What Scared You as a Child?

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This article originally appeared on the website of our friends and colleagues at the Center for Scholars & Storytellers.

"Have you ever been afraid in front of the screen as a child?"

We posed this question to 631 university students in eight countries around the world. We found that, universally, the vast majority could recall in great detail a childhood experience that scared them so deeply it was burned in their memory — including the sights, sounds, and emotions it aroused. Many related stories of how, to this day, they are wary of swimming in the ocean, sleep with a light on, and are petrified of clowns.

What is it about TV and films that scares children? In this study we discovered the seven elements of fear:

  • The threatening appearance of a character (remember the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz?)
  • A character behaving threateningly (like the profoundly evil Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street)
  • A character children identify as being under threat and helpless (so many participants recalled being traumatized by witnessing poor Bambi alone in the cold, dark forest after his mother was shot by the hunter)
  • Stories that make children aware, for the first time, of threatening scenarios within their experience or the possibility of these scenarios (“Who would want to hurt the USA?” thought a shocked child after viewing news coverage of 9/11)
  • Stories in which safe places are deliberately breached (Chucky the doll in Child's Play cuddled in bed turns out to be sadistic)
  • Music and sounds that signify danger (remember the "dun dun, dun dun, dun dun" theme from Jaws?)
  • Scenes depicting injury and homicide (like a T. rex chewing on a bleeding human in Jurassic Park)

About 70 percent of the programs children were exposed to that induced fear were not age-appropriate (e.g., thrillers, science fiction, violent action-adventures). But many programs that most parents and professionals would not consider problematic can induce fear reactions as well, from Disney animated movies to even educational programs. For example, little Dumbo’s trunk reaching out to his caged mother was painful to watch for many children. Similarly, scenes from the classic The Wizard of Oz that included the witch and the monkeys elicited strong fear experiences.

Many of our participants shared impacts of a traumatic experience that haunts them in adulthood as well. Even as grown-ups, they check under the bed before going to sleep, they struggle emotionally with images of bodily harm that are stuck in their minds, they experience reoccurring nightmares, and they even confessed to discussing these issues currently with their therapists.

How does a child cope with such negative experiences? Just like older viewers, they avoid programs that scare them, they look for support from those around them, and they creatively develop mental strategies such as thinking about something happy before falling asleep.

What, then, should creators of content for children consider in trying to avoid traumatizing their audience?

  • Avoid severe fear experiences, such as inflicting bodily harm or undermining children’s trust in cuddling toys and the safety of their home and family; they do not promote a positive relationship with oneself, others, or the environment.
  • Do not avoid dramatic tension altogether. Children need to build resilience to threat and anxiety, but at a level that is appropriate for their stage of development.
  • Encourage a thrilling experience rather than a fear-based one, an experience where the child feels safe being scared, by offering predictable happy endings, employing humor to break the tension, and avoiding showing bodily harm. Movies such as Toy Story, The Lion King, or those in the Harry Potter series could be a thrilling experience, but only if the child is ready for it — and for most children that is after 7 or 8 years of age.

Parents, for their part, should:

  • Avoid exposing children to age-inappropriate content. Preschoolers are not emotionally ready to watch thrillers!
  • Develop media literacy competencies in children, e.g., explain to them that the hero/heroine of the series will be back in the next episode, that the music is meant to make you feel scared for fun, etc.
  • Be there when they experience tension and exhibit anxiety. Reassure them of your support and protection; explain the difference between fantasy and reality; offer a favorite stuffed animal or blanket.
  • Stay away from potentially scary content immediately before bedtime.
  • Do not leave any lingering fear to settle and become a phobia. Help them process it and seek help if needed.

Author Maya Götz, PhD, is head of the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) and head of the PRIX JEUNESSE Foundation.

Author Dafna Lemish, PhD, is professor and associate dean, the School of Communication and Information, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

Learn more about the Center for Scholars & Storytellers here.

Tags: Toddlers, Education, Motherhood, Developing Skills & Character

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