There is growing evidence that violence viewing induces intense fears and anxieties in child viewers. A 1998 survey of more than 2,000 third through eighth graders in Ohio revealed that as the number of hours of television viewing per day increased, so did the prevalence of symptoms of psychological trauma, such as anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress. Similarly, a 1999 survey of the parents of almost 500 children in kindergarten through fourth grade in Rhode Island revealed that the amount of children's television viewing (especially television viewing at bedtime) and having a television in their own bedroom, were significantly related to the frequency of sleep disturbances. Indeed, 9% of the parents surveyed reported that their child experienced TV-induced nightmares at least once a week. Finally a random national survey conducted in 1999 reported that 62% of parents with children between the ages of two and seventeen said that their child had been frightened by something that they saw in a TV program or movie.
Two recent studies of adults' retrospective reports, of memories of having been frightened by a television show or movie demonstrate that the presence of vivid, detailed memories of enduring media-induced fear in nearly universal. Of the students reporting fright reactions in the study we conducted at the Universities of Wisconsin and Michigan, 52% reported disturbances in eating or sleeping, 22% reported mental preoccupation with the disturbing material, and 35% reported subsequently avoiding or dreading the situation depicted in the program or movie. Moreover, more than one-fourth of the respondents said that the emotional impact of the program or movie (viewed an average of six years earlier) was still with them at the time of reporting!
Studies like these and many anecdotal reports reveal that it is not at all unusual to give up swimming in the ocean after seeing Jaws - in fact, a surprising number of people report giving up swimming altogether after seeing that movie. Many other people trace their long-term fears of specific animals, such as dogs, cats, or insects to childhood exposure to cartoon features like Alice in Wonderland or Beauty and the Beast or to horror movies. I would like to note here that the impact of frightening media depictions is not just "psychological." As disturbing as unnecessary anxieties are by themselves, they can readily lead to physical ailments (especially when they disrupt sleep for long periods of time).
For the most part, what frightens children in the media involves violence or the perceived threat of violence or harm. It is important to note, however, that parents often find it hard to predict children's fright reactions to television and films because a child's level of cognitive development influences how he or she perceives and responds to media stimuli. My associates and I have conducted a program of research to explore developmental differences in media-induced fright reactions based on theories and findings in cognitive development. I have summarized this research and its implications for parents and others interested in children's mental health in my book, "Mommy, I'm Scared": How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them. This research shows that as children mature cognitively, some things become less likely to disturb them, whereas other things become potentially more upsetting.
Both our experimental and our survey research supports the generalization that preschool children (approximately 3 to 5 years old) are more likely to be frightened by something that looks scary but is actually harmless than by something that looks attractive but is actually harmful; for older elementary school children (approximately 9 to 11 years), appearance carries much less weight, relative to the behavior or destructive potential of a character, animal or object.
A second generalization from research is that as children mature, they become more responsive to realistic, and less responsive to fantastic dangers depicted in the media. This prediction is based on developmental trends in children's understanding of the fantasy-reality distinction. Further support for this generalization comes from our 1996 survey of children's fright responses to television news. A random survey of parents and children in kindergarten through sixth grades showed that fear produced by fantasy programs decreased as the child's grade increased, while fear induced by news stories increased with age.
Our survey of children's reactions to television coverage of the war in the Persian Gulf showed that preschool and elementary school children were more likely to be frightened by the concrete, visual aspects of the coverage (such as the missiles exploding), whereas teenagers were more disturbed by the abstract components of the story) such as the possibility of the conflict spreading).