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The Impact of Scary Movies on Children

by Alexa Bigwarfe
Contributing writer

It’s time for Halloween, which brings the surge of scary movies in theaters and on television. We’ve all seen the terrifying previews for movies such as “Annabelle” and “It” and may be wondering whether it is OK for our younger teens, preteens, or even younger children to watch. Should you be worried about allowing your children to watch a scary movie or two? They are a normal part of modern day life, and it’s hard to know how your child will respond.

    But it’s important to understand that scary movies can have very long-lasting impacts on kids.

    According to a study of more than 150 college students at the universities of Michigan and Wisconsin, "Tales from the Screen: Enduring Fright Reactions to Scary Media," researcher Kristen Harrison and colleague Joanne Cantor found that 90 percent of the study's participants reported a media fright reaction from childhood or adolescence. Moreover, about 26 percent still experience a "residual anxiety" years later.

    According to the study, one in four participants reported experiencing effects ranging from an inability to sleep through the night months after exposure to steadfast and continuing avoidance of situations portrayed in the programs and movies.

According to Harrison and Cantor, the younger the students were when they viewed a scary movie and TV program, the longer-lasting the effects.

    Not every child who watches a scary movie will be scarred for life or even bothered seriously in the short term, but some children may be impacted by horror films, both now and as adults.  Children are often more impacted by scary movies and may be clingy after a scary film, cry, or even become sick to their stomachs.

    You know your child best and whether or not you think they are going to have a difficult time processing the scary factor. But, just in case you need a little more information before you make the decision, keep reading. If they are prone to have a longer term negative impact from scary movies, the issues they may face include:

    Sleep disturbances. It’s normal in both children and adults to have a hard time sleeping after a scary movie or jump easily from weird noises. But these issues should not last longer than a few weeks, and if they do, you may want to seek professional help.

    Difficulty discerning between reality and fiction. A study published in “Media Psychology” noted that younger children and children who went along with it but did not intend to view were most likely to experience fright effects including a fear of dying, uneasy feeling and fear of losing control.  Think about it—how many times have you yourself wondered if a bad man might be hiding in your closet or behind the shower curtain? While most of us are able to draw a distinction between irrational fears and reality, children may not be able to do that.

    Development of anxiety and phobias. Children have a difficult time putting scary movies into perspective since they do not have the life experience to know it’s not real. They do not have the cognitive development to understand. If your child is already easily scared or timid, or scares easily, they may not be ready for scary movies.

Increased display of violence and aggression. The results of studies on the impact of violent video games have not really been conclusive, but one thing experts do warn is that it desensitizes children to real-life violence. Also consider the fact that children often mimic what they see adults do. It’s advised by groups such as Common Sense Media to at least hold-off on the extremely violent and “slasher”-type movies until your child is 16 or older. Children who are affected by scary movies may believe it’s OK to use violence as a problem-solving skill.

    So when it comes to scary movies, proceed with caution. If you believe your children can handle it, try to minimize the impact of a scary movie by having your child watch it during the day time. If you do watch the movie at night, keep the lights on and watch it with them to allay their fears or answer their questions. Do something silly before bed to take their mind off of the movie. Or just skip the scary movie all together.

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Tags: Featured Story, Parenting, Tweens & Teens

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