man was walking around in her apartment with a crowbar waiting for her to come into her room on a night that he knew she was all alone. Granted, I was sitting in a room with the five other girls I lived with, but they were still all girls and at some point I knew I would be alone in the apartment.

Now this was not the most frightening experience I have ever had, but it has stuck with me. When I am walking alone at night sometimes or I am in the house by myself, I am that little bit more nervous. I am no lunatic; I just have memories of that episode and wonder what would happen if my David did not come to the door at that precise moment.


The prevalence of the theme of sexual assault in young women's traumatic responses to fictional programs and movies is striking. Maybe it is due to the fact that all women are potential victims of sexual assault; in fictional plots women do not have to be involved in risky activities to become a victim. In contrast, it seems that men who are victims in fiction are typically involved in activities that make violence more likely: They are criminals, police officers, vigilantes, or soldiers. Truly random assaults seem much more rare for the male fictional character. Of course it's true that women are more vulnerable than men to sexual assault in real life, but many movies and television programs play on this fear to an extent that can cause obsessive fear reactions, particularly among younger girls who are not well equipped to put the disturbing images in context.

The Supernatural: The Gray Area between Fantasy and Fiction

A second theme that comes up over and over again in the media-induced fears of older elementary-school children and teenagers is that of the supernatural and the occult. This area is hard to define because it seems to occupy the border between fantasy and fiction. As I said earlier, by the time children reach the age of seven or eight, they are aware that certain fantasy happenings are impossible. However, many people never seem to fully reject the possibility of such supernatural events as alien attacks and demonic possession. The Exorcist is a film about demonic possession that has powerful effects, even on adults. Similarly, a film like Poltergeist, which shows supernatural attacks on a family whose house was built over a graveyard, plays on viewers' superstitions and the ambiguous lines between what's possible and impossible. Many movies and programs play on that ambiguity. In addition, they often contain elements of real threats that even the most skeptical adults can fear. Michael Myers, the homicidal maniac in Halloween, keeps coming back from the dead. As adults, we know that can't happen. However, we do know that homicidal maniacs exist, so we can still feel vulnerable even if we don't believe that aspect of the plot.

Stories of the supernatural defy the reassuring laws of physics that adults and older children rely on in evaluating risks. For example, it does no good to lock all the doors if the villain can penetrate the walls. Supernatural plots are much less predictable. The older child cannot rely on his knowledge of what is real and what is make-believe. Anything can happen.

I've suffered from nightmares after watching Aliens (around the age of twelve). The creatures themselves are what scared me: both their gruesome appearance and their apparent intelligence. In the movie they outsmart the humans, who are no match for the aliens, even with their weapons. My room makes strange sounds at night (at least I perceive strange sounds in my room, particularly in my attic). In one scene from the movie, the humans could tell the aliens were near but had no idea where they were. It turned out the aliens were directly above them, in the ceiling. Lying awake in my bed, I could hear odd noises coming (seemingly) from my attic right above me, and I imagined an alien shifting around up there. The situation where the aliens were above the humans and came through the ceiling created an image of the same thing happening in my room. This occurred pretty frequently for about a month after viewing the movie. A couple times I even had nightmares about the creatures.


Another problem is that the credibility of occult happenings is reinforced by frequent reports of unexplained supernatural events in reality-based programs:

The film I viewed was The Exorcist. It contained graphic scenes of a young girl possessed by the devil. I was approximately twelve years old at the time and was in a slumber-party situation. I vividly remember the stress this film caused me. I was not only extremely afraid of the devil and evil, but I became obsessed with the possibility of becoming possessed myself. To make matters worse, later on in the same week I came home from school and turned on some afternoon talk show with the subject matter consisting of "real" stories of "real" people who were at one time possessed. That program and the movie were enough to keep me from sleeping for two nights straight and finally when I did fall asleep I had terrible nightmares. I slept with my parents for the next few weeks.


Just as parents sometimes make it harder for preschoolers to distinguish fantasy and reality by promoting the tooth fairy, our mass media make the distinction more ambiguous for all of us by overplaying the credibility of supernatural forces. By the teen years, most kids have learned that certain things can't happen, but can they be absolutely sure? And, they might well wonder, what if they're wrong?

