Australian Council on Children and the Media

Scary TV and movies(and their trailers) scare children

The Issue:

We have known for years that scary stuff:

  • Scares younger children more than older ones. Older children are more likely to be able to reassure themselves that scary bits will pass and they'll be ok. Children under the age of 10 years are most vulnerable.
  • Is scary whether it's fact or fiction. Younger children will be more scared by scary fantasy material, and older ones by realistic news footage that looks like their neighbourhoods.
  • Can be triggered for enduring harms. There can be impacts on children's emotional health, which range over unnecessary fears and anxieties, sleep disturbances, phobias, and stress disorders. Joanne Cantor, who's a long time researcher in the field (and author of "Mommy I'm Scared: how TV and Movies can frighten children and what we can do to help them") lists what scares children and at what ages and stages. (ACCM Parent Guides). Many adults report enduring fears and phobias from something they saw on film at an early age.
  • Is not signalled well by our classifications systems: In Australia, the US and the UK, the classification systems only consider elements such as violence, themes, sex, nudity, language and drugs. While much violent material can be scary to children, not all scary depictions are violent. The Dutch do much better than we do with this.

What's happened recently:

Free TV Australia is reviewing its Code of Practice. The proposed changes will:

  • increase the likelihood of children being exposed to more M and MA15+ programs and movies, and their promos and trailers.
  • Continue the ambushing of parents of scary and violent content in programs carefully chosen for family viewing. Exposure to just one scary trailer can make a sensitive child fearful of going to bed on their own for several nights or weeks. See our Stop Ambushing Parents Campaign.

New Research throws more light on the issues:

  • is a valuable contribution to the field, as it attempted a meta-analysis of studies that met some very tight criteria, even though this netted just 30 of the 100+ existing studies.
  • It defines "scary media" as "those depicting situations and events in which there is social, interpersonal, physical, or psychological threat that is real, imagined or implied (for example, through contravening commonly accepted physical and natural laws)"

However, the publication of the article resulted in some misleading headlines and reports on May 31st 2015.

Given this, ACCM asked Joanne Cantor about the major findings of the research, She said:

News reports that have covered the meta-analysis by Pearce and Davies are misleading and erroneously dismissive of the effects of scary media on children. That analysis reports that scary television has a small but consistent negative effect on children's well-being, and that the negative effects is significantly stronger for children under the age of 10. The authors themselves do not consider the findings unimportant. They suggest that the small overall effect size may be due to the fact that some children (a minority) are more vulnerable that others to intense effects. In looking these findings, it also must be recognized that it is ethically impossible to expose children to intensely frightening fare in the laboratory. Therefore, most experiments purposely induce only small effects by using very mild stimuli.

But the meta-analysis findings are only a small part of the picture. As the authors acknowledge, there are many more studies of media effects on children that are amenable to meta-analysis in this context. In fact, of the relevant studies they identified, 72% could not be included.

The studies not included in the meta-analysis show fright reactions to be both typical and severe. In six surveys (ranging from 1933 to 2010), intense fright reactions have been reported by an average of 63% of respondents. In more extensive surveys, between 90 to 100% of respondents have described an intense and enduring media fright experience. Moreover, a majority of these respondents have reported phobia-related symptons such as free-floating anxiety and disturbances in eating or sleeping. For a third of these respondents, the disturbances have endured a year or more.

The bottom line is: It is wise to protect children from inadvertently being exposed to scary media. And policies that help parents protect their children are not only worthwhile, they're essential to children's healthy development.

What needs to happen:

1.  Free TV's Code proposals should not be permitted to:

  • remove all G time zones.
  • move M time forward to 7:30pm
  • move MA15+ and AV time forward to 8:30pm
  • allow the screening of trailers for programs of a higher classification than the one they screen in.

2.  Australia's classification system should:

  • assess the elements of scariness, in addition to violence, language, sex etc.
  • reflect ages and stages (rather than the age of 15 years)

 3.  More parents need to know about and act upon the impacts of scary material on children.

What you can do:

See our Stop Ambushing Parents campaign for actions on trailers

Let your local federal member know that you want an aged based classification system, and on that takes scariness into account.