Name a BBC television show and I’ve probably watched every season. Doctor Who, Sherlock, Merlin — I’m a sucker for their programming. Just a few weeks back, however, I found a program that was nearly too much for me to handle. Luther is a show about a Detective Chief Inspector who takes most cases into his own hands. It’s a crime drama that holds little back when it comes to violent instances and harsh circumstances of the criminal world. For the first time in my television watching history, the content felt overwhelmingly real.

Taking a step back from Luther, I’ve recognized that there are very few other programs where I’ve had such a sensitive reaction. Many of us are familiar with popular TV shows that feature an anti-hero lead, (ie. Breaking Bad, Dexter), and how they’ve dominated ratings despite being drenched in violent material. We are also familiar with the content of our nightly news shows, riddled with real war footage, injustice and local crime stories. Though it’s easy to identify what is real and what is cinema by flipping through channels or popping in a DVD, can our brains actually filter through that content so that we respond appropriately to both fictional and non-fictional violence? Are there consequences to continually viewing violent media?

…can our brains actually filter through that content so that we respond appropriately to both fictional and non-fictional violence?

During season four of Breaking Bad, after each main character had brutally murdered people in previous episodes, I caught myself thinking, “Character A should be killed by Character B because they are obviously of no use anymore.” Violent solutions became part of what I believed to be character development and story progression. A recent study conducted at Virginia Tech University revealed that “…prolonged exposure to gratuitously violent films can escalate hostile behavior in both men and women and instigate such behavior in unprovoked research participants. They determined that the effect is not short lived, but remains for some time after the viewing of the films.” This study was conducted by showing multiple films, some with gratuitous violence, and monitoring subjects’ unprovoked reactions to the experimenters.

Additional studies have shown a direct relationship between viewing violence, either on a news broadcast or fictional program, and the stress response of the brain. When we see images that are graphically brutal or aggressive, it “…triggers your unconscious to want to fight or flee to avoid injury, pain, and the potential for death … [the brain] … thinks that you may be the next target of the serial killer, soldier, or alien who is being violent.” If a physiological response is involved, this begs the question as to whether or not it is harmful to continue viewing violent content. Do we need to group watching these kinds of shows with other unhealthy risk factors such as smoking, obesity or poor nutrition?

A majority of the research on violent media and our brains focuses on two things: skin conductive responses (SCRs) and the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex (LOFC), which is the part of the brain involved in decision making. A recent report showed “…desensitization in SCRs and left LOFC activation towards repeatedly viewed videos that portray considerable aggression.” And also “…exposure to aggressive media results in a blunting of emotional responses, which in turn may prevent the connection of [the] consequences of aggression with an appropriate emotional response, and therefore may increase the likelihood that aggression is seen as acceptable behavior.” With this information, we can conclude that there is indeed a consequence that comes from viewing shows that have seriously violent content — we may become more hostile as a result.

…exposure to aggressive media results in a blunting of emotional responses, which in turn may prevent the connection of [the] consequences of aggression with an appropriate emotional response…

So what is our response? Are we to avoid questionable material despite the compelling story line? Do we reject watching the news or reading the newspaper with graphic photos? Are certain movie genres out of the question, because the risks are possibly too high?

I believe the answer is in self-regulation and becoming in tune with our body. Begin to recognize the stress that you are under when viewing certain content. Let your body react appropriately. If you have an emotional response to footage or programming, allow yourself to experience the natural emotions that are triggered. If you notice that something is out of your comfort zone, or if you recognize that you’re unaffected by material that should be more difficult to watch, you may want to start setting boundaries for how much violence you internalize. We can all use a healthy dose of self-censorship when it comes to regulating our consumption of potentially dangerous media.

How do you balance your intake of media violence? Do you think it has an effect on you?

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  1. It’s really good to hear a bit of the science behind this. I’ve been reading up on the similar evidence of what exposure to extended graphic portrayal of sex does via porn, and it’s worryingly similar.
    What will happen when they’ve taken everything to the extreme, & there’s no shocks left?
    I’m cheered by the like-minded women commenting here.

