Emotions and television

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International Study: “Fear and Thrill in front of the Television – A Retrospective View of Childhood Television Experiences“ (2013/2014)

In cooperation with the IZI, between April 2013 and January 2014 PRIX JEUNESSE asked 631 students in a questionnaire about their fear experiences in childhood as well as about occasions when they experienced thrill, i.e. pleasurable tension. The student participants from the USA, Germany, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Hong Kong and Turkey drew a picture representing each respective experience, explained what it was, precisely, that had triggered the thrill, and described their experience during and after the reception.

The study yielded the following results:
International comparison: Almost all the respondents were able to recall a frightening television experience in their childhood. However, precisely what they saw at what age varies a lot from country to country. In Hong Kong, Turkey and the USA, for example, over half the frightening television experiences go back to horrror films, which produce significantly more horror experiences than in other countries. This is crucial in the respect that the fear experiences described differ significantly in the intensity of the emotion while watching the programme as well as in the feelings that last beyond the reception. These range from ‘The fear was gone after the reception‘ right through to a confrontation with the viewed content that lasted years. Here, age-inappropriate programmes have a stronger impact than those suitable for children. Accordingly, monitoring the choice of programmes can reduce profound fear experiences among children when watching television.

Causes of fear: Fear is triggered when children see somebody or something that has the potential to harm, when children see that someone is harming or is being harmed, and when situations suggest that someone is particularly vulnerable and defenceless. Specifically, it is threatening creatures that children frequently find frightening when watching television. Because of their actions and/or appearance, and sometimes also their supernatural abilities which give them special power, they seem dangerous to children. Other causes of fear are situations in which characters are exposed to a threat, as well as real dangers, images of injuries, and unsettling situations, i.e. scenes which actually contain no concrete threat but still produce unease through particular settings and/or sounds. 
Thrill instead of fear: The comparison of fear experiences with moments of tension that were experienced as positive showed that, for children, feelings of pleasure during tense scenes are essentially connected with the hope that the film story will have a happy ending. This faith in the happy ending – the basis for childish thrill experiences – can be supported by particular elements within the programme design. These include a reliable framework with confident heroes and heroines. With serial programmes, the hope of a happy ending is based on the consistent reliability of the format: the heroes and heroines (the good people) must always win through in the end. In addition, if children believe superior heroes and heroines can also master precarious situations, children place their hopes in them.      

When moments of fear are combined with pleasant feelings, e.g. when humorous elements are added in, this can also create thrill, as it creates moments of relaxation in contrast to the tension. Furthermore, children primarily experienced thrill during the reception of cartoon formats. In this case, the genre creates distance, for a world that is drawn – and its corresponding characters – emphasise the fictional character of the events more than live-action formats do; the latter suggest a stronger correspondence to reality.       
Furthermore, the results showed that children tend to experience thrill with more moderate representations. Often, all that is needed to produce thrill are harmless situations in which children become engrossed and experience a pleasant tension that does not turn into fear. This is because as soon as children can understand what is important for the characters with whom they empathise, tension arises out of the hope that the interests of the character will be fulfilled, irrespective of what is specifically at stake.

Unterstell, Sabrina; Müller, Amelie: "I was very creeped out and my heart was racing". Fear in front of the screen - retrospective view of childhood TV experiences. TelevIZIon, 27/2014/E, pp. 34-37.
Unterstell, Sabrina; Müller, Amelie: "I loved it! It was so creepy but not in a way that made me scared". Thrills in front of the screen. TelevIZIon, 27/2014/E, pp. 44-46.