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Television: The Original Screen, Fears, and What’s Wrong with Me?


Numerous studies have demonstrated that children (and adolescents) experience fear and anxiety from content delivered through various media, and historically, on television. The most common television delivered content that produces the negative effects includes movies, dramas, and the news. Additionally, the fears and anxiety produced are somewhat dependent on the developmental levels and stages for each child and adolescent, therefore, the effects may be somewhat different depending on each child’s or adolescent’s cognitive and emotional development. So, younger children often have a very different experience of content than that of older children, who have a different experience from adolescents, who have a different experience from adults. The American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in at least a couple decades ago regarding some of these negative effects (1998).


Newer digital platforms, i.e., individual devices such as tablets and smartphones with their associated applications, otherwise known as screens, have less research on the topic to date, but it’s reasonable to extrapolate that similar fears and anxieties are being produced through the content on the newer devices. That is, frightening content can be, and is, delivered through these various devices through video, still photo, and audio media. Furthermore, since these newer devices are portable, access is, as we know, more readily and easily available.


Additionally, the amount of television children and adolescents view is associated with increased problems with sleep, thus, more viewing time tends to lead to more sleep disruptions. The sleep is disrupted by fearful thoughts that are intruding when the child or adolescent is trying to get to sleep and even subsequent nightmares from the exposure to frightening content. This lack of sleep can also fuel a negative emotional cycle, as individuals who are sleep deprived may have more difficulty self-managing his or her emotions. As an aside, sleep deprivation (even mild) also wreaks havoc with attention and focus.


Another area of research going back decades on traditional media, such as television viewing, is social comparison (for one example involving adolescent females, see Cattarin et al, 2000). Kids, and adults for that matter, tend to view how other individuals appear or what other individuals have (clothes, cars, houses, etc.) on television or print media and compare what they see with their current experience. This invites a negative social comparison. There has been a tendency to promote content with idealized examples of beauty and happiness on these traditional media, and numerous studies have demonstrated that this type of content encourages dissatisfaction with individuals following exposure. You look at the beautiful, happy people on TV and wonder why I’m not like that…what’s wrong with me? This type of negative social comparison increases the negative thoughts about one’s self or situation and increases the negative thoughts and emotions. The newer technologies appear to amplify these types of comparisons through more immediately available content and just the sheer number of videos and photos uploaded to current applications. However, we’re still waiting for the research to catch up to have a better idea of the effects.


Next, we’ll take a look at the effects of using digital media as a substitute for emotion-regulation. It’s more familiar than you may think.


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