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This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.

Cartoons delivered on laptops, projectors or 3D goggles with sound can help distract anxious children who fear dental procedures. Dental anxiety can prevent children from attending the dentist for care, and this type of distraction could offer a useful tool to help them.

This review looked at a range of audiovisual approaches tested in trials of healthy children receiving dental treatment under local anaesthetic. The children were assessed for physiological measures related to emotional state (such as pulse rate), anxiety and observed behaviour.

Childhood dental anxiety is a common problem, and these distraction approaches sound promising, safe and relatively easy to implement.

Why was this study needed?

The feeling of nervousness about seeing a dentist is known as dental anxiety. Low levels may be relieved by reassurance, whereas more severe cases often require sedation or general anaesthesia.

Prevalence of dental anxiety in children ranges from 6 to 20%, and a 2013 national survey in the UK found very high levels of dental anxiety in 14% of young people aged 12, and in 10% of 15 year-olds. Interventions to divert children’s attention away from seemingly unpleasant experiences can contribute to better attendance and long-term improvements in oral health.

The study aimed to assess a range of audiovisual distraction techniques in children during dental treatment under local anaesthesia.

Previous trials on the topic had produced uncertain conclusions, and so a systematic review was needed to combine the research.

What did this study do?

The review included nine relatively recent controlled trials, with 528 participants. All studies were conducted in healthy children aged 3 to 14 years and assessed the effectiveness of an audiovisual intervention during dental treatment.

Where reported, the duration of treatment was approximately 30 minutes, and the projection content typically included animated movies or cartoons. The sound was provided by headphones or earplugs. Primary outcomes included physiological measures of anxiety, such as heart/pulse rate and oxygen saturation. Studies also measured children's reported anxiety levels and ability to undergo treatment. The effects of audiovisual distraction were compared with control or standard care groups. The studies were carried out in the Middle East, Far East and Western Europe, though not in the UK.

The quality of individual studies was assessed as poor, because of the risk of bias from a lack of blinding. However, this was probably unavoidable because of the nature of the intervention.

What did it find?

  • Audiovisual distraction slightly reduced the heart/pulse rate in children (mean difference [MD] -3.78, 95% confidence interval [CI] -6.73 to -0.83). Six trials, 352 participants in total.
  • The intervention had no significant effect on oxygen saturation in children (MD 0.47, 95% CI -0.35 to 1.29), two trials.
  • Audiovisual distraction reduced reported anxiety levels and improved children’s cooperation during treatment, according to the studies that used self-reports (nine trials) and behaviour rating scales (seven trials).

What does current guidance say on this issue?

The British Society of Paediatric Dentistry provides 2011 guidance on non-pharmacological behaviour management techniques, including on the use of distraction techniques.

Some of these methods aim to improve communication during the treatment process, while others are intended to eliminate disruptive behaviour or reduce dental anxiety. On audiovisual distraction for children, the guidance notes an existing lack of consensus on effectiveness.

What are the implications?

Audiovisual distraction appears to be a promising approach which may help reduce children’s dental anxiety. The intervention is safe, simple to administer, and does not require excessive implementation costs. Its use can be easily extended to adult populations, too.

The findings require a cautious interpretation, as there were differences in how the intervention was delivered and whether children had prior experiences of dental treatment or previous health conditions which may have affected their responses. Further supporting evidence on specific techniques could provide useful confirmation in a UK setting.

The findings of this study are most relevant to dental teams, although they may be also helpful to parents and caregivers.

Citation and Funding

Zhang C, Qin D, Shen L, Ji P, Wang J. Does audiovisual distraction reduce dental anxiety in children under local anesthesia? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Oral Dis. 2018; March 2. DOI: 10.1111/odi.12849.

This research was supported by Program for BMP9 Regulates Osteogenic/Odontogenic Differentiation of iSCAP (Stem Cells from the Apical Papilla) through MAPK Pathway and Program for Innovation Team Building at Institutions of Higher Education in Chongqing (CXTDG201602006).



BSPD. Non-pharmacological behaviour management. London: British Society of Paediatric Dentistry; 2002, updated 2011.

NHS Choices. Fear of the dentist. London: Department of Health and Social Care; updated 2018.

NHS Digital. Children’s Dental Health Survey 2013. Report 1: attitudes, behaviours and children’s dental health. Leeds: Health and Social Care Information Centre; 2015.

NHS Inform. Coping with a fear of the dentist. Edinburgh: Health Scotland; updated 2018.

Produced by the University of Southampton and Bazian on behalf of NIHR through the NIHR Dissemination Centre


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