Many have a not-so-guilty pleasure of watching or playing certain television shows, movies or video games that have reputations for being violent or overtly sexual. Mine is Game of Thrones. Yours might be American Horror Story, Vikings, American Gods, the Walking Dead, Riverdale, or any other number of movies/shows.
The craze started with cartoons like Tom and Jerry and SpongeBob, then spread to many adult centered cartoons — shows that should be lighthearted, but that often derive humor from violence. It has developed to a point where nearly every popular show contains excessive amounts of violence and gore. But does seeing violence make us desensitized to it? It’s a question many have asked and some have disputed. My answer is yes. And it can even cause us to be more violent ourselves.
If you have any interest in psychology, then it’s likely you’ve heard or read about the BoBo doll experiment. In the experiment a psychologist named Bandura presented a blow up clown doll, one that you can knock down and it pops back up. He had various children between the ages of three and six watch different videos of adults interacting with the doll. Some children watched videos of gentle clown treatment, while others watched some more violent interactions. Afterwards, the children who watched the violent videos of the clown treated their own clowns very aggressively, beating them with bats, punching them, throwing them across the room, even pretending to shoot them. The children who watched videos of gentle clown treatment acted sweetly towards their BoBo dolls, having tea parties, petting them, hugging them, etc. Children learn behaviors very early on, and these behaviors can be altered throughout their lives, making them more or less susceptible to violent acts depending on how much exposure to violence they have.
Video games differ somewhat from movies and shows. In violent video games you are already releasing, to an extent, the violence you are seeing as you make decisions on who to attack, kill, etc. Additionally, it should be noted that a 23-year-old man playing a violent video game will likely not be affected as much as a boy 10 years his junior, though the older man will still be affected to some degree.
When “Thirteen Reasons Why” came out earlier this year on Netflix, there was a spike in middle school and high school suicide attempts, despite the intentions of the show and the 18+ warning. Many of these students directly referenced the show, saying things like they “weren’t going to be one of the reasons.” This is further evidence of the influence television shows can have on young minds. And it’s not to rule out that the show may have had similar effects on older viewers as well.
Even grown adults can be influenced by the behaviors of those they admire, whether it be conscious or not, from a show or not. I myself am guilty of adopting behaviors I’ve seen on TV. No one has ever done anything to me other than spread rumors or call me ugly, but after watching an episode of Game of Thrones, I get unnecessarily invested in vengeance. I even desired my own armies and dragons so that I can destroy the patriarchy.
I realize that’s crazy. I know dragons don’t exist, that I don’t have an army, and I don’t have any enemies. But I’m still capable of getting into that violent of a mindset. And I know I’m not the only one who gets this worked up about things in media. I love the show, but it would be just as good without the gruesome visuals. Not even the original books had as descriptive or disgusting of deaths or rapes as the show does.
Two years ago I couldn’t even stand the sight of blood on television, but now I regularly watch people get beheaded, their hearts ripped out, etc. with a mere cringe. I’ve heard people of every sort, online and in person, complain about how horror movies aren’t even scary anymore, and that they’re just gruesome. The plots are thoughtless, but it appears movie directors assume we can be entertained with shocking images.
There’s no ethical way to test whether seeing someone get decapitated on TV would affect our behaviors the same way as if we had seen it in real life. Well, maybe we could if people saw the event from a distance with mannequins or something (psych majors, get on that. I’m curious). But I know one thing for certain; I need a break from it all — the violence, the flares of a need for vengeance in my own life. Thus, for the next year or so until Game of Thrones is back for more, I will be watching Friends and Gilmore Girls reruns.