In daily media use, children can, for example, encounter scenes of violence. In cartoon programmes, fictitious violence is usually presented in a bearable and funny way for small children. However, appearances can also be deceptive here, since some cute and animated roles also appear in adult programmes. Children can then be frightened, unsettled and shocked by the violence depicted, the rough choice of words and also by sexualised actions, as they associate the characters with the media worlds known to them.
Even the most ‘innocent’ cartoon films addressing very young children contain scenes of violence and friction between the characters that can frighten children.
If violent scenes are shown with real people, e.g. in action films or crime thrillers, small children are usually not able to classify what they see as fictitious and to watch it in a detached manner. It is rather the case that children often have the feeling that they themselves are a part of the plot, which is why such scenes can trigger extremely disturbing feelings. This effect increases when the violence shown is directed against children.
Violence against animals can also produce frightening and disturbing feelings in children as they are usually very sensitive, especially regarding weaker and smaller animals. They can be very frightened if they see, for example, in an animal film, how a predator tears a defenceless animal. Since children between three and six years also perceive themselves as small and defenceless, they can develop very strong feelings if they are exposed to such scenes. The same applies to series or films in which an animal plays the leading role. Because children identify strongly with the leading role, they experience dangers and adventures, which this animal goes through, very intensively.
In news reports, real violence against people often occurs, for example, when reporting on famines, natural disasters or wars. Sometimes, the dramatic and violent pictures in fast cut sequence appear to children generally without connection and it is hard for them to sort them out. Therefore, these violent images on the news can have a traumatising effect and children should not be exposed to them.
Exciting Media Content
Children themselves also feel aggression and anger and act them out. It is not easy for them to control themselves and they must learn how to deal with these feelings. Media offers in which characters play, with whose feelings a child identifies, can help to find behaviour strategies to handle the situation and rethink own feelings. In addition, everyday, tabooed feelings, such as revenge and aggression, can be brought about by evil characters.
Being able to follow the exciting adventure stories and being fascinated by the course of events is already fun and joy for younger children. Because of their cognitive and emotional development, children between the ages of three and six cannot always distance themselves from the story. With very exciting media content, the limit of what is bearable can therefore easily be crossed by children.
One should also consider that children are particularly sensitive to scenes and stories that touch their own fears of separation and loss. Sad situations such as in the animated cartoon Bambi, when his mother dies, can instantly overwhelm and frighten younger children.
Fearsome vs. Fascinating
Children between the ages of three and six are also often overtaxed by loud and sudden noises, long arcs of tension and gloomy images. Scenes that create a fearsome atmosphere with sounds, music and gloomy images can be particularly frightening. Scary media figures such as monsters, vampires, demons, witches or ghosts can also be frightening and unsettling for younger children.
At the same time these supernatural beings with their magical abilities have a certain fascination for children. For example, children rate figures such as Otfried Preußler's "Little Ghost" or Graf Zahl from "Sesame Street" as disturbing and scary, but they do not completely reject the scary and exciting scenes. Individual, exciting moments, followed by relaxation phases, also have their fascination for the children.
In the context of violent and exciting media content, a happy end has a big weight. For the emotional processing of media content and the development of security and trust, a positive outcome of stories in which the weak emerge as heroes, the spook dissolves and good triumphs over evil is very important for small children.
With the expansion of media experiences, children can learn that even exciting, scary and dramatic events end well and that nobody gets seriously hurt. It is important to build on this knowledge so that emotional stories can be processed well by the children.
1. How do violent scenes, for example in action films, affect children?
2. How can the professionals at ECEC help children process negative experiences from media?
3. How does a happy end in the context of violent and exciting media content, affect children’s psychology?