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Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008

Media and Children's Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
Barbara J. Wilson

Media, Fear, and Anxiety

Children can not only witness and share emotions experienced by media characters, but also respond directly to emotionally charged events depicted in the media. Much of the research on the media's capacity to evoke children's emotions has focused narrowly on its ability to arouse their fears and anxieties. Recent movies such as Monster House, Corpse Bride, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix are just a few examples of horror-filled content that is targeted to children. Classic Disney films such as Bambi, Snow White, and The Lion King can also be upsetting to very young children. Even programs not designed to be scary sometimes cause fear among younger age groups. The Incredible Hulk, for example, a television series featuring a large, green-skinned creature that helps people, was so frightening to preschoolers that Mister Rogers' Neighborhood screened a special segment to explain the Hulk's motives and make-up to young viewers.

Research shows that most preschoolers and elementary school children have experienced short- term fright reactions to the media.25 Furthermore, many of these children report that they regret having seen a particular scary program or movie.26 In one nationally representative survey, 62 percent of parents of two- to seventeen-year-olds agreed that their children had “sometimes become scared that something they saw in a movie or on TV might happen to them.”27 The more pressing question concerns the long-term ramifications of such emotional reactions.

Long-Term Fears and Phobias
Evidence is growing that the fear induced in children by the media is sometimes severe and long-lasting. A survey of more than 2,000 elementary and middle school children revealed that heavy television viewing was associated with self-reported symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.28 Watching more than six hours of television a day put children at greater risk for scoring in the clinical range of these trauma symptoms. A survey of nearly 500 parents of elementary school children found that the children who watched television just before bedtime had greater difficulty falling asleep, were more anxious at bedtime, and had higher rates of nightmares.29 It is difficult to draw firm causal conclusions from these studies, which simply correlate television watching and anxiety, but it seems more likely that heavy watching would trigger fearfulness than that skittish children would seek out television before bedtime.

Using a different approach, Kristen Harrison and Joanne Cantor interviewed a sample of 150 college students at two universities about their memories of intense fears related to the media.30 A full 90 percent of the students were able to describe in detail a movie or television program that had frightened them in a lasting way. Although most had seen the show during childhood or adolescence, 26 percent reported still experiencing “residual anxiety” as an adult. When questioned about long-term effects, more than half of the sample (52 percent) reported disturbances in sleep or eating after seeing the TV show or movie. In addition, 36 percent said they avoided real-life situations similar to the events depicted in the media, 22 percent reported being mentally preoccupied or obsessed with the frightening content, and 17 percent said they avoided similar movies or television programs. The researchers also found that the younger the child was at the time of the exposure, the longer the fear lasted.

The media content that upsets children varies by age. Preschoolers and younger elementary school children (two to seven years of age) are most frightened by characters and events that look or sound scary.31 Creatures such as ghosts, witches, and monsters are likely to provoke fear in younger children; even characters that are benign but visually grotesque, such as E.T., can be upsetting to a preschooler, much to the surprise of many parents. This pattern is consistent with younger children's perceptual dependence, their tendency to fixate on visual and auditory cues rather than more conceptual information such as the motives of a character.32 Older elementary school children (eight to twelve years of age) are frightened more by scenes involving injury, violence, and personal harm.33 Older children also are more responsive than younger children are to events in the media that seem realistic or could happen in real life.34 This heightened responsiveness is consistent with their more mature understanding of the distinction between fantasy and reality.35 Several studies have found, for example, that older children or tweens (age eight to twelve) are more frightened by television news than are younger children.36

Catastrophic news events, in particular, have raised concerns among many parents in recent years. Round-the-clock coverage of child abductions, war, terrorism, and even hurricanes has made it difficult to shield young children from graphic news stories. Indeed, the content of television news has become more violent and graphic over time.37

Several studies have found that exposure to news increases children's fear and anxiety. One study examined sixth graders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder two years after the Oklahoma City bombing.38 The disorder is characterized by intense fear, helplessness, horror, and disorganized or agitated behavior. The children in the study lived 100 miles away from the event, had no direct exposure to it, and knew no one affected by the bombing. Yet almost 20 percent reported that the event continued to cause them to have difficulty functioning at school or at home, or both, two years later. Moreover, children who had watched, listened to, or read more news about the bombing reported greater symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Researchers have reported similar findings in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. One nationally representative survey of parents found that 35 percent of American children experienced one or more stress symptoms, such as difficulty falling asleep or trouble concentrating, after the attacks and that 47 percent were worried about their own safety or the safety of loved ones.39 Children who watched more TV coverage of the attacks had significantly greater stress symptoms.