  2. Thank you for your article, Arianna.

    I think sometimes we don’t give ourselves permission to turn off the programming; like beginning a book, we feel the need to finish the show. It’s good to remind ourselves that it doesn’t need to be this way! I think your call for reflection while we are watching is important, and if something does bother us, it can only benefit us to turn it off and turn to an activity healthier for our hearts.

  3. GREAT article. Personally, for a long time now, I limit my media exposure of violence and things that in ‘real life’ I would deem wrong. This includes sex scenes (because of my strong views against pornography and it’s effects) as well as news and even witchcraft in shows and movies. I get quite uncomfortable even with the actions of the villains in a lot of Disney movies, now a days. Because the violence and evil doesn’t seem as ‘real’, most of my movies are indeed animated, and if not, they have a happy hopeful ending.

    This is the outlook I choose to have on life, regardless of the circumstances: Why would I fill my mind with things contrary to my personal convictions based on the fact that they are ‘entertainment’? I can easily go DO something instead of watch others life their lives on the screen. Maybe I should and be more aware of reality.
    Again, great article! Can’t wait to read the next one.

  4. This is a little to the side of your article, but I became more aware and sensitive to the shows I was watching earlier this year when Blacklist came out. The show is about a serial-killer-genius-master-mind who is not only super powerful but also can come off as super arrogant. The thing is, the show portrays him in such a light where his judgements on others (whether they have good or bad intentions) are so correct and he’s actually able to save the lives of others that his arrogance and narcissism go by the wayside.

    The same reasoning can go with Sherlock (a show, btw, which I still love). I don’t like how the judgements made by the protagonist characters are so accurate (which of course they are bc they are scripted) that my moral compass swings to justifying their punishment, death, or brutality on screen. For me, it’s not just that the violence is portrayed, but that my person is agreeing to or thinks that the violence is justified that gets to me. I don’t want the TV that I consume to encourage my being a more judgemental person, just because the fictional heroes I have on TV (Sherlock, Dr. Who, Blacklist) can be and are and are eventually justified.

    I am really glad that you’re bringing this issue to light because I do think that we ought to look critically at what we consume, whatever value the entertainment has for us.

  5. I stopped watching all violent content shows and movies about 25 years ago. I find this kind of programming to be reprehensible and do believe that it causes people to “desensitize” themselves to violent encounters of all sorts, fictional and real life. I don’t need research to prove that watching violence is not healthy. I know it in my heart and soul. If everyone followed suit, this type of programming would cease. Everyone needs to choose for themselves what feels right for them to do. Perhaps you have given some people permission to not watch violence.
    Aloha, Kate

  6. I have a hard time watching violent shows regularly. I stopped watching Boardwalk Empire because it was making me anxious. I’ll stick with RuPaul’s Drag Race, Downton Abbey, Girls, Mad Men, and Parks and Recreation!

  7. Since my daughter was born, I find I have a hard time watching any reality based violence without imagining something similar happening to her, so that has curbed my intake but also made me more aware of violence in general. I look forward to reading the linked articles.

  8. Fantastic article. I have also begun to question why I am watching shows where I am rooting for a protagonist who is at best a criminal and at worst a murderer. More and more often, I have chosen to stop watching a program for this reason even when I enjoy the writing and acting.

    I must admit I continue to watch a few programs that are sci-fi or fantasy where the protagonists kill as part of their supernatural natures but even these, I am finding harder to justify as being ok just because they are fantasy.

    The article mentions Doctor Who. This is an excellent example of a program that is extremely entertaining and does not fall into the trap of violent conflict resolution. In fact, the entire motivation of the main protagonist, the Doctor, is that he values all life, never uses a weapon to resolve a conflict, and believes every bad guy deserves a chance at redemption. This message is at the forefront of the show’s writing. And it is one of the most entertaining programs I have ever watched.

    I want to be the kind of person who in real life believes that we are all connected and that we have a responsibility to help one another and that everyone has value. As the Doctor once said “In all my years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”

    Watching the reality of the news, we should be horrified, we should be moved to try and help. Watching a fictional program for entertainment, how does rooting for a serial killer or a violent criminal reflect on us. Do we really believe that it doesn’t contradict our morals or ethics because it’s only TV?

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