“Turn it off!” is a familiar cry at Fiona MacCool’s Toronto home. Her daughter, Belle, is well known for becoming frightened or upset while watching TV shows and movies. This includes the fast-paced opening sequences of the Ice Age movies, featuring the antics of the sabre-toothed squirrel and his elusive acorn, and when the dog dies in Frankenweenie. At age five, she had to leave the theatre during Up. “When the main character loses his wife, she started crying,” says MacCool. When she was eight, she left Brave at the first sight of the bear.
While not every school-ager is affected to this degree, kids in the six-to-eight age range are often exposed to more media content that may make them feel anxious or uncomfortable.
“Preschoolers tend to be heavily supervised in what they’re watching,” says Jane Tallim, co-executive director of MediaSmarts, a media literacy organization in Ottawa. But as kids get older, many parents start loosening their grip on the remote control, and movies with emotional scenes, intense battles or scary monsters can be on view in the school gym on rainy days, at birthday parties and friends’ houses.
“Fear isn’t just triggered by zombies and monsters. Shows that hinge on the death of a child, pet or parent can stir up fear and anxiety in some children,” says Tallim. And once they’ve outgrown Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse, you’ll have a tough time finding a movie targeted to kids that doesn’t have at least a couple of intense or scary scenes, such as when the sea witch grows to enormous proportions in The Little Mermaid (a scene terrifying enough to give adults pause). Madagascar 3 has as many high-energy car chases as a Vin Diesel flick.
For most kids in this age group, a little intensity is OK. Tallim says that, developmentally, kids start to understand the difference between fantasy and reality around age seven and can often handle what children’s filmmakers throw their way these days. But those who are sensitive to loud noises or visual stimulation, have active imaginations or have been through a trauma such as divorce or a death in the family might react more strongly to danger and sad moments on the big or small screen. And, sensitive child or not, many kids at this age get freaked out by 3-D effects. “Younger children tend to be more fearful of things jumping out at them,” Tallim says.
To deal with a frightened viewer, Tallim says to not minimize the fear, but to talk to her about what she’s scared of and come up with strategies to either avoid disturbing content or make it easier to watch. To that end, MacCool took to researching movies on Common Sense Media—a website that outlines which parts of movies, video games and other media could be perceived as scary or upsetting.
Belle is now nine years old and the family is in the habit of bypassing certain shows and movies altogether to respect her sensitivity. They’ve discovered some new things to watch that they all enjoy together, such as Japanese animation films Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro. They are sweet and slow and appeal to all members of the family—including Belle’s little brother, who shows no fear.
MacCool also found she could help Belle enjoy some of the old standards by coaching her through tricky plot points. For instance, with E.T., she explained precisely when the alien would appear to die and that he would come back to life. This is a tactic Tallim recommends. “As adults, we’re so concerned about spoilers. But kids can watch the same show 20 times; there’s no need to worry about ruining it for them.”
A version of this article appeared in our March 2014 issue with the headline “Fear factor,” p. 44.