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Unpacking the Impact: How Has Mass Media Desensitized Our Generation?

Megan Hayes | News Editor


New York Times - The Trauma of Violent News on the Internet. / Tim Robinson

Personal question - do you think that growing up with a constant stream of media has affected you in more ways than you know? Do you think your life would be different if you did not constantly have all the information in the world available at your fingertips? Do you wonder what it would be like to not know everything... all the time? For many young adults preparing to breach the gap between college and the start of their professional career, this notion about technology's profound affect on us can be confidently confirmed. What once was renowned as an amazing technological advantage aimed to make life easier has forever changed the trajectory of young lives - leaving our generation riddled with stress, anxiety, and loneliness. This is not to say that the creation of the internet and globalization of mass media is not inherently bad - but you can absolutely have too much of a good thing. Life has changed - evenings once spent outside with friends on bikes or around the dinner table for a game night has been replaced with ever-present and constant streams of social media, news, entertainment, and more.


So really, is our generation having problems because we are "on that damn phone"? Studies are pointing to yes - there is an ever-increasing number of younger people reporting poorer mental health and associated issues than any other past generation (McKinsey Health Institute). Mass media soaking into every aspect of young people's lives has created a monster - the rates for anxiety, depression, perfectionism, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts are on the rise, and researchers are seeing no end in sight. Likes and follows has become more centered than in person connection, and isolation is something that is not unfamiliar to most. A new and pressing issue, however, is the desensitization of our generation due to mass media. Warning: the following part may be upsetting to some (TW: gore, details, death, gun violence).


| "Desensitize: to make (a sensitized or hypersensitive individual) insensitive or nonreactive to a sensitizing agent." - Merriam Webster


From the get-go, the children of Generation Z have grown up followed by graphic, bloody and ultra-detailed news. From as young as elementary school, the children of our cohort have been taught how to run, hide and fight in the event of a school shooting, or the proper response/escape plan of what to do if someone tries to lure you into a van. We have been perpetually chased by the ideas of these situations our whole lives, but now with access to social media we can see the damage first hand. A hate-based mass shooting in Buffalo, New York was live-streamed from the gunman's helmet where he killed ten people in a grocery store. Twenty-two people watched this video happen live, but over the next two days, millions of people were subjected to seeing it happen online. Tech companies vowed to remove the video, yet source after source it reappeared, allowing unsuspecting users of the media to see a gruesome and traumatizing act. A German synagogue was shot up in an anti-Semetic display of power, and was live-streamed on Twitch, a popular live-streaming and gaming platform - again, millions saw it over the coming days. It is still available to watch. A couple from Ohio live-streamed the rape of an underage girl online on Periscope for millions to see. Many videos have emerged of gang violence, especially cartel murders, attacking and mutilating innocent people and showing their work off. Countless mass shootings, murders and other violent crimes have been shared on Facebook Live, Twitch, and various other streaming platforms. Cybersex trafficking and revenge porn have escaped the dark corners of the internet, making their way on to sneakily hidden social media profiles for pay and exchange of material that has ruined lives. The worst part - all of this is readily available to us by a simple search on sites like Twitter or Reddit.


It is not only horrific that this is a haunting reality Americans deal with every day, but it is haunting that even those not present are subjected, most of the time accidentally, to the gore. This relates back to today - politically and morally charged arguments over the Israel-Palestine war often include gory and unsettling footage, images and more to the masses to see, attempting to push change by eliciting an emotional response. While the concern is valid, however, it is not logical to push out videos of children, mutilated and hanging from buildings to push change. It is not appropriate to post videos of bloodied bodies to your instagram story, urging change. These are two of many videos I saw the other day while looking at TikTok and Instagram. We forget that children are scrolling through this material as well - and after they see it, they will never be the same. This should never be appropriate. According to a study on the affect of gore on children's mental health, children can develop a condition called "Secondary Traumatic Stress" from seeing this content (National Child Traumatic Stress Network). These symptoms copy that of PSTD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - and this is all caused from merely being exposed to someone else's trauma.


