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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