What Scares Children?

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After filming the spine-tingling shower scene in the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho, actress Janet Leigh was so petrified she never again set foot in a shower. Although Leigh's fear may have been more intense than most, she was not alone. Many adults who witnessed the murder on the silver screen had at least one or two disturbing thoughts the next time they stepped into a shower.

As any parent can testify, children have similarly strong reactions to television shows and movies they watch. But adults are often baffled by the kinds of images and stories that strike fear in youngsters. "How a child will respond to a particular television show or movie is not always intuitively obvious,'' says Joanne Cantor, a communication-arts professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who over the past 15 years has studied the emotional effects of media on some 1,200 children.

Cantor has found that TV shows that seem harmless and even wholesome to adults, shows such as Little House on the Prairie, terrify some children. At the same time, some movies adults think will spawn nightmares in children--such as the made-for-TV movie The Day After, about the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the United States--tend to scare teenagers more than their younger brothers and sisters. What children find frightening, Cantor says, has everything to do with their age and developmental level.

Cantor has taken her cues from Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist whose work undergirds developmental theory in education. Piaget theorized that children move through distinct conceptual stages as they mature. For example, children at the "preoperational'' stage, roughly ages 3 to 7, are egocentric and have difficulty imagining themselves in another's place. They respond more to how things look, and they have trouble understanding how physical forms can change shape. From 7 to 11, as children begin to move into what Piaget called the "concrete operational'' stage, they become less egocentric. They begin to understand how things can be transformed, and they realize that surface appearances do not always reveal the whole story. They do not really comprehend abstract ideas, however, until they reach the "formal operational'' stage in early adolescence.

Cantor reasoned that these developmental characteristics might also influence the way children respond to media. She found a natural testing ground for her theory in the 1980s television show The Incredible Hulk, which featured a mild-mannered scientist named David Banner who is transformed into an ugly, green-skinned Hulk to fight injustice. "If I was right, very young children ought to be frightened by the show,'' Cantor says. "But I found out before I could thoroughly research it how right I was.''

Her discovery came after she and her colleagues asked Madison-area parents to list television shows that had frightened their children in previous months. Some 40 percent of the parents of preschool-aged children in the survey named The Incredible Hulk.

In a later experiment, the researchers showed clips from the show to two groups of children--3- to 5-year-olds and 9- to 11-year-olds. The events leading up to the Hulk's emergence, she found, frightened the older children. The sight of the Hulk stepping in to save the day, however, relieved them. The younger viewers, on the other hand, became even more afraid with the Hulk's appearance. "They did not understand that when David Banner comes to look like the Hulk, he still has the same underlying identity and retains the same benevolent goals and motivations,'' Cantor writes in Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, a 1994 book.

In another study, the researchers showed children of varying ages a set of four pictures. The pictures depicted a grandmotherly woman holding a cat; an ugly, old woman gently petting a cat; a grandmotherly woman angrily grabbing a cat; and a witch-like woman simply holding a cat. Children were asked to talk about the women in the pictures and to predict what they would do in a story. "The younger children were much more affected by her appearance, independent of how she behaved,'' Cantor says. "Older children took into effect how kind or cruel she was.''

As children grow older, Cantor has also found, the TV shows and movies that frighten them most are those that depict more realistic threats. The house fires, murders, and rapes that take place on a show like Little House are particularly terrifying. Children easily imagine such fates befalling them. "As they get even older,'' Cantor says, "children are more likely to respond to threats that occur in an abstract fashion.''

To test this last theory, Cantor and her colleagues surveyed 161 Wisconsin parents a few days after the 1983 broadcast of The Day After. Schools and national education groups, such as the National Education Association and Educators for Social Responsibility, had advised parents against letting children under 12 watch the movie. But, among the 73 children Cantor found who had seen it, the older children were more upset than the younger ones. As part of that poll, parents of the younger children were also asked if anything their children had seen in previous months had upset them more than the movie. They named the movies Charlotte's Web and Bambi and "the Count,'' a vampire-like character on Sesame Street, among other seemingly benign children's media fare.

Though the frights of the big--and little--screen may thrill some, Cantor has found they also can be harmful in the long run. When she asked 103 college students two years ago if anything they had seen on TV or at the movies had given them a scare as children, 96 of them wrote vivid, lengthy descriptions of their experiences. Of that group, 30 percent said they had cried or screamed. Another 19 percent reported stomach problems, and 46 percent said they had trouble sleeping. Nearly one-third of the group said the effects of their experience lasted more than a year, and one-fourth reported that their fears had not yet disappeared. In a few instances, Cantor says, such fears even grew into serious psychological problems.

"Prevention is a good goal,'' says Cantor, who has a 6-year-old at home herself. "Getting rid of a fear once it happens is a lot harder than preventing it.''

Failing prevention, however, there are particular strategies that work best for each age group. Adults often try to soothe preschoolers' fears, for instance, by telling them that a horrifying character or happening is "not real.'' These words, however, often go right over young children's heads. Cantor says noncognitive strategies--such as giving a child a hug or a favorite toy--are much more effective for this age group.

In the case of the fears aroused by The Incredible Hulk, Cantor found another approach that also worked. The children's TV show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood presented an episode in which makeup artists gradually transformed actor Lou Ferrigno into the Hulk. The backstage secret seemed to decrease children's fright levels the next time they watched the show. Older children's fears, Cantor says, are better allayed by appeals to reason.

Cantor's views are somewhat at odds with those of the late psychologist and author Bruno Bettelheim, who believed that macabre and terrifying creatures and events children encountered in fairy tales help them resolve their own fears. "But the thing about fairy tales is that usually they are read to children by parents,'' Cantor says. "If parents see children are upset, they can change the ending. The problem with shows like Little House on the Prairie is that it just comes at you, and you don't have your mother there, and it doesn't necessarily ask you if you're ready for it or not.''

Cantor acknowledges that research on fright has not been as hot a topic as that on the impact of violence in the media, something she has recently turned her attention to. But Cantor reasons that television and movie producers probably already know what she has to say about what scares kids. "When I see a Stephen Spielberg film like Poltergeist, I feel he must have read my work because he knows exactly what buttons to push to frighten a child,'' Cantor says. "And the same is true of Disney.''

--Debra Viadero

Vol. 07, Issue 07, Page 1-24

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