The University Record, March 29, 1999

Scary movies can have lasting effects on children and teens, study says

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

One in four college students in a recent study said they experience lingering effects of a frightful movie or TV experience from childhood. These effects range from inability to sleep to avoidance of situations portrayed in those movies. File photo
While the short-term effects of watching horror movies or other films and television programs with disturbing content are well-documented among children and teens, a new U-M study shows that long-term effects can linger even into adulthood.

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

"This may not be surprising, but the proportion of participants--one in four--who reported fright effects that they were still experiencing indicates that these responses should be of major concern," says Harrison, assistant professor of communication studies. "These effects were more serious than jumpiness at a slammed door or the need to use a nightlight. They ranged from an inability to sleep through the night for months after exposure, to steadfast and continuing avoidance of the situations portrayed in the programs and movies."

The researchers, whose study will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Media Psychology, found that 52 percent of the sample reported disturbances in normal behavior such as sleeping or eating after viewing a frightening film or TV program. More than a third avoided or dreaded the depicted situation in their own lives, and nearly a fourth reported obsessive thinking or talking about the frightening stimulus.

While more than one-fourth of the study's participants still experience such aftermath, the duration of the effects--both past and present--range from less than a week (about 33 percent of the sample) to more than a year (about 36 percent).

According to the study, a wide range of symptoms were reported, including crying or screaming (27 percent of participants), trembling or shaking (24 percent), nausea or stomach pain (20 percent), clinging to a companion (18 percent), increased heart rate (18 percent), freezing or feeling of paralysis (17 percent) and fear of losing control (11 percent), as well as sweating, chills or fever, fear of dying, shortness of breath, feeling of unreality, dizziness or faintness, and numbness (all less than 10 percent each).

"It appears, then, that the physical and emotional fright reactions our sample experienced in reaction to media stimuli are very similar to those typically experienced in reaction to real-life stimuli, a finding that is consistent with the principle of stimulus generalization," Harrison says.

Harrison and Cantor categorized the phobia-producing stimuli into five areas: animal (animals, insects, reptiles, animal-like aliens, etc.); environmental (fires, floods, earthquakes, storms, water, nuclear holocaust and other environmental threats); blood/injection/injury (blood, gore, injury, pain, wounds, needles and other physical threats to living things); situational (heights, enclosed spaces and circumscribed situations like doctors' offices); and disturbing sounds/distorted images (loud noises, distorted faces, etc.).

The most frequently reported type they found is blood/injection/injury (reported by 65 percent of the sample). One participant said that in the movie Jaws, it was not the shark or actual deaths that was frightening, but the blood.

"For about two months after the movie, I had nightmares about blood," the participant said. "The nightmares didn't always involve sharks, but always contained gross amounts of blood. To this day, I remain horrified of blood."

Harrison says that it is not clear whether this type of stimulus was mentioned most frequently because it is inherently more frightening than the other types, is the most common stimulus found in the mass media or, for some reason, is recalled more easily.

"In any case, the ubiquity of blood and gore in the U.S. media should be cause for concern regarding its potential for causing enduring fright reactions in children," she says.

Disturbing sounds/distorted images is the other most common type of fright stimulus found in films and TV programming (reported by 60 percent of participants). One participant was scared by the heavy breathing of the killer in the film Halloween, while several others found the suspenseful music in Jaws frightening.

The other three classes of stimuli were reported by a minority of the sample: situational (33 percent), animal (12 percent) and environmental (9 percent).

According to Harrison and Cantor, the younger the study's participants were when they viewed a scary movie and TV program, the longer-lasting the effects. In addition, their data provide little support for the popular notion that children who like thrilling media genres will be better able to handle their effects than children who do not like them.

Further, the average duration of fright effects for participants who watched frightening media because someone else was watching or wanted to watch was significantly higher than the duration for those who sought out the film or program themselves.

"The enduring fright reactions reported in this study were not the product of strange or unusual viewing circumstances," Harrison says. "Considering the abundance of graphically violent content in movies and on premium cable television channels, as well as the tendency for younger family members to go along with older members' media choices, it is not surprising that enduring fright effects from scary media were prevalent in our sample."

Finally, regardless of what frightened them as children, the study's participants appeared to know which coping strategies worked best for them, the researchers say. For example, those younger at exposure relied more heavily on behavioral coping strategies (covering their eyes, leaving the room, hugging a pillow), while those older at the time of viewing used cognitive strategies (reassuring oneself that "it's just a movie" or "this could never happen in real life").

"Many adults have learned to recognize the types of stimuli that frighten them and can choose movies and programs carefully to avoid such content," Harrison says. "Given that very young children may not yet know what types of stimuli frighten them most, and that they do not enjoy the power to choose which media the family will view, they are in special need of protection from exposure to such scary stimuli before coping strategies are necessary.

"It is reasonable to recommend that we pay closer attention to the potential media stimuli may have for creating long-lasting fears of the surrounding world, fears that can interfere with normal functioning. Given that normal functioning of children is an essential goal of child-rearing, parents should be aware of the types of media that may contribute to enduring fright effects in their children."