Children are scared more by TV news than fiction

Broadcasters are being pressed to issue more warnings to parents on the content of news reports because new evidence shows children are scared more by real-life violence than fiction.

Research by broadcasters and regulators found youngsters aged nine to 13 were far more disturbed by violence or its implied threat in real life than in cartoons or fantasy films.

Children were more prone than adults to judge scenes as violent if they thought the action was unjustified or if it closely related to their own lives, said the report, How Children Interpret Screen Violence. The research was funded by the BBC, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) and Independent Television Commission (ITC).

Steve Perkins, from the ITC, said there were instances in the news and in other programmes, such as soaps, where there was a clear need for more warnings. "The more signposting and flagging to parents and children broadcasters give, the better," he said.

The danger of scaring children was particularly pressing because they did not even need to see violence to be frightened. The research found youngsters of this age had a much greater "moral imagination" than their parents of the consequences of an action.

"The thing we were surprised about was that they didn't need to see violence [to be frightened of it]," Andrea Millwood Hargrave, the research director, said.

Stephen Whittle, the BBC's controller of editorial policy, said there was no way of having a system on television similar to the BBFC's ratings for movies. But broadcasters needed to be more subtle in the way they signalled the content of programmes, instead of the present system in which bold warnings on sex or violence could act as an encouragement to viewers.

"We're going to have to learn about using some more sober language; to be absolutely factual about the information we give before programmes," he said.

Youngsters were particularly scared by events that could happen to them, such as the Soham abductions and murders, or where there was a possible effect on their family, the report found.

The research was done during preparation for the Iraq conflict and showed children in the South-east, for example, feared for parents going to work in London, which they perceived as dangerous.

Children were concerned by events showing abuse of trust in soaps, such as in EastEnders when Phil Mitchell attacked his nephew Jamie, or where the violence was in places, such as the home or at hospital, which they had regarded as secure.

They were also sensitive to the psychological impact of events and did not limit their definition of violence to blood and gore. When asked to name a violent event, the children universally identified 11 September and described people jumping from the twin towers, and the telephone calls to emergency services.

But Sue Clark, of the British Board of Film Classification, said the researchers were comforted by evidence that showed children were more media-literate than their parents and understood the difference between genres.

Many BBFC rulings reflected the point that adults complained of children's exposure to violence. "We have always taken the view that children are robust," she said.