Mommy, I'm scared

March 19, 1999

Scary TVBy MEG H. PARTINGTON / Staff Writer

Some first impressions you wish would last a lifetime, but the lingering terror from a movie or upsetting real-life television program is likely not among them.

In research that began in the early 1980s, Joanne Cantor, professor of communication arts at University of Wisconsin-Madison, learned that many of her college students still suffered the ill effects of visual media experiences from their childhoods.

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One student noted how the movie "Jaws" scared her so deeply that she quit the swim team mid-race and years later wouldn't even set foot in a lake. Another wrote about how she was afraid to go anywhere by herself after watching a television show about missing children and couldn't go into the basement where she watched it. Her feelings took a year to dissipate.


These accounts and many others are in Cantor's book, "Mommy, I'm Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them," published in 1998.

In addition to her college students' written accounts of television shows or films that scared them, her study included observations of children's reactions to frightening media material and surveys of parents about their children's reactions to various programs.

"What your children see on television is just as important as what they eat," says Cantor, who will be the keynote speaker at the 11th annual conference on Child Abuse and Neglect Thursday, March 25, at Ramada Inn in Hagerstown.

Cantor writes that certain things are generally frightening to most people, including snakes, spiders, graphic displays of injuries and physical deformity. But age plays a big part in determining what is scary and what is entertaining.

Preschool-age children in general are more fearful of creepy appearances and sounds, but by the end of elementary school, most kids are frightened by things that could actually happen, Cantor writes.

"We need to be aware that different things affect children in a way they may not affect adults," says Janet Cole, shelter and transitional house case manager for Washington County Community Action Council and a member of the conference planning committee. She has eight children ranging in age from 14 to 35.

Don't be afraid to turn off the television or a rented movie if it becomes too scary, says Melissa Cline, program manager for Child Protective Services at Washington County Department of Social Services and another member of the conference planning committee. She has two children, ages 8 and 17.

Rent videos that you think are appropriate for your children, but screen them before letting children see them, Cantor recommends.

Limit the amount of time children are exposed to television, especially around bedtime, writes Cantor, who had a son in 1989. Become actively involved in their viewing by not only guiding their choices but watching with them and discussing what is seen, she suggests.

Despite TV ratings that are supposed to be based on age suitability and symbols warning of a program's content - "S" for sexuality, "V" for violence and "D" for suggestive dialogue - Cantor says better information needs to be provided on exactly what the viewer is getting when he or she sits down in front of the television.

Cantor also is an advocate of the v-chip, a circuit that is programmed to block out shows whose ratings a family deems unacceptable. Early forms were mounted on television sets while newer ones are built inside.

In March 1998, Federal Communications Commission announced that television manufacturers are required to include v-chip technology on at least half of their products with screens 13 inches or larger by July 1 of this year and the remaining half of the models by Jan. 1, 2000.

Of course not all the visual media has to offer is harmful.

"There's a lot of good television shows like 'Sesame Street,' " Cole says, crediting the program for her now 20-year-old son's ability to read the alphabet out of a book at age 2.

"I believe in moderation. I don't think there's anything wrong with letting kids watch a little TV once in a while," Cantor says from her office in Madison, Wis.

But there are plenty of other things for families to do other than sit in front of a glowing box or screen. They can take walks, trips, play games or just enjoy being in the same room together.

"I think people do need to think of alternatives to TV," Cline says.

-- Age-specific fears

-- TV ratings

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