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The Psychology Of Sleep: Fear Of The Dark, A Spell-Casting Blanket, Kids, And Imagination

A child’s bedtime anxiety can lead to a lifetime of insomnia. Glow Away is determined to make sure we’re not snoozing on the issue.

The Psychology Of Sleep: Fear Of The Dark, A Spell-Casting Blanket, Kids, And Imagination

When you’re four years old, imaginary monsters under the bed can cause very real anxiety.

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Scientists say that the fear of the dark is an evolutionary mechanism, passed down to us from our ancestors who were regularly attacked by nocturnal predators. As we grow up, it takes time for our brains to realize that our fears are unfounded. Psychologists believe that 50% of children between the ages of 2 and 7 are afraid of the dark. And left untreated, that fear can continue on into adulthood: Among grown-ups, 8% of women and 3% of men are scared of the dark, which often leads to insomnia.

Most parents don’t take their children’s fears of darkness seriously. If they’re particularly annoyed that their toddler is crawling into bed with them every night, they might buy them a nightlight, which does not help children develop the coping mechanisms to survive with the light off altogether. The most common way adults tackle kids’ fears is to try to rationalize with them, telling them there’s nothing to worry about.

“Rationalizing with children between the ages of 2 and 7 does not work,” says Davide Russo, who cofounded Glow Away with his business partner, Charlotte Cramer. “Telling them that their fears are not real is not helpful, because, to that child, those fears are everything.”


Russo remembers being scared of the dark growing up. When his nephew suddenly started experiencing a lot of anxiety before going to sleep, it reminded him of his own childhood fears, and he was shocked that there weren’t any better products on the market to deal with it. So he decided to invent one with the help of a team of child development specialists. The solution he came up with is Glow Away. The product includes a book about a little magical fellow called Boo who can cast a spell that gets rid of monsters that hide in the dark. There is also a blanket in the kit that lights up with that spell when the room is dark.

“Children’s fears of the dark are based on their imagination,” says Russo. “The idea is to use their imagination, rather than their reason, to tackle those fears.”

To most parents, the idea of fighting imagination with imagination might seem unconventional, but Russo says that the product is based on the latest child development research. When children are too little to fully grasp that their fears are fictitious, magical thinking can be deployed to help them feel in control of the situation.

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“It is very empowering to a child to feel like they have activated the spell when they switch off the lights,” Russo says. Many children have a safety blanket that they feel has some magical power to protect them, and this product uses the same psychological mechanism to help kids move past their fears. And so far, the children who have tested it have loved it. “Parents are pretty shocked by how quickly it works,” he says. “I think there is a lot of skepticism that magical thinking can cure real problems.”

Alexander O’Connor, a New Jersey-based psychologist, thinks that Glow Away can help children acquire more ways to handle anxiety. “As adults, we have a wider array of strategies for handling negative emotions,” he says. “Children have far fewer ways to deal with fears. So in this case, they may rely on running to their parents’ room to avoid the fear and anxiety cued in their room. A product like this introduces them to new coping strategies, ones that are more effective than running to their parents, at least in the longer term.”

“In comparison to an adult, a child is encountering many more situations where things are unknown to them,” says Eric Walle, an assistant professor of child psychology at the University of California, Merced. “When they can’t make sense about what noises are in the middle of the night, their imagination serves a purpose, which is to make sense of things that don’t make sense to them. [Glow Away] seems like a reasonable way for them to begin to work their way through their fears.” That said, Walle believes parents have been trying to deal with this problem creatively for a long time, including using similar storytelling tools, to achieve the same effect.

The Glow Away kit, though, is not cheap. It’s currently available for $129 on the company’s website. Investors believe that Russo and Cramer might be on to something. They have already received $20,000 in funding from Virgin StartUp, Richard Branson’s nonprofit that helps young entrepreneurs. They’re also launching a Kickstarter on March 6. With the fresh capital, Russo is hoping to make a bigger splash in the market, find more ways to distribute the product, and hopefully drive down the cost.

And then there’s one other thing.

“We’re hoping that the Kickstarter will be about much more than just funding Glow Away,” Russo says. “We want to draw attention to this serious problem and rally the community of people who believe that we need to take the fear of the dark seriously.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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