Media and Parents: Protecting Children from Harm

Joanne Cantor, PhD
Professor, Communication Arts
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Concern about the impact of the mass media on children has surged in recent years -- and rightly so. As more and more evidence is presented of the harm that TV, movies and videos can do, and as the media are becoming more pervasive, more intrusive, and more disturbing in content, many parents are at a loss as to what to do to protect their children. Television seems to be an especially threatening presence because it brings into our homes, automatically, so many things most parents would never choose to expose their children to. No one delivers books or videos to our homes unordered, but our television provides an outrageous array of disturbing content, that is readily available at the touch of a remote almost anytime of the day or night.

A lot of what television has to offer involves violence or the threat of harm in some way. As we reported last week in the third year findings of the National Television Violence Study (Federman, 1998), violence continues to pervade television. More importantly, the way violence is most frequently presented on television tends to promote children's learning that aggression is the first -- not the last -- resort, and that it is an effective, easy, and even fun way to solve problems. In summarizing our review of the hundreds of studies of the effects of witnessed violence on behavior, our research team noted three important harmful effects of viewing violence in the media. First, it promotes the adoption of aggressive attitudes and behaviors. Second, it leads to desensitization, making children less sympathetic to the victims of violence. And third, exposure to violent depictions can cause an increase in children's fears.

I have chosen to focus today on this third area -- the mass media and children's fears -- for two reasons. The first is that this is a very important area that has received much less attention than it deserves (Cantor, 1994, 1996). The second is that I have just completed a book on this topic, titled Mommy I'm Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do To Protect Them (Cantor, 1998). The book, which is written for a general audience but based on the findings of research, is published by Harcourt Brace.

I started studying the media and children's fears the way most social and developmental psychologists tend to do research -- by conducting experiments. We were testing the short-term effects of brief excerpts of mildly frightening programs that had been varied in some way -- and we were looking for differences in the ratings of how scared children felt in different conditions. I wasn't looking for or focusing on long-term effects because one simply can't study such effects this way (and it would be unethical to do so if one could). But I kept reading papers, written by my students, describing their own incredibly intense and long-lasting fright responses to movie or TV shows that they had viewed many years earlier, and I became convinced that the experimental method wasn't enough.

So I decided to explore how prevalent such long-term reactions are more systematically (Harrison & Cantor, 1996). We offered extra credit to first-year college students for saying "yes" or "no" to the question of whether they had ever been so frightened by a TV show or movie that the effect had lingered beyond the time of viewing. If they answered "no," that's all they had to do, but if they said "yes," they had to write a one-page paper about their reaction and then fill out a three-page questionnaire. Either way, they'd get the same amount of extra credit. I made it so much easier to say "no" than "yes," because I really wanted to know how common these effects are, and I wanted to err on the side of not encouraging people to report something that in fact was trivial. The results were astonishing. Out of 103 students given this opportunity to receive extra credit, 96 chose the "yes" response. Many of them wrote vivid, detailed descriptions of a program or movie that had frightened them years earlier, and heart-wrenching details of the repeated nightmares, obsessive thoughts, and long-term aversions that their exposure had brought on.

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Figure 1. What Were the Residual Effects?

Here are some statistics we compiled from the 96 people who reported a lingering fright reaction. (See Figure 1). Students wrote about many enduring effects: 22% reported mental preoccupation with what they had seen. In their words they "couldn't get the movie off their mind" or they "couldn't get those disturbing images out of their head." Forty percent avoided or dreaded the situation depicted in the movie or program, effects like refusing to swim in the ocean after seeing Jaws, being apprehensive about taking a shower after seeing Psycho, dreading cats after seeing Alice in Wonderland, or spiders after any number of arachnid-infested horror films. Eleven percent generalized these aversions to related situations -- for example, it is surprising how frequently people report giving up swimming in lakes or even swimming pools after seeing Jaws. The most frequent residual effects involved disturbances in eating or sleeping; 45% reported these effects. Stomach aches and even vomiting were reported, but the more common effects were nightmares, the inability to get to sleep and the refusal to sleep alone. In fact, the phrase "I slept with my parents for two whole weeks" is so common in such retrospective reports that I named the first chapter of my book "The Suddenly Crowded Queen-Size Bed."

The most remarkable data to emerge from this study relates to the duration of these residual effects. Figure 2 shows these data. Only one-fifth of these students said the effects lasted less than a day, and only a third said the effects endured less than a week. An astonishing 33% said the effects lasted more than a year. Finally, one fourth of these students said that the effects of what they had seen (an average of six years earlier) were still ongoing.

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Figure 2. How Long Did the Residual Effects Last?

These same symptoms are frequently noticed by parents. In a random phone survey we conducted of parents of elementary school children in Madison, sleep disturbances and stomach ailments were frequently reported as resulting from a child's viewing of something frightening on TV (Cantor, 1998). A mother recently told me about a typical scenario. She and her eight-year-old son were watching a program they both agreed was appropriate, when she left the room briefly to answer the phone. By the time she had returned, the program her child had been watching had ended, and she found her son staring at gory and grisly images from an episode of The X-Files. She made him turn off the program, but it was too late -- her son woke up "in a fit" in the middle of the night and insisted on sleeping in his parents' bed -- something that happened repeatedly over the course of several weeks. A month later, he was still worried that the horrible thing he had seen in the show would come and get him.

In sum, both the retrospective reports of students and the concurrent reports of parents demonstrate that these are effects not to be taken lightly!

