Michael Phariss, michaelphariss.com

There are many ways in which quite young children can be exposed to scary screen media. It’s quite common to see very young children at violent and scary M classified movies.  It’s not unusual for commercial television stations to insert unexpected, frightening and violent trailers or program promotions into G or PG family TV programs. Middle primary-aged boys often play MA15+ violent, or horror computer games.

Does all or any of this exposure matter, does it affect children’s development, or is it all just a bit of entertainment?

Longtime researcher into scary media and impacts on children, Professor Emerita Joanne Cantor says it can hurt. She reports that

A recent meta-analysis combining many studies (Pearce & Field, 2015) confirms that scary media’s impact on children is consistently negative, and that children under the age of ten are especially vulnerable to experiencing troublesome fearsResearch since the dawn of movies has shown that a majority of children are affected at some time in their lives, and the effects often include symptoms like free-floating anxiety, obsessive thoughts, severe nightmares, sleep problems, and the avoidance of normal, safe activities that remind the child of the frightening episode. Some of these effects are relatively short-lived, but others can last for years” (e.g. Harrison & Cantor, 1999).

She’s also very concerned about the impact of TV trailers and promos:

Not only are promos unpredictable – (you can choose what program to watch, but not which promo will pop up) – they often include intensely disturbing images in order to attract an older audience. A particular problem is that young children can be traumatized by a very brief scene or image out of context, especially grotesque images and intense violence.

Cantor advises that it is extremely difficult to explain away fears that have been produced by intense visual images. Her advice is that “Watching or hearing about a ‘happy ending’ is unlikely to help, and an ounce of prevention is probably worth a ton of cure. It’s wise to protect children from inadvertently being exposed to scary media. And policies that help parents protect their children are not only worthwhile; they’re essential to children’s healthy development.”

Research tells us that children differ in terms of their levels of sensitivity, and what will be scary depends strongly on the age of the child. Predictably scary content should be restricted during times where children will be viewing in high numbers. Further, parents need and deserve accurate and useful information about the content that is shown. It’s high time Australia had a classification scheme that reflected the research and provided more detailed information about age-appropriateness for parents of children under the age of 15 years. This might go some way to providing better protections from scary and violent content.

Parents and carers who would like to see some of these protections achieved in Australia can get more information at Stop the Ambush;at Scary TV and  trailers scare children, and about Age-based classification at on ACCM’s website.

In the meantime, help is at hand with ACCM’s Know Before You Go , and Know Before You Load App reviews. These aim to provide reliable advice about the age-appropriateness of movies, apps and games, so parents can guide healthy media choices for their children.

– Barbara Biggins

Barbara Biggins OAM is honorary CEO of the Australian Council on Children and the Media, a national community based organization working for healthy choices and stronger voices in children’s media. For more information visist www.childrenandmedia.org.au 

References and resources: 

Cantor, J. (1998). “Mommy, I’m scared”: How TV and movies frighten children and what we can do to protect them. San Diego: Harvest Books/Harcourt Brace.

Cantor, J. (2006). Long-Term memories of frightening media often include lingering trauma symptoms. http://yourmindonmedia.com/wpcontent/uploads/longterm_memories.pdf

Pearce, L. J., & Field, A. P. (2015), The impact of “scary” TV and film on children’s internalizing emotions: a meta-analysis. Human Communication Research. doi: 10.1111/hcre.12069.