The Lasting Effects of Horror Movies on Children and Teens

Horror movies are a part of modern life, bringing in box office bucks and generating watercooler buzz. Whether they beg you to take them to the latest big-screen release or rent DVDs for a sleepover, you might find that as your kids mature, they become more eager to explore the horror genre. These films can generate long-lasting effects in susceptible kids.

Most teens like to watch horror movies. (Image: Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Anxiety and Phobias

It is not easy to predict who will develop an anxiety disorder or phobia from a horror movie, but children and teens might be at higher risk than adults. According to ground-breaking Swiss developmental theorist Jean Piaget, cognitive development is based on schemas, or ways of understanding the world. As people grow and learn, their schemas change. Many children and teens do not yet have the life experience to put horror movies into perspective, putting them at risk for lingering anxiety or phobias. You know your kids best, so consider their overall development when deciding what to let them watch. If they are normally anxious, fearful or timid, or if they have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, skip horror films for a few more years. If your child does develop long-lasting anxiety, consider seeking professional assistance.

Sleep Disturbances

Many adults and children have trouble sleeping immediately after watching a scary movie. Shadows seem intimidating, noises are magnified and dreams are often unsettling. For most people, these effects are short-lived. In some cases, however, sleep disturbances persist for weeks, months or even years. Minimize the effects of the scary movie by watching it during the day, keeping the lights on, or doing something silly before bed. If your child's sleep disturbances continue, try techniques to make her feel safe such as "monster hunting" in the closet and under the bed or having her sleep with a favorite stuffed animal. If these strategies do not work, a licensed therapist can help you unravel and work through the issue.

Aggression and Violence

Whether violent video games, music and films cause violence has been debated by experts for generations, and there are no clear results. According to WebMD, torture films are potentially desensitizing to real-life violence. Rather than trying to prevent children's exposure to violence altogether, watchdog group Common Sense Media recommends saving the extremely gory slasher films until kids are at least 16. The group also points out that graphic violence mixed with sexual circumstances is often confusing and potentially harmful to adolescents wrestling with their own developing sexuality. Most older teens can handle complex, disturbing plots, but you are the best judge of where to draw the line.

Symbolic Catharsis

Although risks to exist for lingering negative effects, horror movies also play an important role in development. Psychiatrist and Sigmund Freud contemporary Carl Jung spoke of the shadow archetype, or the collection of negative and societally unacceptable tendencies that are a basic part of human nature. He believed that the shadow is an intrinsic part of what makes people human, and that battling it periodically is essential to growth and development. The horror movie provides a safe substitute for the real world, where kids can explore their darker instincts, impulses and fears without real-life implications. WebMD refers to this process as symbolic catharsis.

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