Mental Health

Frightening Media Exposure Risks: Childhood Fears May Lead To Long-Lasting Anxiety

As a child, I watched a television program where a young boy disappeared in a closet, and to this day, I’m still wary when hanging up my clothes. I'm not the only one whose irrational childhood fear lasted well into adulthood — a 1999 study found that people have "residual anxiety" from watching horror movies and television programs with disturbing content during childhood and adolescence. In a new follow-up study, the researchers found that increased media exposure, including social media and television streaming, has further exposed today’s youth to even more frightening stimuli. 

The study found that most of our childhood fears have similar themes, whether they be blood and injury, or “supernatural monsters” such as zombies and aliens. The cause of the fears was expected, but the consequences were not. A total of 39 percent of participants said effects from the childhood fright lasted years later, and affected normal behaviors such as sleeping and eating. Another 58 percent claimed to suffer from anxiety due to their fears, and 18 percent reported a fear of dying directly linked to the childhood stimuli, according to a statement from the University of Michigan.

clown Childhood fears do no always go away with age, and can lead to anxiety in adulthood. Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

However, when the same participants were asked about fearful stimuli they viewed in adulthood, such as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers in 2001, the reactions were far less severe, despite the terror being based on real-life events. According to the researchers, this may be due to the defense mechanisms we learn in adolescence to protect us from such frightening events.

"Adolescents and adults are better able to use logic and reasoning to cope with their fright responses, while children must rely on behaviors such as avoiding the frightening stimuli or seeking physical comfort," explained study co-author Kristen Harrison, U-M professor of communication studies and director of the Media Psychology Program at the Institute for Social Research, in a recent statement.

However, this raised an additional concern for the researchers: Due to advances in technology and media, children today have many more opportunities to be exposed to potentially damaging frights. While a little fear is nothing to worry about and is actually a sign of a healthy survival instinct, when these fears become irrational phobias, they can have serious effects on someone's quality of life. For example, some fears can cause people to completely rearrange their lives in order to avoid the object or experience at the source of their phobia, The Mayo Clinic reported. In extreme cases, these phobias could even lead to depression, mood disorders, social isolation, and contemplations of suicide.

Source: Harrison K, Erickson S. From Nightmares to Nightly News: Enduring Media Fright Reactions in the 21st Century. 2016

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