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Violent Content May Pay, But at What Cost?

Facing a national mental health crisis, will we press pause on media violence?

Key points

  • Our constant access to violence, now including events that are live-streamed and lethal, is unprecedented.
  • Certain features in digital media are designed to keep viewers glued to their screens.
  • The state of emergency in youth mental health points to children’s vulnerabilities, at a time when traumatic footage is at their fingertips.

News and social media platforms are facing heightened scrutiny around the ways in which they contribute to inciting violence. As Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen recently revealed on 60 Minutes, “I guarantee you, publishers all around the world are looking at those visits from Facebook and saying, ‘Ah! If we make more angry content, we’ll get more distribution.’” Meanwhile on Netflix, more viewers than ever are tuning in to Squid Game, a hyperviolent show about financially desperate people playing children’s games against one another, rewarded with money if they win, but risking death if they lose.

Source: A_E_A_D_F/Pixabay

Our access to violence-on-demand is unprecedented. Live streams bring viewers into agonizing proximity of violence and even death, as in the case of George Floyd. We can, and do, press replay, viewing the same horrific events over and over again. News sources select clips of the most dramatic, and terrifying, moments and put these on repeat.

As viewers, we seem unable to tear ourselves away, regardless of whether we watch for entertainment, or we are distressed by the gruesome and disturbing nature of witnessing others suffer. Based on years of laboratory research, scientists have found evidence that violent media exposure can lead to hostility, aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, desensitization to violence, and a decrease in empathy for others. Research indicates that playing violent video games is associated with greater levels of aggressive behaviors. Of course, more research is certainly needed. Just as some lucky people eat dessert and don’t seem to gain a pound, not everyone experiences every potential negative result. But some changes are subtle. We aren't always aware of how and when something changes in us. It’s also a challenge to scientifically examine the bigger picture. After all, we can’t randomly assign one group of people to a world without violence to see what happens.

Nonetheless, in the case of real-world collective violence, such as 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, or other deadly acts, compelling evidence shows that the amount of time we spend watching these events on television negatively impacts our mental health, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

Even when we know the evidence, or experience distress, we are still compelled to watch. Based on theory, this inclination has some likely evolutionary roots. Given survival as the top priority, understanding violent attacks, and how to avoid or overcome them, seems critical in order to avoid becoming prey. We tune in to understand, to face, or to come to terms with our fears and desires. With the screen standing between us and real danger, it gives us a safe opportunity to ask ourselves ‘what would I do?’ if faced with similar circumstances.

So, violence in the media continues, perpetuated by a self-reinforcing cycle. It’s strangely difficult to resist disturbing content. We go back to it again and again, making it highly profitable for advertisers and thereby content creators. Media consumption can be compared to added sugars in our diets—manufacturers know that it will make their products more difficult to put down, driving them to continue its use despite evidence of increased risk for long-term negative consequences, and even chronic health conditions. Worse yet, an inundation of pop-ups, hyperlinks, clickbait, influencers, and all the sugary enticements lure us back with the explicit intention of setting off our cravings and starting a compulsive cycle. It’s engineered to suck us in and keep us there. And it works.

As adults, we tell ourselves that we can manage and regulate ourselves. It’s difficult to disentangle the influence of newsfeeds and nudges, on what we believe are our own choices. And what about our children, who are even more vulnerable?

Notably this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), and Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) declared a state of national emergency in children’s mental health, including a significant rise in emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts and other mental health emergencies.

Boundaries protecting minor audiences are waning. Similar to the excessive sugar and fat levels in food products targeted at children (part of an industry expected to swell to $146.7 billion by the year 2025), the media available to our children deserves our scrutiny. For example, even though a show like Squid Game is clearly rated for mature audiences, safeguards against the opportunistic efforts taken to capture children’s attention seem inadequate at best. The show’s graphic and disturbing themes are ignored for net gain. Squid Game has quickly bled into kid-friendly spaces like TikTok, YouTube, Fortnite, and Roblox. Copycat playground activities are taking place on a global scale. In Australia, Belfast, and England, schools have already had to speak out due to aggressive behavior alongside mimicry of the show’s games. Parents have been warned to monitor their children’s access to Squid Game-related content.

There are also deeply unsettling incidents of children across the country reenacting George Floyd’s death, and posting their disquieting videos on social media including Snapchat and TikTok. Documented cases include Denver, North Carolina, Arizona, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and tragically, the list goes on. In one North Dakota elementary school, a teacher led children in the reenactment.

It is time to ask ourselves: where do we draw the line? Squid Game uses playground games as the basis for its dystopian narrative. The playground itself is a microcosm of society where we attempt to figure out our own place in the larger whole. On our national playground, individuals are told that they have the responsibility to regulate their own, and their children’s, consumption of both food and media. But we are battling corporate greed and industries that are metaphorically playing to the death. Just like the contestants in Squid Game, we are free to leave, but we keep coming back for more.

Who will win?