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How Do Children React to Frightening Television Content? Dafna Lemish’s New Book Explores their Fears and Thrills
“Fear in Front of the Screen” shows that television content can have significant and long-lasting impacts on how children view the world.
How Do Children React to Frightening Television Content? Dafna Lemish’s New Book Explores their Fears and Thrills

When the giant spider chased Frodo and Sam in “Lord of the Rings,” were you scared? Did you lose sleep thinking about the giant snake in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets?” There is no question that what we see on the screen, whether we watch TV shows, the news, or movies, can be frightening for adults. But for children scenes like this can be so terrifying their fears can last for years and impact their behavior and development.

Associate Dean for Programs and Professor of Journalism and Media Studies Dafna Lemish recently published a book exploring these issues, titled “Fear in Front of the Screen: Children’s Fears, Nightmares, and Thrills from TV.” Lemish co-wrote the book with Maya Götz and Andrea Holler, both of the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) based in Munich, Germany.

While previous research has mainly explored ways television news programs can frighten children, their book researches the impact of scary fiction TV shows and movies on children as well. The authors managed the collection and analysis of data from 631 students who reflected on their childhood experiences in eight countries: Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, New Zealand, Turkey, and the United States.

The book explores the elements of fear, the causes of fear, ways children cope with their fears, themes of nightmares, and gender and culture differences among types of fears the children have as well as many other topics. About children’s reactions to frightening content on television, the authors wrote, “Nearly half of our participants described nightmares; others had difficulties falling asleep. Nearly a third generalized the fear of a particular character or object from the program they had seen to similar figures or objects in their environment. Some remembered having more diffuse fears of ‘someone’ or ‘something’ triggered by particular scenes. Others imagined the dangerous character from the films appearing in everyday life, and some described resurfacing of undesired images of the frightening scene” (page 41, italics are the authors’).

"It is important for parents and caregivers to remember that screen content is not just entertainment, but has significant meaning and influences on children and should be chosen carefully to be age-appropriate and to convey the values we believe in,” Lemish said. “It also reinforced to me the notion that each child is an individual who is grounded in cultural contexts, and thus we cannot expect everyone to react the same way to the same content.”

Not all fear-based emotions children experienced during their study were negative, however. The authors also explore times when children experience a “thrill” when watching something scary. After listening to the students describe their experiences feeling a thrill, rather than a pure scare, the authors describe a thrill as, “ . . . something ‘in exactly the right dosage’ in terms of tension; others as an ambivalent feeling which combines several emotions, as a feeling in which happiness is derived from fear and uncomfortable tension; and thirdly as an experience in which fear is endured,” (page 133), such as a scene in a show or movie that is “creepy” but not “scary.”

The three authors worked as a team to determine the scope of the book. Their work was coordinated by Götz, who is first author of the book and lives in Germany, and is Lemish’s long-time research collaborator. "We were looking for ways to address this important issue without creating additional stressful experiences for children and without intervening in their reactions to fear-inducing content."

One of the challenges Lemish and her co-authors faced while researching and writing the book had much to do with the fact that the children involved in the study all came from different backgrounds. Lemish explained, “We had researchers and children from different countries, many who do not speak English, and thus there were issues of translation that always add layers of complexity to interpreting the results of a study. Also, while many of the programs and movies recounted were familiar globally, some were very culturally-unique, and required cultural sensitivity and knowledge to interpret.”

 Lemish was inspired to conduct research on children and media over the last three decades by a combination of many factors, she said, including “an opportunity I had as a Master’s student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to work at the Israeli Educational TV and learning first-hand about the potential of television to make a difference in the lives of children; encountering Ellen Wartella - a central leader in the field during my Ph.D. studies at Ohio State University; and most  importantly – having three children of my own and seeing media and culture through their eyes as they grew up.”

When asked how SC&I students who are interested in child research, specifically their relationships given the explosive growth of the media and technology in the new millennium, Lemish advises them to, “take courses and seize opportunities in our school that address these issues - we have several outstanding teachers and scholars in these fields in all three departments, including two internationally known scholars – faculty members Amy Jordan and Vikki Katz who are the co-editors of the key journal in our field – The Journal of Children and Media. A group of additional key faculty members in all three departments are part of the SC&I youth research cluster.”  

Looking ahead now that her book has been published, Lemish is working on more projects based on how technology is intertwined with a child’s development in different areas of their lives. Lemish said, “My current project, in collaboration with a colleague from Israel, is on the ways mobile phones are used by children and their parents when they are out in public places, how they are integrating into current parenting styles, and how they are influencing the nature of the interactions between them. Two of SC&I’s graduate students are working with me as research assistants – Diana Floegel, a Ph.D. student, and Dan Delmonaco, a Master of Information (MI) student. I am deeply indebted to them and constantly amazed at the quality of our students!”

Of all the reasons Lemish enjoyed working on “Fear in Front of the Screen,” she said the biggest reward for her was, “Learning about the lives of children around the world, how much they share with each other and how rich their inner worlds are.”

To learn more about Dafna Lemish's work, see the SC&I article "Journal of Children and Media, Housed at SC&I, Announces Leadership Transition." 



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