We turn next to a domain where there's no ambiguity about real vs. make-believe: the news and other reports of real events that actually happened.
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Re: "Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children

Postby admin » Wed Oct 23, 2013 9:02 pm

CHAPTER SIX: When Reality Is a Nightmare

All the News That's Fit to Terrify


When I was about eleven years old I saw something on television that scared me enough to make me remember it vividly all of these years. It wasn't a scary movie but a newsclip of something that really happened. A young, oriental man was being held in handcuffs by two men in uniforms (of some sort). I cannot recall the greatest detail about them because that is not what has stuck in my mind all this time. It was the young fellow I cannot forget about. As he was being restrained, he looked very frightened and powerless. At the mercy of these two men, it was obvious he had no escape. Then I saw a gun go up to his temple. My mouth fell open as I thought, "They can't just shoot him!" But I was wrong. Ten seconds later a shot rang through the air and the man fell to the ground, with blood spurting out of his head. His body lay lifeless. I sat there not being able to believe what I had just seen.... Luckily I haven't seen many of these types of scenes on television, but the one I did see will remain in my memory forever.


How many other children were devastated by this infamous news moment during the Vietnam War? And how many more graphic incidents like that one are our children being exposed to these days? Think of the many recent upsetting stories that have been covered heavily by television news: the Rodney King beating, the Oklahoma City bombing, the shooting deaths of children at school, innumerable natural disasters, and countless stories of child molestation and murder -- this list could go on and on. There is little doubt that television news is becoming more graphic and sensational. A recent study reported that local news is especially violent. Of one hundred newscasts analyzed on a single day, the average "mayhem index" was 43 percent, meaning almost half of the news in the program involved violence or disasters.

What children see on news shows really frightens them. In the survey we did in the early eighties, in which we asked parents to name the television shows and movies that had frightened their child, television news stories were in the top ten in terms of the number of parents who mentioned them. The most frequently cited news story at that time was the Atlanta child murders case, in which a serial killer repeatedly targeted young children. A decade later, shortly after the war in the Persian Gulf, almost half of a random sample of parents my colleagues and I contacted said their child had been upset by television coverage of the war.

Age Trends in News Stories That Frighten

More recently, in the random survey of parents with children in kindergarten through sixth grade that we did in the spring of 1994, we found that 37 percent said their child had been frightened or upset by a television news story during the preceding year. In this study, we were looking for age trends in what had frightened them.

Our first expectation was that the news would become more frightening as children got older because of their emerging appreciation for the reality-fantasy distinction. As children come to know that fantasy dangers cannot harm them but real dangers can, they can become more and more attuned to the threats that television news consistently depicts. Our survey showed this to be true. There was an upward trend in the percentage of children frightened by the news, going from 26 percent of the kindergartners to 44 percent of the sixth graders. We observed the greatest increase in the scariness of news between kindergarten and second grade. You may remember that this is approximately the same time that children are becoming competent in making the distinction between fantasy and reality.

What types of news stories frightened children the most? More than one-third of the children who had been frightened by the news were scared by stories portraying criminal violence, such as shootings, muggings, and kidnappings. Almost as many children were frightened by stories about foreign wars and famine, of which there were many during the period of the survey, particularly from Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia.

One-fourth of the children frightened by news were scared by stories about natural disasters. Again, there were many disasters in the news during that time, including severe earthquakes and rampaging fires in California, as well as devastating floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes around the country.

Children were especially responsive to stories in which a child was the victim. Many of them explicitly told their parents that they were afraid that what they saw in the news story would happen to them, too. Girls were especially likely to be upset after viewing the victimization of children.

We also found differences in the kinds of news stories that frightened children at different ages: Older children were much more responsive than younger children to crime stories featuring violence, but younger children were a great deal more upset than older children by news coverage of natural disasters.

Why these age differences? It seems to me that these differences are in line with what we have observed regarding younger children's responsiveness to visual images. When you think about it, news stories featuring criminal violence are usually not that explicitly visual. Rarely are crimes of violence caught on camera. When they are, as in the Rodney King beating, I would expect younger children to be as frightened by them as older children. But the typical crime story shows only the aftermath of violence, which usually is not as visually vivid as the crime itself. The most upsetting part of many crime stories, particularly when the crime is between strangers, is the notion of the viewer's own vulnerability, rather than the crime itself.

Natural disasters, in contrast, are usually dramatically visual, and television news stresses the images of devastation: Homes are shown being ripped apart by hurricanes, swept away in floods, or crushed in earthquakes, and this footage is frequently accompanied by images of frightened bystanders or sobbing victims. These events are easy for children to understand. The images are readily remembered and often cause children to worry that a similar disaster will happen to them next.

