Peppa Pig gets her face buzzsawed by Venom. A grown-ass man talks like a 3-year-old as he sucks on a Minion-shaped ice cream. An infant cries loudly when Princess Jasmine’s head is placed on Aladdin’s body. These are not Bob Iger’s fever dreams, they’re videos recently deleted from the YouTube Kids platform after the video service was found serving up gobs of questionable content to unquestioning kids. The scandal, dubbed #ElsaGate, took parents by surprise with many shocked and concerned because, well, it’s disturbing stuff. But, in truth, it’s not all actually disturbing for kids. Some of it is benign. Parents just struggle to tell the difference because they see the world through adult eyes and, through adult eyes, all these videos look like they were directed by David Lynch after dropping acid.
“You have to be a certain age to fear certain things,” explains Dr. Joanne Cantor, author of Teddy’s TV Troubles. She notes that while adults might find a grown man acting like a baby deeply disturbing, kids will likely be highly entertained an adult is behaving in a childlike way. On the other hand, images or situations that parents may see as no big deal can have an outsized effect on a child’s psyche. “Something vividly showing a child or child-like character in peril is much scarier than things that bother us as adults,” she says.
Cantor’s own research has revealed what specifically spooks kids. “The first thing is visual images that are naturally scary, like vicious animals, monsters and grotesque, mutilated or deformed characters,” explains Cantor. That’s because these images tap into an instinctual human drive to stay away from creatures with pointy teeth, claws and overtly non-human characteristics.
“Another thing that’s really a problem is the physical transformation of a character,” Canto says. And that transformation becomes even more problematic when it’s a cute character becoming grotesque and menacing. Gremlins are a perfect example — all cute and Gizmo-y one second and then drooling Stripes the next. It’s not a coincidence that the modern movie rating system was created after the release of the film Gremlins freaked kids the hell out.
But children don’t need to see the scary stuff to get freaked out. They’re also incredibly attuned to sound. Suspenseful music, screams and babies crying can cause just as much distress. “They will sense the kind of music that’s foreboding of danger, even if the picture is bright and cheery,” Cantor explains.
In a perfect world, parents would watch online videos with their kids, and it would be easy to recognize a child’s fear and trauma in real time. But, in actuality, that doesn’t always happen so one of the more practical ways to screen for frightening content is to keep an eye on how kids are reacting to what they watch. Children who aren’t particularly vocal about their fear might start losing sleep or experience mood changes. They might also exhibit changes in behavior like refusing to go into rooms that were once considered safe.
Even if a parent is in the room with a kid being affected by the material they find disturbing, the signs of their fear could be subtle. They might look away from the screen or become clingy without necessarily raising an alarm.
“First of all, get them out of the scary situation,” says Cantor. “And don’t belittle or ignore the fear.”
Until age 7, kids are unlikely to succumb to reasonable arguments because they have a pretty porous mental border between reality and fantasy. It’s difficult for them to understand that something on a screen can’t be real. For them, the character, creature or disturbing situation right there in the living room. It doesn’t matter how crap the animation is. So better to just hold them close and move on.
“Give them your physical attention, presence and warmth,” explains Cantor. “Give them a little extra time and try to get them involved in something else to get their mind off it.”
Parents of older kids who are disturbed by something they saw can begin reasoning with their children. But they must stick to the facts. It’s okay to talk about how anyone can make anything and post it online. It’s fine to talk about how some people make stuff that isn’t for kids or simply don’t care if kids are frightened by it. But it’s not okay to say there is no reason to be afraid. Because in a child’s mind there absolutely is.
Cantor stresses that there’s only one way to assure that kids won’t return to the things that frighten them, damaging themselves further. “Nix the channel and make it inaccessible.” Done and done.