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Fear and the Media - Fright Reactions to Individual Programs and Movies, Developmental Differences in the Effectiveness of Coping Strategies

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The mass media present many images and ideas that have the capacity to worry, frighten, or even traumatize children. Researchers as far back as the 1930s and 1940s expressed concern that children were experiencing nightmares after going to the movies or listening to radio dramas. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the incidence of fears and nightmares was reported in several books about the effect of television on children. By the late 1960s, however, concern about youth violence led researchers to focus mainly on the potential of the media to contribute to violent behavior in children, and little attention was paid to the potential negative emotional effects of exposure to television and movies.

By the 1970s, George Gerbner began studying what he termed the “mean-world” syndrome. Through his “cultivation” paradigm, Gerbner argued that because television programming contains much more violence than actually exists in the real world, people who watch a large amount of television come to view the world as a mean and dangerous place. The research of Gerbner and his associates (1994) has shown, for example, that heavy television viewers exceed light viewers in their estimates of the chances of being involved in violence and that they are also more prone to believe that others cannot be trusted.

Gerbner’s research has focused primarily on viewers’ beliefs about the world rather than on viewers’ emotions. However, research in the late 1990s revealed that heavy television viewing is associated with fears, nightmares, and even symptoms of psychological trauma. A 1998 survey by Mark Singer and his associates of two thousand elementary and middle school children in Ohio showed that as the number of hours of television viewing per day increased, so did the prevalence of symptoms of anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress. Similarly, a 1999 survey by Judith Owens and her collaborators of the parents of almost five hundred elementary school children in Rhode Island revealed that heavy television viewing (especially television viewing at bedtime) was significantly related to sleep disturbances. In the Owens study, almost 10 percent of the parents reported that their child experienced television-induced nightmares as frequently as once a week.

Fright Reactions to Individual Programs and Movies

The fright-producing effect of media depictions has more frequently been studied in terms of the immediate emotional effect of specific programs and movies. There is ample evidence, in fact, that the fear induced by mass media exposure is often intense and long-lasting, with sometimes debilitating effects. In a 1980 study by Brian Johnson, 40 percent of a random sample of adults admitted that they had seen a motion picture that had disturbed them “a great deal,” and the median length of the reported disturbance was three full days. On the basis of their descriptions of the type and duration of their symptoms (such as nervousness, depression, fear of specific things, recurring thoughts and images), 48 percent of these respondents (19% of the total sample) were judged to have experienced, for at least two days, a “significant stress reaction” as the result of watching a movie.

Two retrospective studies of adults’ detailed memories of having been frightened by a television show or movie were published in 1999, one conducted at Kansas State University by Steven Hoekstra and his associates and the other at the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin by Kristen Harrison and Joanne Cantor. These independently conceived studies provided further evidence of the prevalence, severity, and duration of fears induced by the media. The data revealed that the presence of vivid memories of enduring media-induced fear was nearly universal among college undergraduates. Both studies reported that generalized anxiety, mental preoccupation, fear of specific things or situations, and sleep disturbances are quite common consequences of exposure to the media. Moreover, in the Harrison and Cantor study, one-third of the students who reported having been frightened said that the fear effects had lasted more than one year. Indeed, more than one-fourth of the respondents said that the emotional effect of the program or movie (viewed an average of six years earlier) was still with them at the time of reporting. Typical long-term reactions were the refusal to swim in the ocean (or even in lakes) after seeing the killer-shark movie Jaws , and anxiety about taking showers after viewing the classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho , in which the heroine is slashed to death while taking a shower.

A 1991 experiment by Cantor and Becky Omdahl explored the effect of witnessing scary media events on the subsequent behavioral choices of children in kindergarten through fifth grade. In this experiment, exposure to dramatized depictions of a deadly house fire or a drowning increased children’s self-reports of worry about similar events in their own lives. More important, these fictional depictions affected the children’s preferences for normal, everyday activities that were related to the tragedies they had just witnessed: Children who had seen a movie depicting a drowning expressed less willingness to go canoeing than other children; and those who had seen the program about a house fire were less eager to build a fire in a fireplace.

The most extreme reactions reported in the literature come from psychiatric case studies in which acute and disabling anxiety states enduring several days to several weeks or more (some necessitating hospitalization) are said to have been precipitated by the viewing of horror movies such as The Exorcist and Invasion of the Body Snatchers . Most of the patients in the cases cited did not have previously diagnosed psychiatric problems, but the viewing of the film was seen as occurring in conjunction with other stressors in the lives of the patients.

Developmental Differences in the Effectiveness of Coping Strategies

Research in cognitive development has also been used to determine the best ways to help children cope with fear-producing media stimuli or to reduce the fear reactions of children once they occur. In general, preschool children benefit more from “noncognitive” strategies, that is, those that do not involve the processing of verbal information and that appear to be relatively automatic; by the latter elementary school years and beyond, children benefit from both cognitive and noncognitive strategies, although they tend to prefer cognitive strategies.