There are some trends in children's fears in general that are helpful in predicting the types of news stories that will frighten children of different ages. Dozens of studies have been conducted in which children have been asked what frightens them, and there is a large consensus regarding age trends in fears.

The research suggests that three- to eight-year-olds are most often frightened by animals; the dark; supernatural beings, such as ghosts, monsters, and witches; and by anything that looks strange or moves suddenly. These findings are very consistent with what we have observed about children's reactions to fantasy programming, but of course these things rarely appear in the news. In contrast, the fears of nine- to twelve-year-olds most often relate to personal injury and physical destruction. This category includes accidents, kidnapping, disease, and violence -- the essential focus of much television news. Teenagers continue to fear personal injury, but in addition, they begin to have fears related to more abstract issues such as economic problems, global disharmony, and environmental devastation. It should be helpful to keep these trends in mind when determining which news stories may frighten your child.

Getting the Message Out

I had been working on this book for some time when I suddenly recognized the importance of spreading the information about children's reactions to news. I received a distress call from a mother on the East Coast who reported that her daughter's school had adopted the policy of showing the children news excerpts every morning. Her child, a ten-year-old, had had an intense fright reaction to the coverage of the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey (the kindergarten beauty queen who was found dead in the basement of her own home). At my request, the mother wrote down and sent me her account of what her daughter had said:

"Mom, you won't believe what was on the news today! This girl was killed in her own house, Mom. In her own house! I'm sorry, Mom, but I am not going to be able to be by myself in the house ever again even in my room, and I am never going in the basement alone any more. And you know, they showed her funeral. I never even knew her and I felt like I was at her funeral. That is something private, Mom. I shouldn't have been there. I didn't even know her and I was at her funeral."


It is not difficult to understand why children often have such intense reactions to television news. It's very normal to feel sorry and sad for a real victim who suffered a real tragedy, but more than empathy is fueling children's intense reactions. After all, the news displays many horrible things that not only can happen -- they did happen. Obviously, if something did happen, it can happen again.

This possibility may provoke lasting fears:

A [television] crew was interviewing a woman when her estranged husband suddenly jumped into the picture and shot her several times. The image of this crazed man ruthlessly gunning down the woman is permanently burned into my mind .... I guess, in a way, that image made me lose a little trust in the people that are closest to me. It makes me think that people could snap in an instant.


If It Bleeds, It Leads

These findings on children's emotional disturbances raise the question: How much news should parents allow their children to see? Many parents who restrict entertainment fare are reluctant to limit exposure to news on the grounds that news is educational. Many television news producers respond to criticism of their policy of always choosing a bloody incident as the lead story by saying that their critics are advocating censorship. They argue that the bloody incident is there because it happened and that not to show it would infringe upon our right to know.

What these arguments ignore, of course, is that whatever makes it onto television news is there because someone decided it was newsworthy. Thousands of things happen every day that could be on the news, but only a few events can be chosen. We must remember that one primary function of television news is to sell commercial spots to advertisers. Therefore, the news must be programmed to ensure that a large audience will tune in. To be news, a story has to be different or unusual. Most planes don't crash, so a routine flight doesn't make the news, but when a crash occurs, we always hear about it. What many news programmers believe is that sensational news is what draws people to watch, and as we'll discuss in more detail in chapter 9, to some extent they are right. There is a big audience for news about violent incidents and criminal behavior.

The temptation to be sensational is strongest for television, because television puts the highest value on striking visual images. An unimportant incident that has arresting videotape has a better chance to make it onto television than something more important that is too abstract to photograph. And, as we've seen, sensational visuals are especially problematic for our youngest children.

Those Popular Police, Crime, and Rescue Shows

As if the news weren't enough, television provides us with many more opportunities to witness the horror and tragedy of violent incidents that are real. We are currently in an era in which reality-based shows such as Rescue 911 and Cops and documentaries about crime and other dangers are quite popular and readily available in the early evening when many children are in the audience.

In our most recent random survey of parents, Rescue 911 was mentioned more often than any other program (including fantasy and fiction genres) as causing fear in children. Remember the anecdotes from chapter 1 about the child who quit skiing and the child who gave up cooking as a result of watching this program? I personally observed the effect of Rescue 911 a few years ago when my son had his slightly older friend sleep over. Although this friend had previously been a good role model for going to bed without fear, that night he repeatedly ran into our bedroom, saying he thought burglars were trying to get in the window. Since this was so different from his usual behavior, I asked his mother the next day if she had noticed her son having trouble sleeping. She replied that she had, and that the problem started when he began watching Rescue 911.

