“How hardening to the heart it must be to do this thing: to change an innocent soaring being into a bundle of struggling rags and pain.” — Iris Murdoch
Violence is synonymous with the evolution of man. Cain killed his brother Abel; Zeus punished Prometheus by having an eagle eat from his liver for all eternity; and Scar killed Simba’s dad (what a bastard). Often we can separate violence from fiction — but what about when it’s real life?
Real violence can eat at your mind, inciting episodes of post-traumatic stress or anxiety. You don’t have to directly experience it either; watching real people die has been shown to elicit episodes of PTSD.
In a year where our news cycles have been more violent than usual — I began to wonder if all this can have a profound effect on us.
We shouldn’t look away from heinous acts like that of George Floyd. But how old should someone be to be exposed to an atrocity like that? Or should they even watch if they’re more susceptible to the negativity from violence?
In the past, we had media gatekeepers to filter out what American audiences viewed. Clearly we’ve outgrown that — but how far will our media go before our psyche pays the ultimate price?
The internet is a weird place. It’s a domain ruled by cat videos, inciteful articles, and enough information to make a person mad. Best of all, it’s created by people like you and me. But you don’t have to be technologically adept to know the internet is also a vicious wasteland.
A place where watching ISIS decapitate someone with a blunt machete is only about four-or-five clicks away from a “safe” site like YouTube or this Medium page. And that’s pretty f***cking terrifying when you think about it.
Because the internet is such a large and confusing space, you’ll find that your online experience goes only as far as your imagination.
Heck, Reddit even has a community dedicated to the awesomeness of Keanu Reeves, aptly called r/KeanuBeingAwesome, but I digress.
Trouble on the internet only comes to those who are morbidly curious. Well, at least that used to be the case. In The New York Time’s “The Internet’s Endless Appetite for Death Video,” a bold, spine-chilling statement was made at the end of the article.
“Contrary to suggestions that the Christchurch shooter enacted a sophisticated media plan based on some keen sense of how the internet works, what he really did was horribly much simpler: he opened the most popular app in the world (Facebook), pressed a button and shared.”
I don’t have children (bless your heart if you do during these times) but I’m not sure if watching a massacre or even George Floyd’s murder is the best thing for a kid to view without proper context. If you aren’t desensitized to the sort of real violence, the consequences can be long-term or permanent.
The Effects of Watching Too Much Violence
As someone who grew up on a steady diet of South Park, Adult Swim, and John Carpenter movies, I’m the last person I’d expect to address this topic. But like we already established, fictional violence is different than watching real-life.
Fictional violence is often easier to disconnect for most people. Real-life violence on the other hand can be hard to separate from.
One study found that viewing a tragic event can be more psychologically damaging than witnessing it firsthand. Researchers found that some individuals who watched the Boston Marathon Bombing — online or on television — sustained more trauma than those at the event.
Dr. Dion Metzger, a psychiatrist with expertise in PTSD and trauma elaborated on the potential problem in an interview with Vice.
“After watching such content, [people] may have problems sleeping and even a level of anxiety — almost mimicking paranoia — that they can also be the victim of such a violent act,” said Metzger.
On the flip side, there are those that argue watching the full-video, with no context exposes an element of rawness. One you wouldn’t receive from a diluted story coming from a news organization.
In an issue of the Daily Mail, English broadcaster Piers Morgan wrote that everybody should see these types of videos. Morgan argued that for him, watching them “allows me to feel such uncontrollable rage that no amount of reasonable argument will ever temper it.”
Morgan should still be reminded, however, that watching these videos for that reasoning can still leave PTSD-like effects.
Why Do We Keep Coming Back? And What Can Be Done About it
Studies show humans are absolutely infatuated with death. It’s probably why horror movies make so much money at the box office. For a species that wants to know all the answers, death is the one thing that’s stumped us.
I think there are three reasons why we’re drawn to severe violence:
- We’re too dang curious. We have to see everything — every gritty detail — today or we feel like we’re missing out.
- We want an opportunity to understand death better. Who can blame us? It’s the great equalizer for a reason.
- We want to desensitize ourselves even more. Useful if you’re preparing for a dangerous job like the military or a police officer.
Speculation aside, the internet fueling our desire to watch these gory videos is all-kinds-of dangerous. It’s like leaving alcohol in front of a drunk and expecting the situation to go well.
On a personal level, you can control what you and your kids watch. Be wary of social media sites that have no filters. No longer is the idiot box in your living room the scapegoat for corruption. The evidence now points to the internet.
On a structural level, there are only two options to deal with the amount of violence in our media:
- Let the media get more violent. It’s inevitable at this point — it’ll never reach internet levels of violence, but at this point, that’s even tough to say.
- Demand the gatekeeper system on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter improves. With there being so much content uploaded every day, the task is gargantuan (maybe impossible).
The gatekeeper system that regulated our media is long dead. Journalists — who have less power every day — adhere to the SPJ Code of Ethics to determine what is too violent for news. One rule, to “Minimize Harm,” states:
“[journalists] need to balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”
The power is no longer with journalists. It’s with the people and the internet. Will everything online eventually become a savage wasteland of violence and mature content? And will the effects of viewing violent material only get worse? Time can only tell.