Q: I am a single mom of a fun-loving 2½ year old who watches about one hour of TV per day. She spends Saturdays with her dad, and she comes home telling me about Scooby Doo, Sponge Bob Square Pants, Happy Feet, Dumbo, and Finding Nemo. I am concerned about the age appropriateness of these selections. She has had nightmares after watching Dumbo, and I have watched Finding Nemo and Happy Feet with her and seen her cower behind her hands in certain places. I’ve spoken to her father, and he sees no issue with her watching such TV and will not accommodate my wishes for the TV to be more educational than entertainment. Do you have any data or advice on the damage these media may have on my child?
-Concerned, in Chicago
A: Dear Concerned,
Scary media content can certainly have immediate and lasting effects on kids. Think about how clearly you remember the movies that scared you as a child. For me, the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz sent me cowering behind the couch, and some college students report that after seeing Jaws as children, they stopped swimming entirely, even in lakes. Long-lived fear reactions like these can happen after just one viewing.
How you address your daughter’s fear reactions should depend on her age. Until she is 7 or 8, her brain won’t really understand the difference between fantasy and reality, so explaining that something isn’t real won’t help her feel better. Therefore, when you see her cowering behind her hands, turn it off, comfort her, and switch activities. If she wants to discuss it, emphasize that she is safe, and that the things she saw won’t happen to her (or to you—many animated films involve parents dying or being separated from their children).
When it comes to discussing this issue with the child’s father, of course, matters can become more complicated. He may see your request as a criticism of his parenting. To sidestep that issue, approach this as a conversation about your mutual efforts to ensure your daughter’s health and well-being, not about whether his media choices are educational.
For example, you can say, “Is she having nightmares at your house? She wakes up crying at mine, and I’m really worried. I think she’s afraid of things she sees on TV and in movies.” Talk with him about what he thinks scares her and how you might work together to create a safer-feeling environment for her. And don’t forget to share what makes her happy in everything she does, including TV and movies.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,