The program, it turns out, touts itself as having an educational focus: In addition to showing near misses to serious tragedies, it does give tips on how to avoid them. Unfortunately, for many children, the brief safety instructions do little to undo the alarming effects of watching the life-threatening incidents.

Unsolved Mysteries is another good example of a well-intentioned program that scares kids anyway. Not only does this program provide children with vivid re-creations of crimes that actually happened, but the fact that the perpetrators are still on the loose makes children feel even more vulnerable. Here's a good example of what I mean:

The only frightening experience that I can recall happened while I was watching Unsolved Mysteries when I was in high school. The mystery was about a teenage girl in Texas who was abducted from a car wash in the summer at dusk. At the time she had been missing six months. On the show they did a reenactment of what may have happened to her and this is the part I remember the most vividly. They showed the girl leaving her house and telling her parents that she is going to the car wash. She drives there; the car wash is one of those self-clean ones and it looks as though it was in the middle of nowhere. It is in a rural area and there are no other people around. So, she begins to wash her car, and another car pulls up, a bearded, middle-age man gets out, grabs her, they struggle, and she is taken. Her car door's left open, radio on, with her money and identification left in the car. Her parents were the last people to see her. I think I remember this because I live in a rural area and when I go there I drive past a car wash similar to that one. I never questioned my safety there at any time until this story. I often wonder what happened to her.


Documentaries can have the same devastating effect:

As a child of about ten, I watched a television show about missing children. I saw little girls who looked just like me, that had been taken from their parents. I remember imagining all the terrible things that strangers were probably doing to the children. I remember curling up into a ball and crying for these children; yet I was still unable to call for my mom. I needed to know what happened to all of the children, if any had been rescued. I realized the same thing could happen to me. I was terrified that I would be taken from my mom. I was afraid to go anywhere alone. I could not be in the basement anymore, which was where I originally saw the show. If I had to go into the basement, I would run as fast as I could downstairs and then back up. It seems as though from that night on I knew someone was going to kidnap me. At bedtime, I would try to camouflage myself on the bed so they would not know I was there. Many nights I crept into my parents' bed to feel safe. My reaction to the show gradually disappeared over the next year.


Making Wise News Choices for Children

Let's return to the story of the mother who contacted me about her daughter's reaction to seeing the JonBenet Ramsey murder coverage at school. The reason the mother called me was to enlist my help in convincing the school to be more careful in selecting news stories to present to ten-year-olds. At first, the child's teachers did not seem to be responsive to the mother's request that the news be screened in advance. But after I sent her some reprints of the research cited in this chapter, she and her husband got the school to modify its policy. The teachers now watch the news before showing it to the children, and leave out the most violent and sensational stories, particularly those involving child victims. It is to the school's credit that they were willing to modify their policies to accommodate the emotional needs of their students when relevant research findings were brought to their attention.

I am not advocating censorship, and I don't think that children should be brought up to believe that the real world is nothing but sweetness and light. But I consider it fully legitimate to ask whether children shouldn't be shielded from the TV-news version of reality, which presents much more horrifying images of the world than they would otherwise experience. At what age should we burden children with such graphic, often gory images as victims of bombings, molestation, and murder; terminally ill AIDS patients; and parents sobbing over the deaths of their children in accidents? In my opinion, we needn't be in any rush.

Children need, of course, to be informed about specific threats to their safety. They also need to be introduced to the negative aspects of the world around them. But much of that information should be presented in small and less-threatening doses, not in the sensational fashion that television news typically employs.

My advice to parents with regard to television news and reality programming is, Beware! The nightly news is full of graphic visual images of death and destruction, and television has recently adopted a special fascination with the theme of children as victims. Children may not be interested in the news, but they will be affected by it if you watch it when they're around. If you have preschool children, the safest bet is to watch the news when they are in bed or get your news from the papers. For older elementary-school children you might watch a station with a family-friendly news broadcast if there's one in your area.

As your children reach their teens and are ready to grapple with these difficult issues, I would keep tabs on the news they are watching and be ready to discuss it with them. (See chapter 8 for advice on these discussions.)
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