Halloween On-Screen — too scary or too safe?

I heard a great interview this morning on NPR’s Morning Addition: For Halloween, TV Scares That Are Still Kid-Friendly, addressing the question of how scary is too scary?

Elizabeth Blair spoke to folks from Nickelodeon and PBS Kids, who are both airing specials this week, including an Arthur episode guest starring none other than an [animated] Neil Gaiman.

Horror has been making a comeback in the last few years, and the kids’ media space is no exception. From a revamped Goosebumps franchise and the new R.L. Stine series The Haunting Hour on the Hub, to large publishing properties like Coraline (by Gaiman, and brilliant, in my opinion) and of course, Twilight.

Unfortunately, another growing trend is the over-protection of our children by “sweetening” spooky media that they seemed fine to handle 10-15 years ago. At the same time, some of today’s media, both scary and sexual, is even more provocative than it used to be (take the recent Glee-troversy). The kids’ media industry, in general, seems to be polarized when producing mature content. Programming is either over-sanitized and squeaky clean or quite racy, with little account for how these themes and stories might affect kids.

What’s “safe” and “scary” are subjective and it’s healthy to have a little of both. In developing kids’ media (or programming like Glee which we know kids are watching), I’m hoping we can find a balance. The first key is really thinking about where kids are at developmentally. Children mature at different speeds, emotionally, physically and cognitively, and the difference between a 7 and 9 year old (or even a 7 and 8 year old) can be huge. It’s also crucial to talk to kids directly about what they like, think and feel about our content. By listening and then applying their perceptions, the kids will reap huge rewards and it’s not bad for the brands either. When media meet audience’s needs, the more successful they will be. A win-win!

However, it’s not just about the content itself, but also the experience surrounding viewing and playing (co-viewing, anyone?) By discussing “grown-up” themes with our children, we are accepting reality instead of hiding or running from it. We’ve become so scared of showing kids the darker sides of life, but they’re right out there (tabloids, TV, and, yes, even in the news) and kids can see it! Our public figures and branded characters are modeling behavior that warrants discussion. It’s more scary for us, as adults, to touch on tough topics, but when we avoid them, we create more fear and confusion in kids who already see what’s happening.

We have a choice with how we process these experiences together with our children–and those of us who make and design media, let’s look for ways to build this co-viewing experience and media literacy dialogue right into the content.

Happy Halloween — don’t be scaaaared! ūüôā


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