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Horror Films and their effect on Children

By Lawrence Ross PhD

As Halloween draws near many parents wonder whether allowing their children to watch horror movies can be harmful for them. It is true that many children and adolescents are drawn to horror movies, It is equally true that many of these same children experience negative effects of trouble falling asleep, nightmares,fear of the dark, anxiety, increased feelings of vulnerability and increased concerns about possible (and sometimes unlikely) dangers that can befall them, These negative effects sometimes last days or weeks but sometimes they can last much longer.
One area of major concern is that the line between fantasy and reality is blurred for children younger that six  or seven. Young children live in the magical world of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. The images of ghosts, monsters, human predators, bodily mutilation and blood and gore can feel just as real and can be emotionally absorbed as easily as the image and positive emotional impact of Santa.
Even for adolescents, horror movies can have serious lasting effects. It is certainly true that the amount of violence and blood and gore has increased and has steadily been depicted with more detail and realism over the last 50 years. Beyond this the horror movies watched by adolescents often contain disturbing sexual images and situations that can alter their view of human sexuality.
The primary reason that horror movies can be so harmful is that although we may know in our mind that the movie is not real, our body and our physiological responses react to the images and events as if they were real! This is why we scream, gasp, cover our eyes, and clutch our loved one. Physiologically, our heart beats more rapidly, our breathing becomes more shallow, our palms begin to sweat as if these imaginary stimuli were real. In other words although our mind knows what is real and what is not, our body and our physiology does not make this distinction.
Harrison and Cantor of the University of Wisconsin did a study of 150 college students regarding the effects of watching horror movies when they were children. They found that directly after watching horror movies 52% reported disturbances in areas such as sleeping or eating, as well as increased anxiety. One third reported avoidance of the dreaded or depicted situation and 25% reported obsessive thinking or talking about the frightening situation. However, even more disturbing is that  one in four students (25%) experienced such “lingering effects” a year or even years after viewing the disturbing movie.
In addition these researchers found that the younger the participants were when they watched the movie, the longer lasting the effects.This was true even for those who reported enjoying the “thrill” of such movies. The lasting negative effects of horror movies also increased when children/adolescents watched these movies because someone else wanted to watch them as compared with those who sought the film out for themselves.

Here are some things parents can do to reduce the negative effects of horror movies for your children:

–Monitor what your children are watching
–Make sure what they are watching is developmentally appropriate. Younger children are frightened much more easily than adolescents.
–Utilize parental controls on televisions and computers.
–Be available to talk with your children about their fears
–Don’t be afraid to set limits if your child wants to watch something that you feel they are not yet able to handle.
Until next time, be well and happy!
Lawrence Ross PhD

Licensed Clinical PsychologistVisit Dr. Ross’ Website

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