The eruption of an alien creature from a man's stomach in the film Alien, cockroaches coming out of a mouth in Creepshow and a head bitten off and rolling away in An American Werewolf in London were among the most frightening scenes children wanted to dismiss from their minds but couldn't, a British Psychological Society conference was told yesterday.
Explicit violence was the source of most unwanted memories among children interviewed by researchers, and more than half described in detail a specific violent scene they had watched and could not dismiss from their thoughts.
Psychologist Glenn Cupit, senior lecturer at the University of South Australia, asked 1,500 children, mostly aged 10 and 11, to describe scenes from commercially available videos.
He found that scenes of nudity, genitalia, eroticism and bad language, frequently a target for censors, were seldom mentioned by the children. It was the films with scenes of violence, horror and dismemberment that dominated the list of unwelcome memories.
Mr Cupit, who presented his findings yesterday to the BPS development psychology conference in Loughborough, said: "We may be concentrating on the wrong things. Violent scenes, which have the greatest impact on children, are not always the ones that adults fear are harmful. Children most often report particularly persistent and unwelcome memories about violent scenes like people being cut up with chainsaws, being put through meat mincers and that sort of thing.
"Some scenes commonly thought to stimulate memory, such as nudity, sexual behaviour or insanity, do not affect as many children. These findings are important because they reveal what children themselves, rather than adults, identify as the types of violent video scenes which have a lasting effect."
He said one of the problems with tackling violence in videos was that the moral high ground on censorship was held by the lobby for sexual censorship, which was more organised.
"There is the occasional outcry about violence after a particular event, but the pressure soon dies away. One of the problems is that legislators know that if they put restrictions on violence it will have a major impact on the (film and video) business," he said.
During the study, researchers found that a higher than expected proportion of young children had watched some of the most notoriously violent films. Evil Dead, for example, considered one of the most violent available, was watched by three out of 10 children.
Viewers' fear factor
Almost two-thirds of adults said violence was their main concern about television, according to a Broadcasting Standards Commission report. Only 9 per cent said sex on television was their biggest concern. Lady Howe, the chairwoman, said: "The research tells us that 53 per cent of parents have had cause to switch off their televisions while viewing with children. In almost half of these cases it was because of the violence being portrayed."Reuse content