Things that go bump in the night have always been a fear of children; however, around Halloween time, the frequency of kids rushing into their parents room in the middle of the night after waking up from a nightmare seems to increase.
Naturally this is often traced back to seeing a scary movie, which Licensed Clinical Psychologist Lawrence Ross PhD tells VOXXI can cause more damage than most moms and dads realize.
It can be serious depending on how vulnerable somebody is to stress and anxiety, Ross said. The effects can be long-term nightmares, feelings of anxiety, paranoia, less trusting of others. Those can last a day, a month or longer.
Invariably, the dangers of scary movies have become more acute over the decades as Hollywood continues to push gore levels to new heights. As for kids, the biggest issue stems from their inability to distill whats real and whats not.
For adults, watching a scary movie that they know isnt real still results in physiological responses such as raised heartbeats, sweaty palms and shallow breathing.
What about kids watching the same material?
Very often things that adults can deal with are not things that children can deal with, especially not younger children who have a hard time distinguishing fact from fiction, Ross said. They believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. So when they see these movies about Freddy Krueger and Chuckie, it feels real to them.
Backing up Ross claim is a University of Wisconsin study involving 150 college students and the effects they experienced after watching horror movies when they were children. The report found that more than half experienced issues with eating, sleeping and increased anxiety.
Also, a third reported avoidance of the scary movie situation, while a quarter reported obsessive thinking or talking about the frightening situation. Overall, a quarter of the students felt lingering effects a year or more later after seeing the film as a child.
Ross said the biggest takeaway from the study is that what we think consciously and what happens unconsciously are two very different things.
Sometimes we think were much more well put together and stronger emotionally than we actually are, and things that we dont think are going to affect us actually affect us more than we realize that they will, Ross said.
What does [watching a scary movie] do to a childs psyche unconsciously in terms of having them feel that the world is a dangerous place and becoming more paranoid about the world and having anxiety? It increases those things and thats probably not a great thing.
If parents are looking for some sort of guideline regarding when a child or teen may be able to handle a scary movie, Ross refers to psychologist Jean Piaget, who suggested at the age of 12 children reach the level of formal operations, where they can really compare and weigh relative things.
Prior to that youre in concrete operations, Ross said. When theyre exposed to these kind of stimuli, the effect is much more potent than when youre more mature in the form of formal operations and you can understand the relative values of things.
Finally, many kids skirt the issue of watching scary movies while sleeping over at a friends house. Ross said its the parents duty to express their childs parameters before leaving their son or daughter at someone elses home.
They should be very diligent because it doesnt take a lot of these experiences, especially with a younger child, to create a problematic situation, Ross said. So you should know the parents of the kid theyre visiting and tell them basically the rules of what you do and dont allow.
In one or two sentences, you can lay out whats appropriate and whats not appropriate in your child and make sure the other parent is on board with that. And if theyre not on board, dont let the child go over.
Tips regarding scary movies
Ross listed a few things parents can do to reduce the negative effects of horror movies:
- Monitor what children are watching.
- Make sure the movie/show is developmentally appropriate.
- Dont be afraid to employ parental controls on televisions and computers.
- Talk to your children about their fears.
- Set limits for your child regarding questionable material.