Recent statistics released by Screen Australia on the viewing habits of Australian children found a third of eight to 14-year-olds watched three or more hours of television daily while 42 percent of children aged 11 years and over preferred adult shows such as Home and Away, Modern Family and Big Brother.
The flurry of media articles on helping children to cope when Glee star Cory Monteith died is an example of how TV shows and their characters have become an integral part of today’s society. A deeper issue is related to the long term effects of fears experienced by children from what they see on TV which can spill over into adulthood. The Children and Electronic Media Journal in 2008 reported 90 percent of a sample of university students could describe in detail a show that had frightened them when they were children. Interestingly, 26 percent of the students said they still experienced “residual anxiety” as adults.
According to child psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Seeley-Wait, children process disturbing events differently depending on how distressing the images are and the age of the child – the child often thinks about it later which could cause sleep disruptions. “Children may also ask questions of their parents relating to what they have seen; these conversations need to be handled sensitively without belittling or playing down the child’s fears”. While the child’s fears need to be validated and taken seriously, parents need to help their children understand that none of it is "real".
Abi Gold a family and parenting consultant says that the explanations provided by parents need to take into account their child's age, level of understanding and emotional maturity as some children need more sensitivity than others. Research shows children have the ability to identify with characters on screen and respond directly to the character’s emotions which increase their own fears and anxieties.
Parents need to watch out for and manage the following situations which have the potential to affect children long term potentially into adulthood.
Death of the main character
Seeley-Wait says “Children who see or learn about the death of a character often have strong reactions as they perceive it as unexpected”. The younger the child, the more developmentally difficult it will be for them to process what is happening and to realise that it’s not "real". Gold explains the child often displays confusion and could become worried that he or their loved ones could also die. She advises being honest and gentle with your explanation and drawing on the distinctions between the character and your child, so that the child sees themselves as different and in a different situation from the character, for example, using phrases such as "he was very old" or "he was very sick."
The child may be sad that the character is dead, so acknowledge their sadness as genuine and say it’s okay to be sad. Try to help them not dwell on the sadness for too long, but moving the conversation on to the positives of the story, for example, “but now the little lion will be king. He'd make a lovely king, wouldn't he?” Again, clarify the differences between real and fictional characters and don’t dismiss their sadness explains Gold.
Horror-based movies with scary characters
Horror-based or scary characters which are advanced for a child’s developmental age can cause them to lose sleep by being afraid of the dark or fear for their personal safety says Seeley-Wait. “Often an up-surge in anxiety issues is the combination of a temperamentally anxious child and a too-scary show or movie”.
Gold explains that the child may experience nightmares, be unable to fall asleep at night, reluctant to enter a certain room, or a place that resembles a location in the film. They may become afraid of clowns if the scary character resembles a clown, become nervous on seeing an advert or trailer for the film on TV, and may ask questions about the characters, for example, why they're bad, or why they hurt people.
“Reassure the child that no such character exists and that what they see is pretend, made up, and from a story book, like the ones they read at bedtime. Emphasise that you are there to protect them, that it is your job to keep them safe, to look after them, and to make sure no one hurts them”.
Gold advises drawing distinctions between the scary character and the people in the child's life by saying "we don't know anyone who is big and green. Have you ever seen anyone green in the supermarket?" “Come up with 'solutions' that make the child feel empowered and in control – providing a water spray can to your child to spray away the 'monsters' before bedtime could work well!”
Realistic events that could happen in real life
Several studies have discovered that older children or tweens aged eight to twelve are more scared by what they see in the news than younger children. This may affect their actions – the child may be reluctant to get into a car after seeing a car accident on TV. Gold says it’s better to talk to your child about their hesitance to resume an activity and encourage them to return to normal by supporting them. “Do not over indulge the fear, otherwise the child will find it hard to overcome the situation”. Children look to their parents for appropriate responses, and if you indulge the fear, this will magnify it for the child.
Take the opportunity to explain what went wrong, why it couldn't happen to them if they are curious and asking questions. “Explain about the importance of safety, and demonstrate how you always follow the safety rules when doing a similar thing, so the child knows that his circumstances are different from those of the people on TV,” adds Gold.
70 percent of children's shows contain violence, with an average of fourteen violent interchanges per hour according to studies done on television programs in America. Gold says exposure to violence between characters can cause children to lose their sense of empathy and the ability to appreciate the physical, mental, emotional and social effects of that violence.
“Talk to your kids about respecting other people, about boundaries and appropriate behaviour”. Promoting respect at home and talking about when violence is appropriate or not and cultivating a sense of kindness and gentleness in children from a young age may be an answer to combating what they see on screen.
So is limiting TV time the answer to this problem? Yes, say both Seeley-Wait and Gold – not only limiting how much TV children watch but monitoring what they are actually watching. “Kids sometimes will continue to watch shows that actually bother them - much like looking at a car accident on the side of the road – you just can't stop yourself,” says Seeley-Wait.
Gold recommends searching the Internet for parental reviews for games, movies and shows and to avoid saying “because I said so,” as this can make the child obstinate or secretive. Check the history on the computer or the Apple TV frequently, and rummage through their games collection to check no one is breaking the rules. Always maintain an interest in what your child is doing and have open lines of communication – listen to their concerns without judgement and ensure the child knows his concern is being listened to and addressed.
Gold says, “Watch out for certain body language in younger children as they may not be able to express in words if something is frightening them. Also siblings with an age gap between them need stricter monitoring on what is acceptable viewing to both groups. “Designate different TV watching times for them, and have some rules about which games or computer games are okay for the little ones to join in, and which are not”.
Seeley-Wait advises that parents need to remember children’s fears are normal and validating these feelings is an important first step in dealing with fears. Parents can do a lot to avoid unnecessary anxieties for their children if they make sure that what they are exposed to in the first place is appropriate for their age.