But the bulk of Mommy, I'm Scared is not about chronicling the problem -- it's about helping parents, caregivers, and mental health professionals predict the types of images and events in the mass media that will frighten children of different ages and about describing the intervention and coping strategies that work with different-aged kids. The conclusions and recommendations I present are based on more than 15 years of my research, using theories and findings in child development to make predictions and provide explanations. I will summarize some of my main points here:

There are two major things to remember when predicting what will frighten children between the ages of two and seven years. (I'll refer to these children as "preschoolers" even though this age group extends into the early elementary school years.) Because preschoolers are most sensitive to appearances, how things look is of paramount importance. Several of our studies show that younger children are more likely to be frightened by something that looks scary but is actually harmless -- a friendly mutant or a benevolent monster, for example -- than by something threatening with a benign exterior -- a handsome villain or a beautiful yet evil witch (e.g., Cantor & Sparks, 1984; Hoffner & Cantor, 1985). The second point is that because this age group has not fully grasped the fantasy-reality distinction, they are just as likely to be frightened by something that's totally impossible -- a sorcerer casting an evil spell -- as by something that's realistic and can actually harm them -- a kidnapper or burglar (Cantor & Sparks, 1984; Cantor & Nathanson, 1996).

By the latter elementary school years, children become more sensitive to media stories about things that are dangerous but may not look scary, and those that are realistic as opposed to fantastic or impossible. Children in this age group become increasingly sensitive to threats conveyed by the news (Cantor & Nathanson, 1996) -- events they understand actually happened and could well happen again -- to them.

Younger children are not immune to the news, however. Younger children respond most strongly to real threats that are conveyed visually; vivid footage of tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods, for example, especially terrifies preschoolers. Older children are more frightened by stories of kidnapping, murder, and molestation, especially if the victim is a child. These stories are usually less visual than stories of natural disasters because, fortunately for child viewers at least, these crimes are rarely caught on camera.

Even though teenagers have many more resources to cope with their fears, they often have long-term fright responses to mass media presentations, whether fictional (in drama) or real (in the news). The two themes that emerge as the most terrifying to this age group are sexual assault and stories involving the supernatural and the occult (Cantor, 1998).

Mommy, I'm Scared also has chapters on how to reassure a child who has been frightened by something in the media (see also Cantor & Wilson, 1988). Again, I treat 2- to 7-year-olds differently from older children. For preschoolers, as a chapter title suggests, "words won't work." It's especially ineffective to try to calm children in this age group by telling them that what they have seen is not real (Cantor & Wilson, 1984). This technique does work for children eight and over -- of course, the remedy works only if the threat being witnessed is impossible as in a fairy tale, that is, it could never really happen to anyone. For preschool children, the fear-reducing techniques that work are nonverbal: a hug, a glass of water, or a distracting activity might help (e.g.,Wilson, Hoffner, & Cantor, 1987). This age group often requests and responds well to magical or mystical remedies -- an Indian dream-catcher or a ritual check for creatures in the closet.

Older children are more responsive to reasoning -- especially information on why the horrible thing can't happen to them or how they can prevent it from happening. For all ages, the sympathetic attention of a concerned adult is probably the best medicine. Certainly the worst thing to do is to ignore, belittle, ridicule, or criticize a child for being frightened.

Our research shows that the fears induced by exposure to television and films can be remarkably persistent and hard to undo. Therefore, it is wise to practice prevention whenever possible. But how are we to protect our kids from choosing -- or even stumbling across -- a program or movie that may well cause long-lasting negative effects? The problem is a difficult one but, in addition to information, parents have some tools and a few more are on the horizon. I end the book by talking about TV and movie ratings as well as program blocking technologies like the V-chip. Amy Nathanson will report on recent research on these developments and what they might mean for parents. These tools are certainly not the full answer, but they seem to be a step in the right direction.

My final point is that in spite of increased public pressure on the entertainment industry to become more responsible, television and movies are not likely to change enough that parents won't have to be concerned about their effects on their children. Parent education on these issues is becoming increasingly important, and any organization that is interested in helping parents should include media education for parents and media literacy for children among its important themes.


Cantor, J. (1994). Fright reactions to mass media. In J. Bryant and D. Zillmann (Eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research (pp. 213-245). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Cantor, J. (1996). Television and children's fear. In T. MacBeth (Ed.), Tuning in to young viewers: Social science perspectives on television (pp. 87-115). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Cantor, J. (1998). Mommy, I'm Scared! How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do To Protect Them. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace.

Cantor, J., & Nathanson, A. I. (1996). Children's fright reactions to television news. Journal of Communication, 46(4), 139-152.

Cantor, J., & Sparks, G.G. (1984). Children's fear responses to mass media: Testing some Piagetian predictions. Journal of Communication, 34, 90-103.

Cantor, J., & Wilson, B.J. (1984). Modifying fear responses to mass media in preschool and elementary school children. Journal of Broadcasting, 28, 431-443.

Cantor, J. & Wilson, B. J. (1988). Helping children cope with frightening media presentations. Current Psychology: Research & Reviews, 7, 58-75.

Federman, J., Ed. (1998). Executive Summary: National Television Violence Study , Volume 3. University of California, Santa Barbara: Center for Communication and Social Policy.

Harrison, K. S., & Cantor, J. (1996). Tales from the screen: Long-term reactions to frightening films. Paper presented at the International Communication Association Convention, May, 1996. (submitted for publication).

Hoffner, C., & Cantor, J. (1985). Developmental differences in responses to a television character's appearance and behavior. Developmental Psychology, 21, 1065-1074.

Wilson, B.J., Hoffner C., & Cantor, J. (1987). Children's perceptions of the effectiveness of techniques to reduce fear from mass media. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 8, 39-52.

Copyright © 1998 Joanne Cantor.

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