Horror Movies and Kids: A Scary Combination — Betsy Bozdech, Brandy McDonnell, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow and Liz Whittemore comment

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Research shows that, on average, kids see horror movies as young as 7 years old. And we’ve all noticed members of the PG crowd at decidedly R-rated movies — in fact, when my daughter was in the second grade, she had multiple classmates who’d seen “It.”

And that’s a problem. While research indicates that media violence doesn’t directly make kids who are exposed to it more aggressive, some studies do suggest that, combined with other risk factors — including things like substance abuse and conflict at home — media violence can contribute to violent behavior.

It’s not realistic to expect that we can shield kids from scary or gory content forever. And, in fact, it can be counterproductive to prevent children from seeing any kind of conflict, loss, or trauma on screen. Far better to use these moments, when they come, as opportunities to help them through hard stuff in a safe place.

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But that also doesn’t mean it’s OK to push play on slasher movies for grade schoolers. Very young children can’t distinguish between real and fantasy/fictional violence, and even tweens really need to see that there are immediate consequences for negative actions. It’s up to parents and other adults to manage kids’ media in a smart, age-appropriate way; it’s always OK to say no to something kids aren’t ready for, no matter which friend might have seen it — or how much you might want to see it yourself. Be the grown-up; set limits. (The detailed reviews at Common Sense Media can help!) — Betsy Bozdech

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Liz Whittemore:

“My father thought it was a wise parenting decision to let me watch Poltergeist as a wide-eyed 2-year-old. According to my mother, I proceeded to wake up screaming every night for the next three weeks. Now, I have two kids under 2. My husband is adamant that when violence comes onto the screen, we either change the channel or turn them away from the screen. Mostly, we just watch horror-related media when they’re sleeping.

“In my own personal experience, I never went out and bullied or became violent due to my early viewing habits. I actually believe, in some odd way, it turned me into a genre fan. But that was a different time. Kids today are inundated with hate, violence, and brutality coming at them from all media platforms. I’ll most likely play it safe and wait until they’re older than 10, even if it is just to get some more sleep for myself.”

Nell Minow (aka The Movie Mom):

“I’m always sorry when kids are upset by what they see, especially when they’re so upset that they tear up or their voices shake when they talk about it years later. But I also recognize that no matter how careful parents are or how sheltered children are, whatever movie they see at exactly the moment when they’re first able to understand the implications of scariness in a deeper way will always be considered especially upsetting. What that means is that everyone will be terrified at some point by a movie. Even adults, no matter how old, just about always have an immediate answer when you ask what movie scared them the most.

“A concerned mother once told me that her 2-year-old’s favorite movie was The Sound of Music, and she wanted to see it every day, but ‘I don’t want her to be scared by the Nazis.’ I told her that a 2-year-old has no ability to understand what Nazis are or even that the movie is more than a series of scenes of people singing and cautioned her that in a few years, the child would suddenly see the movie in a different way as she reached a more mature developmental stage, and then she might find it scary.

“When my own son was about 11, he told me he wanted to see more scary movies. I told him, ‘Lucky for you, you have a mother who’s an expert on movies, so we’ll explore all the different kinds of scary — jump out at you, suspense, gore, etc. And so we did, and we talked about what made something scary and how the filmmakers understood how audiences react and played into or didn’t play into our vulnerabilities and expectations.

“So what I take away from all this is that parents need to know their children and listen to them about what kind of scares they’re ready for and able to enjoy, but generally I recommend erring on the side of being protective.” Parents need to understand, though, that being scared is a part of growing up and learning how to deal with being scared is an essential life skill. Parents should be cautious about exposing children to scary material, they should respect a child’s own decision that something is too scary, and they should teach children what can help when they feel scared. “What will you do if it gets scary? Will you get into my lap, or turn it off?” If they feel that they have power over whatever scares them, it’s much less scary. ”

Jennifer Merin:

“I currently share a weekly movie night with friends who have three young children. The youngest, a 1-year-old, sleeps through anything. The eldest, aged 8, says she likes scary movies. When asked for an example of a scary movie we’ve watched together, she cites Nanny McPhee. But her younger brother, age 5, finds Nanny McPhee absolutely terrifying. While watching the film, he started crying and shouting over and over again, ‘No! I don’t want. I don’t want!’ He was also scared by Moana, and both of them were paralyzed by panic shortly into The Triplets of Belleville. None of these films spills blood and gore across the screen.

“I asked my friends about their kids’ sensitivity to the onscreen suggestion of trauma — in both narrative films and the news. I found their answer quite interesting. They said the kids were less disturbed by news about actual conflicts because those conflicts were specific and located away from their home, while the fiction triggered their imagination in a way that wasn’t contained or far away, taking on a reality of its own. They said they’ll shield their kids from horror films for as long as they can — and at least until Nanny McPhee’s nose is no longer an instrument of fear.”

Brandy McDonnell:

“When I was in my tweens – maybe 12 or 13 – I attended a sleepover for a classmate’s birthday party, and she got to pick the movie we watched in the middle of the night: “Hellbound: Hellraiser II.” I think I had nightmares for a solid week. It’s hard to know if this was the cause, but I’ve never been an avid horror movie fan, even though I’ve read and enjoyed many Dean Koontz and Stephen King horror novels.

“From a parenting perspective, I have four children spread out over two decades – Chris, 24; Gabe, 11; Brenna, 8; and Kyla, 2 – and perhaps the single truest axiom about parenting is that every kid is different. My oldest never got into movies as much as the rest of us, preferring the interaction of console and computer gaming. Since Gabe is nearly 11, he’s at the age that I would feel comfortable introducing him to horror-suspense films – nothing too violent or gory – but he has absolutely no interest in those kinds of films. He’s a sensitive soul who doesn’t relish being scared. Meanwhile, Brenna is a bit of a thrill-seeker who reads Chris’ old “Goosebumps” books and can’t wait to watch horror movies with Daddy (the resident horror movie fan). But we’re holding her back until she’s a little older, not just because we don’t want her to be exposed to anything too scary or violent but also because horror movies don’t often include the most positive depictions of women. And who knows what the youngest will like once she gets over the initial thrills of walking and talking.

“Mostly, we’ve tried to teach our children the difference between fantasy and reality and encouraged them to have open communication with us regarding movies or pretty much anything else. We can’t always monitor what our kids see, and my husband and I feel that positive relationships with us will help offset any number of negative experiences – with movies and otherwise.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The scary combination of horror movies and kids is an ongoing issue of concern. Please feel free to send us your thoughts on the subject.

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Betsy Bozdech

Betsy Bozdech is the Executive Editor of Common Sense, for which she also reviews films. Her film reviews and commentaries also appear on Reel.com and Hollywood.com.