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Is it good to make kids afraid?

Do you need to sleep with the light on?

I remember when my parents took the family to a triple feature that included the Brides of Dracula. I put my head in my mom's lap a lot. I was seven. On an extensive, hosted visit in Korea when I was ten, we were taken to the movie house to see a slasher film where Korean family members were chopping each other up with axes in the rain, lots of rain. Again, my head stayed mostly in my mother's lap.

As we approach Halloween, it is important for adults to remember to be sensitive to the needs of children. Joanne Cantor has documented how seeing the wrong movie (e.g., teen horror movie) at the wrong time (under 12) can scar a person for years (e.g., making them afraid of the dark, needing to sleep with a light on). Do you need to sleep with a light on? (Although you might think this is not a big deal, it is important for cancer prevention to sleep in the dark.)

What we know is that children of different ages perceive media in different ways:

  • Children under 5 have problems distinguishing reality and fantasy in media.
  • Children under 7 are usually scared by spooky fantasy (e.g., The Incredible Hulk, sharks in Finding Nemo). It doesn't much matter what the adult says (‘it's not real') because it feels real to the child.
  • Children 8-12 are most frightened by realistic violence (e.g., people breaking in the home, storms).

Even more so today, we immerse our children in scary images without thinking much about it. It used to be that teen-scary programming was not shown till after primetime, with the assumption that children would be in bed by then (right!). This has eroded considerably. These days television programmers and advertisers seem to make few accommodations for young viewers. For example, during football games on Sundays, advertisements for scary movies and shows are shown on the screen simultaneously with the game. I have complained about this in letters and some networks are more careful.

One of the most important characteristics for healthy development is a sense of trust. Watching violent and scary media beyond one's control leads one to mistrust one's caregivers and the world. When people think the world is a dangerous place (as those who watch a lot of TV do), they are less sensitive towards others and more self-concerned. See here for more information on violent media effects on kids.

I'm not saying that children should not have scary experiences. But they should be within their control. In our ancient past, children would have listened to the adults telling stories and interpreting dreams. Listening to stories allows the individual to imagine as much as scariness they can handle.

At the request of my nephew, I used to read Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree over and over as he learned to deal with his own fears and imagined escaping them. It's easy with books for kids to have control. They can walk away or shut the book if it is too much.

But when we take a child to a movie or sit them with the family in front of the television, they cannot easily escape and can be fascinated with the more benign action that leads up to the scariness, leaving them vulnerable to the surprise. Joanne Cantor has written a book to help parents with young children deal with media trauma,Teddy's TV Troubles.

Was I scarred by my early movie experiences? Thank god for my mother's lap! Yes, it took me concerted effort as a young adult to learn to enjoy the dark (going camping alone in the Rocky Mountains) and not expect rainstorms to also bring people with axes.

Wouldn't be nice to cultivate in our children, an enjoyment of the dark so that they can feel as John Muir did at midnight under Yosemite falls:

"I shall have a glorious walk down the mountain in this thin, white light, over the open brows grayed with Selaginella and through the thick back shadow caves in the live oaks, all stuck full of snowy lances of moonlight."

(John Muir, Yosemite Falls at Midnight)


For more information gathered from empirical studies on the effects of media see:

More from Darcia F. Narvaez Ph.D.
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