I was tired this morning, and it is not because yesterday was a jellybean, chocolate bunny overload day. Rather, it is because Peaches, age 12, had a strong fear response to a television program, which resulted in a mostly sleepless night for both of us.
We were at an Easter gathering with friends, and the television was on with a sporting event. Apparently the game ended at some point, because when I went to retrieve the kids at the end of the evening, I found Peaches with a group of tweens watching a supernatural crime show (rated TV-14). There was a brief discussion in the car ride home about the appropriateness of what was on the screen, but said it was no big deal. Fast forward a few hours…the lights were out and the fear set in.
When it comes to violent television, most of us have heard the concerns about its effects on viewer aggression. But another well-documented effect of media violence- fear- is much less spoken about.
Fear reactions to media are surprisingly common. Research by Joanne Cantor reveals that 76% of school-aged children report having been frightened by media. However, these responses are not confined to childhood, and are also likely to occur during adolescence and adulthood. Cantor found that 90% of college students she surveyed had experienced a strong fear reaction to the media at least once in their lifetime. These responses were intense and enduring- 35% of the students reported that the effects had persisted for a year or more after the exposure, and 25% reported they still felt an emotional impact of the media exposure. Students were also able to vividly describe the frightening media, despite the fact that the average time since the exposure had occurred was 6 years. Common fear reactions include fear of one’s own bedroom or bathroom, fear of being alone or in the dark, sleep and eating disturbances, preoccupation with the frightening material, nervousness, depression, and feelings of dread of specific events and situations.
Personally, I recall at least three major fear reactions to the media from my childhood. First, viewing Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein at school (?!) in first grade. This led me to check my closet every night before bed for what seemed like years. Second, watching an especially creepy episode of Fantasy Island during a sleepover. That incident resulted in me viewing my dolls as sinister and evil, rather than as beloved playthings. Third, I saw the original Halloween movie some time during adolescence. I pretty much never wanted to babysit again after that one.
Parents should be aware that not only are fear reactions to media quite common, but that the types of media depictions that result in fear vary by age. Children’s typical fears are linked to their cognitive development. Therefore, parents cannot rely on their own opinions of what is frightening when judging the potential scariness of a program to their children.
According to Cantor, these are the main age differences in fear reactions:
- Before age 8, children are most frightened of scenes with a strong visual component, rather than scenes with suspense or implied threats. Typical fears during this age period include animals, the dark, sudden noises, strange-looking things, and transformations (e.g., the Incredible Hulk). In fact, very young children are much more likely to be scared of a grotesque, but kind, character than a beautiful, but evil, character.
- Between the ages of 9-12, children typically become more concerned about harm to themselves and loved ones. As a result, they tend to be most fearful of depictions of injury, physical destruction (e.g., natural disasters), and personal crime.
- Beyond age 12, children have acquired abstract thinking, so they now typically develop fears in response to media depictions of hypothetical situations (e.g., nuclear war) and scenes that contain implied threats (e.g., a serial killer might be on the loose).
Supernatural events (e.g., hauntings), border both fantasy and reality, and tend to be frightening at all ages (even in adulthood!). There are also individual differences in both sensitivity to scary media, as well as in specific fears.
To read more about this topic, I strongly recommend Joanne Cantor’s book Mommy, I’m Scared. She also offers great suggestions of what to do to help mitigate fear responses in children if they are exposed to frightening media.
I never did find out what exactly happened in the program that frightened my daughter, because she didn’t want to talk about it during the darkness of night. I hope that tonight the fear will have faded, and we all can get a good night’s sleep, but the psychologist in me knows that this is probably wishful thinking.