In general, children's fear reactions to the news are intensified if they live in close geographic proximity to the tragedy.40 Fear is also greater among children who closely identify with the victims of tragic events.41 Finally, older elementary school children tend to be more frightened by these types of news stories than do younger children.42 Older children feel heightened fear partly because they watch more news than young children do.43 They are also more likely to be able to comprehend news stories, which often contain abstract terminology, such as terrorism and abduction, and fewer visuals than fictional, entertainment media content does.44 But as with fictional content, developmental differences help explain which types of news stories children find frightening. Although children under the age of eight are less likely to be scared of the news, when they are, it is most often in response to stories with graphic and intense visual images, such as natural disasters and accidents.45 Older children are more likely to be upset by stories involving crime and violence.46

To summarize, a moderate amount of evidence links media exposure, both to fictional content and to the news, with children's fears and anxieties. Cross-sectional snapshot-in-time studies indicate that most children have experienced fright, sometimes intense and enduring, in response to media content. Experimental studies corroborate that the types of content that upset children vary as a function of age. Children under eight are most often frightened by fantasy portrayals that involve gruesome or ugly-looking characters. Children older than eight are more upset by realistic portrayals, including the news, involving personal injury and violence. Fear reactions differ by gender as well. Girls tend to experience more fear from media than boys do, especially as they get older.47 But gender differences are more pronounced for self-reported fear than for physical measures of fear, such as facial expressions. Thus, gender differences may reflect socialization differences among girls and boys.

Longitudinal evidence also links media and fear. Heavy exposure to major catastrophes in the news is associated with intense fear and even post-traumatic stress in children. But although most of the longitudinal evidence pertains to news events, one recent study suggests that television viewing in general may be linked to children's fear. Jeffrey Johnson and several colleagues followed the television viewing habits and sleep problems of a cohort of adolescents at age fourteen, sixteen, and twenty-two.48 Those who watched three or more hours of television daily at age fourteen were significantly more likely than lighter viewers to have trouble falling asleep and to wake frequently at night at ages sixteen and twenty-two. The link held true even after researchers controlled for previous sleep problems, psychiatric disorders, and parental education, income, and neglect. And the link ran only one way: sleep problems in the early years did not predict greater television viewing in later years. The study, however, did not assess what the teens were watching on television. Clearly, more longitudinal studies are needed on how exposure to different types of fictional and nonfictional media content affects children's fears and worries.

Cultivating a Fear of Victimization
Media can also contribute to long-term fear through cultivation—its influence on people's conceptions of social reality. According to cultivation theory, people who watch a great deal of television will come to perceive the real world as being consistent with what they see on the screen.49 Cultivation theory has been applied to many types of reality beliefs, but much of the focus has been on perceptions about violence.

Researchers' preoccupation with violence is partly owing to the prevalence of aggression in American media. Large-scale studies of television programming, for example, have documented that nearly two out of three programs contain some physical violence.50 Moreover, a typical hour of television features an average of six different violent exchanges between perpetrators and victims. The extent of violence in programs targeted to children is even higher; 70 percent of children's shows contain violence, with an average of fourteen violent interchanges an hour.51

How does all this violence affect people's perceptions of reality? Studies have found that frequent viewers of television, no matter what their age, see the world as a more dangerous place and are more frightened of being a victim of violence than infrequent viewers are.52 Most of the evidence is correlational, but a few experiments using control groups show that repeated exposure to television violence increases people's fear of victimization.53 Combining all the evidence, Michael Morgan and James Shanahan conducted a meta-analysis of published studies on cultivation that combined all the individual studies to get an aggregate numerical effect size. According to scientific convention, an effect size of 0.10 is considered small, 0.30 is medium, and 0.50 is large.54 Morgan and Shanahan found that television had a small but statistically significant effect on people's perceptions of violence (r = .10).55 The effect was slightly larger for adults than for children, but because fewer studies involved younger age groups, this finding may not be reliable.

Early cultivation research focused on the sheer number of hours that people watch television, based on the assumption that violent content is formulaic and pervasive regardless of what is viewed. More recently, scholars have begun looking at particular types of genres, especially the news.56 In one study, elementary school children who frequently watched the news believed there were more murders in a nearby city than did infrequent viewers, even when researchers controlled for grade level, gender, exposure to fictional media violence, and overall TV viewing.57 Another survey found that children and teens who were heavy viewers of the news were more frightened by high-profile child kidnapping stories such as the Elizabeth Smart case than were light viewers of the news.58 Heavy viewers of the news were also personally more worried about being abducted than light viewers were, even after researchers controlled for the child's age and gender as well as for parental news viewing and parental fear of abduction. Children's fear of kidnapping was not related to overall television exposure, only to news viewing.

Kidnapping is one news topic that the media tend to sensationalize. Since the late 1990s, the number of stories about child kidnapping in the news has been on the rise.59 Yet kidnapping constitutes less than 2 percent of all violent crimes in the United States targeted at children under the age of eighteen.60 Moreover, children are far more likely to be abducted by someone they know than by a stranger. In 1997, for example, 40 percent of juvenile kidnappings were perpetrated by a family member, 27 percent by an acquaintance, and 24 percent by a stranger.61 A very small fraction of abductions are what the FBI calls “stereotypical” kidnapping cases involving a child taken overnight and transported over some distance to be kept or killed. Despite these statistics, there has been a rash of stories in the news about stranger kidnappings. Dramatic programs such as NBC's Kidnapped and USA's America's Most Wanted also focus on abduction. These fictional and nonfictional stories may attract viewers, but they can also fuel an exaggerated fear of violence in young children.

To summarize, researchers have found modest evidence that electronic media can influence children's perceptions of how dangerous the world is. This effect is particularly evident among children who watch a great deal of news programming. Most of the evidence, however, is correlational, not causal, and is a snapshot of its subjects at one time. To date, no longitudinal research has tracked children over time to determine the long-term effects of such exposure on children's perceptions of social reality.