The process of visual desensitization, or gradual exposure to scary images in a nonthreatening context, is a noncognitive strategy that has been shown to be effective for both preschool and older elementary school children in several experiments. In one experiment, for example, prior exposure to a realistic rubber replica of a tarantula reduced the emotional effect of a scene involving tarantulas from the movie Kingdom of the Spiders .

Other noncognitive strategies involve physical activities, such as clinging to an attachment object or having something to eat or drink. Children seem to be intuitively aware that physical techniques work better for younger than for older children. In a survey of the perceptions of children of the effectiveness of strategies for coping with media-induced fright, the evaluations of preschool children of “holding onto a blanket or a toy” and “getting something to eat or drink” were significantly more positive than those of older elementary school children.

In contrast to noncognitive strategies, cognitive (or “verbal”) strategies involve verbal information that is used to cast the threat in a different light. These strategies involve relatively complex cognitive operations, and research consistently finds such strategies to be more effective for older than for younger children.

When dealing with fantasy depictions, the most typical cognitive strategy seems to be to provide an explanation focusing on the unreality of the situation. This strategy should be especially difficult for preschool children, who do not have a full grasp of the implications of the fantasy-reality distinction. In one experiment, for example, older elementary school children who were told to remember that what they were seeing in The Wizard of Oz was not real showed less fear than their classmates who received no instructions. The same instructions did not help preschoolers, however. Research also shows that older children have greater confidence than preschoolers in the effectiveness of this strategy.

For media depictions involving realistic threats, the most prevalent cognitive strategy seems to be to provide an explanation that minimizes the perceived likelihood of the depicted danger. This type of strategy is not only more effective with older children than with younger children, in certain situations it has been shown to be misunderstood by younger children, causing them to become more, rather than less, frightened.

Studies have also shown that the effectiveness of cognitive strategies for young children can be improved by providing visual demonstrations of verbal explanations, and by encouraging repeated rehearsal of simplified, reassuring information. It is clear from these studies that it is an extremely challenging task to explain away media images and threatening situations that have induced fear in a child, particularly when there is a strong perceptual component to the threatening stimulus, and when the reassurance can only be partial or probabilistic, rather than absolute.

Parental Awareness and the Effects of Coviewing

It has been noted that parents often are not aware of the occurrence or severity of the fright reactions of their children. Research typically shows that parents’ estimates of the frequency of their children’s media-induced fright reactions are lower than the self-reports of the children. Parents also underestimate the exposure of their children to scary media. Research suggests that children often experience fright reactions to programs that many parents would not expect to be scary. Nevertheless, there is evidence that children are widely exposed to programs and movies that were originally intended for adults and that are considered frightening by a large proportion of adult moviegoers.

Research has focused on the role that coviewing can play in reducing fright reactions to media. Surveys have shown that children often attempt to comfort coviewers when they become frightened, using strategies ranging from distraction to a complicated reassuring explanation. One experiment showed that older siblings often spontaneously try to comfort younger ones when they watch a scary movie and that these attempts can be effective.

Gender Differences

There is a common stereotype that girls are more easily frightened than boys, and indeed that females in general are more emotional than males. There is quite a bit of research that would seem to support this contention, although the gender differences may be less strong than they appear at first glance. Moreover, the observed gender differences seem to be partially attributable to socialization pressures on girls to express their fears and on boys to inhibit them.

A meta-analysis by Eugenia Peck (1999)—of the studies of media-induced fear that were produced between 1987 and 1996—reported a “moderate” gender-difference effect size (0.41—on a scale from 0 to 1). The responses of females were more intense than those of males for all dependent measures. However, the effect sizes were largest for self-report and behavioral measures (those that are under the most conscious control) and smallest for heart rate and facial expressions. In addition, the effect size for gender differences increased as the age of the research participant increased.

There is some evidence of gender differences in the coping strategies used to counteract media-induced fear, and these gender differences may also reflect gender-role socialization pressures. As Cantor (2000) has observed, two surveys have reported that females use noncognitive coping strategies more often than males but that the two genders do not differ in their use of cognitive strategies. These findings may suggest that because boys are less willing than girls to show their emotions, they avoid noncognitive strategies (such as covering their eyes or seeking social support), which are usually apparent to others. In contrast, the two genders employ cognitive strategies (such as thinking about nonthreatening aspects of the frightening event) with equal frequency because these strategies are less readily observable.

Although more research is needed to explore the extent of gender differences in media-induced fear and the factors that contribute to them, these findings suggest that the size of the gender difference may be partially a function of social pressures to conform to gender-appropriate behavior.

Shielding Children from Harm

As television and movies have become more intense and more graphic in their depictions, parents have sought ways of taking more control over the exposure of their children to media. The movie rating system developed in the late 1960s by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has undergone several modifications in response to the wishes of parents. In addition, in the late 1990s, the U.S. Congress mandated the inclusion of V-chips in new television sets to permit parents to block programs on the basis of ratings, and the television industry developed a rating system designed to work with this new technology. Parental education and media literacy programs also proliferated during the 1990s to help parents and children cope with the rapidly expanding availability of diverse forms of media content.

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