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This authoritative, realistic guide explains why children are drawn to scary shows, why the current television rating system is inadequate - and how parents can select safe and appropriate shows for kids of various ages.
This authoritative, realistic guide explains why children are drawn to scary shows, why the current television rating system is inadequate - and how parents can select safe and appropriate shows for kids of various ages.
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, onefourth 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 I do!), 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 bed from 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's 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!
"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 spill-over 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 Dumbo-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.