Scary TV’s Impact on Children Overstated

According to psychologists from the University of Sussex

Image by Michael Cramer on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The impact of scary TV on children’s wellbeing has been overstated, according to University of Sussex psychologists.

While research has shown that a small minority of children can have extreme reactions to a scary programme or film, the researchers found that, overall, children show very little sign of increased anxiety, fear, sadness or sleep problems.

Image by Michael Cramer on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Image by Michael Cramer on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

University of Sussex research student, Laura Pearce, and Andy Field, Professor of Child Psychopathology at the University, reviewed all research into the topic carried out over the past 25 years.

Their findings, published in the journal Human Communication Research, suggest that, in general, children are fairly resilient to the scary things that they might see on TV.

Professor Field said: “Across studies, scary TV had an impact on children’s wellbeing but it was fairly small on average, suggesting that most children are not affected very much at all.”

Children spend a lot of time watching TV – in the UK, 4-9-year-olds watch an average of 17 hours and 34 minutes per week, and 10-15-year-olds watch 16 hours and 31 minutes, according to Ofcom.

Meanwhile, fear and anxiety among children and teenagers is on the rise – children in the 1980s reported higher levels of anxiety than psychiatric patients in the 1950s, and these increases have continued to the present day.

Professor Field suggests it is too simplistic to place all the blame for this rise on increased exposure to media.

He said: “We need to do more research into why particular children can be severely affected by particular content on TV. What is it about the media or about those individuals that causes this reaction? There is good reason to believe, for example, that already anxious and/or introverted children might be less resilient to scary content.

“Once we know why certain children are more affected by what they watch than others, we can give more specific and useful advice to parents, rather than assuming that all scary TV is bad for all children, which this analysis shows is not the case.”

The researchers also noted that TV guidelines focus on violent content at the expense of non-violent but frightening content – such as worrying news reports or content depicting psychological stress or phobias.

Professor Field added: “Although at the group level the effect of scary TV on children’s anxiety is small, it is nevertheless present. This finding has implications for policy-makers because TV guidelines focus on violence but, for some children, scariness will matter and TV can be scary without being violent.”

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