Q: There is a movie theatre near my home that has afternoon shows for moms, where they put out a changing table in the theater and don’t lower the lights all the way—but then they show very adult movies. What effect does being exposed to these movies have on infants and toddlers, most of whom are not talking yet?
–Skeptical about Screenings, Pacific
A: Dear Skeptical,
This accommodation for moms certainly seems like a great convenience, but you are right to question its effects on the babies. Because the babies are not yet ready to talk — a stage called "pre-verbal" — it’s tempting to believe that they are not affected by what’s on screen. And it’s true that they probably can’t figure out the images in any meaningful way. So what’s the problem?
The main problem with this kind of arrangement is that babies are exquisitely attuned to their mothers’ feelings. Films geared toward adults often involve fear, violence, and/or sexuality, and if the films are any good, they are probably affecting the moms' emotions. Babies will feel those changes in emotions, and they can form associations between mom’s emotional response and whatever is in the environment at that moment. For example, if a dog barks during a scary scene and mom’s adrenalin increases, the child may end up with an almost intangible fear of dogs.
Research shows that anxiety and fear responses tend to be tied to single exposures; in other words, becoming scared of something can happen even if someone's only seen it once. One study showed that some young adults who saw Jaws as children would not go into the water–not even swimming pools–even years later because they had such a deep fear of sharks.
These sorts of fears are easily formed in a baby’s brain, which creates 700 new synapses, or connections, per second. These synapses are created in response to whatever is going on around the baby. For that reason, parents should put their infants in environments that will build their brains the way they want them to be built. Movies made for adults are likely to have the opposite effect. When moms want to go to the movie theater, their best bet for helping to build their baby's brain to be strong and healthy is to hire a sitter and head out for some well-deserved fun without their little one.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,