excited child on couch with tv remoteThere is a growing body of evidence that today’s constant flow of media messages can produce fear and anxiety in children.  Frightening and sensational images on TV, film, social media, and video games can alter a child’s view of the world, affect their sense of well-being, and influence their decision-making.  Subsequently, it is important to understand the relationship between children’s media use and the fear and anxiety it can cause them, both in the long and short term.

How can media use lead to fear and anxiety in children?

Research shows that exposure to news programming and/or fictional media such as video games, movies, and TV shows can cause children to experience fear and anxiety. Some exposure may only cause a child to feel scared or upset temporarily, however, other instances may cause a child to experience long-lasting fear or anxiety that may continue into adulthood. The link between fear, anxiety and media is largely due to the following:

  • Media violence as well as fantasy imagery and themes (such as magic, villains and heroes) in movies and TV shows can frighten and confuse children and, in some cases, introduce fears that can last into adulthood.
  • News stories can be frightening. Research shows that children with limited access to media are just as likely to experience fear and anxiety when exposed to disturbing news stories as children with heavy access. In addition, because older children are able to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, their fears can increase with age.
  • Research shows that video game violence can significantly increase anxiety and aggressive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in children over the long-term and short-term.
  • Before children reach puberty they will have been exposed to thousands of unsolicited media messages with sexual content that can be confusing and may cause them to feel anxious and upset.

What YOU Can Do

Although the relationship between media and children’s fears and anxieties is complex, these feelings can be reduced when parents set limits and introduce rules for media use.  Parents should also talk with their children and encourage them to be open about any media that they find confusing or disturbing. Here are several suggestions to help you guide your child’s media use:

Do Your Homework

Media are everywhere and when children are confused or upset by media content, they can become fearful, have difficulties sleeping and exhibit anxious behaviors. What you can do is limit their access to developmentally inappropriate content by reading reviews, watching trailers and checking out the content first before allowing your children to watch and/or interact with it.

Practice Media Literacy

Teaching children to think critically about media can help them question and understand the motivations behind different media depictions that can be frightening or upsetting . Encourage them to discuss any media they find disturbing and teach them coping strategies (such as thinking about how media characters are made)  to deal with images or ideas that scare them.

Be a Media Role Model

Be aware of what you are watching and/or playing when your child is present. Know that even if the content seems to be appropriate, it may be frightening or confusing for some children. Parents should model for their children the behaviors they would like to encourage, including engaging with developmentally appropriate content when children are present, and openly discussing frightening or confusing news or entertainment media children are exposed to.

Remove Screens from Children’s Bedrooms

Studies show that children who watched television just before bedtime had greater difficulty falling asleep, were more anxious at bedtime, and had higher rates of nightmares.  Keep TVs, computers, and video game systems out of children’s bedrooms, and make sure that all other internet connected devices such as tablets and smartphones are left in a common room or your bedroom to charge overnight.  By keeping these electronics in a common area, parents can monitor their use much more easily and be aware of how much media their children are using and if the content is developmentally appropriate.

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