Children's Fright Responses to Television and Films

by Joanne Cantor, Professor, Department of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin

Since 1980, the main focus of my research has been to explore how the mass media frighten children. My interest is in how children's exposure to a single program or movie can produce intense worries, nightmares, and other fear-related outcomes. Through a series of experiments and surveys, and through the examination of retrospective reports by adults of their childhood experiences, I have discovered that intense and disruptive fears are produced by teleivsion and movies much more often than most people realize. For example, in a recent random phone survey we conducted in Madison, Wisconsin, 43 percent of the parents interviewed said that their child had been so frightened by something they had seen on television that the fear had lasted beyond the time of viewing. Intense and long-lasting emotional reactions, sleep disturbances, and fear of engaging in normal activities were fairly common responses.

More striking than these numbers, when we asked first-year university students whether they had ever had a lingering fright reaction to a television program or movie, we found an overwhelming response. The students were given the same amount of "extra-credit" in a class, either for saying "no (they had never had such a reaction) or for saying "yes"; but the "yes" response required them to describe the experience in a one-page paper and then fill out a three-page questionnaire. To my amazement, 96 of the 103 students given this option chose the "yes" response, and most of them gave graphic and emotional descriptions of the terror that had been produced by a movie or TV show. Almost half of these students said that what they had seen had interfered with their eating or sleeping. More than three-fourths of them said that their reactions had lasted a week or more, and one-fourth said that they were still feeling the residue of the fear that the program or movie had produced, even though they had been exposed to it an average of more than a decade earlier.

The bulk of my research on this topic has been aimed at understanding the types of media images and events that frighten children at different ages and the intervention and coping strategies that are effective for children in different age groups. Using theories and research in cognitive development, we have reached the following generalizations based on our experiemntal and survey results.

For preschool ("preoperational") children (approximately age 2 to 7), how something looks is the most important determinant of whether it will be scary. At this age, Children's thought processes are dominated by whatever is most readily perceptible and whatever does not require reasoning to comprehend. Preschoolers are especially frightened by media images of vicious, attacking animals, "repulsive" creatures, like snakes, bats, and spiders, the graphic display of injuries and physical deformities, and monsters. Preschool children are especially frightened by character transformations, such as when a normal person turns into a vampire before their eyes. They also have trouble understanding that a monstrous looking hero is not a villain. Since they are not fully competent in the fantasy-reality distinction, the fact that something is blatantly fantastic or impossible does not make it less scary. For older elementary school ("concrete operational") children (ages 8 to 12), the importance of how things look diminishes, as these children begin to take motives into account, reason more abstractly, and understand the difference between fantasy and things that can atually happen. They become more and more likely to be frightened by real stories (like those shown in television news and reality programming) and by fiction that makes them aware of their own vulnerabilities to harm.

AS FOR HELPING CHILDREN COPE with the media-induced fears, preschool children are helped mainly by nonverbal strategies involving physical comfort, warmth, and closeness (e.g., a mother's hug, or a warm drink) or distraction (reducing their exposure to the frightening stimulus or getting involved in other activities). A fear that is not overwhelming can also respond to desensitization (gradul exposure in manageable doeses). Older children benefit more from fear-reduction strategiees based on reasoning. If the fear-producing show was a fantasy, a reminder that what was seen was not real helps this age group. But for things that really can happen, fear-reduction is more difficult. Honest, absolute, reassuring information may help, but explanations focusing on a dreadful event's low probability are relatively ineffective. Information about how to prevent the dreaded event from happening is welcomed at this age. And the sincere, concerned attention of a parent or adult care-giver is what children of all ages seem to seek the most when they are frightened.

I HAVE PUBLISHED THESE FINDINGS in a variety of scholarly outlets, and I have recently completed a book aimed at an audience of parents and other child-care providers (with academics and mental health professionals as a secondary audience). The book is titled "Mommy, I'm Scared! How Television and Films Frighten Children and How We Can Protect Them." It will be published by Harcourt Brace and is due out in 1998.

Reprinted from "News on Children and Violence on the Screen" by The UNESCO International Clearinghouse on Children and Violence on the Screen, at Nordicom, Gvteborg University, Sweden. The Clearinghouse newsletters are available online at their website:

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