The camera shakes, the wind sweeps through the forest, then a shadow…clearly: there’s an unnatural creature hiding in the trees. Or?
Television shows that go by the catchphrase “paranormal” deal with anything that seems supernatural and unexplainable. For children, such formats are often difficult to understand and classify.
They are called Ancient Aliens, Paranormal Challenge or Ghost Hunters. They deal with inexplicable phenomena, supernatural beings or legendary stories. And they promise their audience not only good entertainment, but also a dose of thrills and the exciting question, “Can this be true?”
In shows about paranormal topics, the lines between truth and fiction blur. In earlier television offerings, a clear distinction was made between films that were clearly fiction and formats such as documentaries that were committed to the truth. Current offers from the Trash TV often operate in a gray area. They are reality documentaries or scripted reality formats. This means that they are strongly reminiscent of documentaries in their presentation: scenes are shown as ‘close’ and ‘authentic’ as possible, cell phone shots or blurred images are presented that look as if they were taken by chance. The people involved act as eyewitnesses or experts. And the contents are also described in such a way that it is never quite clear what is fact and what is fantasy.
This play with half-truth increases the fascination because it creates a great closeness to the audience’s lifeworld. However, it also increases uncertainty, especially for younger viewers.
The lack of clarity about the reality content poses several dangers at once.
On the one hand, semi-real formats lead viewers to be increasingly uncertain about what they can believe. Since it is not clearly marked where the facts stop, the audience is forced to make up its own mind. We believe some things, doubt others – without ever knowing what is true. This not only gives rise to rumors and conspiracy theories, but also decreases trust in television broadcasts in general. Even serious documentaries or news stories are suddenly viewed more skeptically.
Children also have a hard time separating themselves from scary depictions. For example, they may develop fears of ghosts or monsters. The younger children are, the more they still live in a fantasy world anyway and must first learn to distinguish it from reality. From about elementary school age, children develop a sense for distinguishing between reality and fiction. But for this they need clear features such as cartoon characters or flying objects. When supernatural things are presented as real in programs, this is difficult for children to see through and tends to serve as a source of uncertainty.
Parents should be especially vigilant when dealing with paranormal broadcasts. Children who cannot yet distinguish fact from fiction are best advised not to watch such programs at all. The parent guide FLIMMO offers pedagogical assessments of offers from TV, streaming services, YouTube and cinema. When older children become interested in paranormal shows, it is important to guide them along the way. Watch a show together, offer to talk to your child about how such shows are made. Make your child understand how paranormal stories and legends are created and that they have no reality content.