America is — not for the first time — in the midst of a “clown panic” this fall that has affected kids and teenagers as well as adults. But are the widespread sightings affecting children differently than adults?
Experts tell PEOPLE there are several unique ways kids may be experiencing the phenomenon, which has so far been marked by many more reports of creepy clowns than evidence of them.
Some of it has to do with brain development (children are still maturing, emotionally and socially), and some of it has to do with the spread of social media and the omnipresence of the Internet. These two factors make this year’s “panic” distinct from past panics.
“That’s where I think we are in complete uncharted territory,” says Dr. Janet Frick, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia and an expert in early childhood cognitive development.
Frick tells PEOPLE that kids today are natives to social media in a way that no other generation has been — and as clown expert Benjamin Radford previously told PEOPLE, the Internet has fed the rumors of clown-sightings.
Police also say social media has contributed to the panic: On social media, people have threatened violence while pretending to be clowns, leading to school lockdowns and arrests.
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Frick says that many children and teens who report sightings or pretend to be clowns themselves likely don’t understand the ramifications that their actions, which might involve the police and feed a broader sense of discomfort in their communities.
Especially teens, she says: “Teen egocentrism” is a normal part of adolescent brain development, but it results in teens lacking focus on the larger context of their behavior. “Their entire focus is within this realm of their peers,” Frick says.
She says that peer pressure could be a factor in how some teens are handling the “panic,” including making reports or masquerading as clowns. But that the peer pressure itself may not always have a ringleader. It can be made up of subtler forces.
As child psychologist David Elkind explains, teenagers can adapt their behavior to play to an “imaginary audience,” based on the sense that everyone is paying attention to them.
What’s more, a teen’s “personal fable” of invulnerability and importance can lead to risk-taking, Elkind says.
Social media also blurs the line between facts and fiction, and is therefor ripe for hoaxes. Chrissy Steed, a child educator and motivator and KiddiePreneur CEO, tells PEOPLE, “[Kids are] getting a lot of their information online. It’s not censored, it’s not controlled.”
According to Frick, kids may lack the skepticism of adults, when it comes to what they read online and on social media. They may also not be as sophisticated at sorting through news coverage.
Younger kids, especially, may have a harder time separating fact from fantasy, Frick says, a phenomenon that helps explain the rash of so-called “phantom clown” sightings.
“Children and even into the young adolescent years can sometimes have trouble distinguishing between the may-have-seen or thought-I-saw and making it more concrete than it may have been,” Frick says. “There is some developmental difficulty at times with finding the line with possibility and the concrete reality.”
Elkind, Frick and Steed all agree that a good first step for parents is to actually talk to their kids about the “clown panic” — and to let their kids talk to them.
“Start with: Where is your own child at?” Frick explains. Are they aware of the sightings and the social media rumors? Have any of their friends been talking about it? Have clowns been “spotted” around the community?
“Kids, with a little guidance, can step out of their own bubble. They just need a little assistance along the way to do that,” Frick says. “And they need to know their own perspective is heard first.”
“It’s always important with young people to get their opinions,” Elkind tells PEOPLE, adding, “We sort of assume we know what they’re thinking.”
Steed says she recently felt compelled to talk to her own 8-year-old daughter about the clowns.
“She watches the news … and the first thing that pops up is the ‘scary clowns,’ ” Steed says, “and I have to sit down and have the conversation with her: This isn’t real. What they are doing is not right.”
Reassurance for young children is key, Elkind says. And if a young child hasn’t brought up the “scary clown” phenomenon, don’t force the issue, he says: “I wouldn’t introduce it … out of the blue.”