In response to this, our bodies and brains go into shock. Anxious and unpleasant arousal comes with seeing such media, and affects our moods and emotional responses afterwards. For many years psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying the effects of violent media, but what we need to understand is that it is not the viewer's fault for changing when they are exposed to this material. When we are exposed to something traumatic, we have increased amounts of cortisol and norepinephrine - the stress chemical and the chemical which regulates arousal. Different areas of our brains respond differently - we see smaller volumes of the hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex - these areas of our brains can gradually shrink due to trauma (memory center, controller of empathy, impulse control and emotion). With repeated exposure to this traumatic material, desensitization comes into play - forever altering someone's "present internal state" (Krahe et al., 2011). The stimuli (violent content) decreases our fear response - an innate response every human has. A model of this concept argues that once this present state has been changed due to desensitization, we have new presentations of violence that are instigated by other triggers, due to the changes in our brains (Carnagey et al., 2007). Those repeatedly exposed to violent media have lower anxious arousal (fear) to such media, and therefore continue to spread this aggressive and violent behavior to other tasks they do (Moise-Titus, 1999). It fundamentally impacts the way that we form emotions, making us more angry - in children, we can see this making children more "likely to show antisocial behavior, less sympathy, and [commit] more acts of violence (Klein, 2023)." In an article on readtheforum.org, journalists dived into how this is affecting specifically high school students, some shocking accounts were given by children: freshman Alex Stamos said "when I was 7... my friends and I saw a random YouTube video that click-baited us into seeing a guy's head chopped off, and I couldn't sleep for days after that". Beth, another student, said "gore doesn't really unsettle me in movies and fiction... but I usually feel pretty upset and disturbed when I see the images in the context of the way because it's happening now to real people who share my identity" (Falk & Grimm, 2023). Other issues such as compassion fatigue and mental burnout can come with the bombardment of violent material in media.


For some, gore has become a challenge. Sites like Reddit and LiveLeak copies stream gore for all to watch, with some playing it as a "game". On one site, you can choose a 50/50 challenge, where one is horrific images and one is something completely safe. This content is happily allowed, spread and supported - as long as it is marked "NSFW". A common search when looking up LiveLeak, a popular shock site which posts work accidents and horrid material, was shut down - but the second most popular search is "top 3 LiveLeak alternatives". Here is an excerpt from a study on Sensitization by Huesmann and Kirwil from 2007, which dives into why this is pleasurable... "They argued that, for some individuals, watching violence is enjoyable, and, whereas it may provoke anger, it does not produce anxious arousal... the more such individuals watch violence, the more they like watching it. They are experiencing a “sensitization” of positive feelings. Because finding violence pleasant is incompatible with experiencing anxious arousal, increased pleasant arousal to depictions of violence in individuals with a high exposure to media violence would constitute indirect evidence of desensitization of “negative feelings” about violence." Now that this is an ever-becoming reality, questions emerge: where have we gone that this is entertainment? Why is being able to stomach such visuals a competition? This is not healthy. We should not feel nothing when we look at material that has the ability to traumatize us. We are not meant to see humans and animals mutilated, we are not supposed to have access to violent crimes. Aftermath of crimes, which used to only be seen by first responders is now available (in high detail) for all of us to see.


Treatment that they used to give to EMT's and first responders can now be used for the mass consumers of the internet - some tips that stick out are keeping a journal, focusing on healthy ways to compartmentalize and process your feelings, and giving your feelings space to escape - keeping them bottled will only cause strain. Finding a balance will prove to be difficult, and i is definitely disheartening to be on the receiving end of media in a world that is not going to change. The violence unfortunately will not stop, the war will not cease. All we can do to not fall apart along with our boundaries of what media is appropriate is watching out for ourselves - put your mental health first.


References:


Baker, D. (2022, November 9). How to avoid becoming desensitized as an emt. Cordico. https://www.cordico.com/2022/11/09/how-to-avoid-becoming-desensitized-as-an-emt/


Bremner, J. D. (2006). Traumatic stress: Effects on the brain. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(4), 445–461. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181836/


Grimm, S., & Falk, E. (2023, December 1). How the rise of gore and unsettling images in the media impacts teens. The Forum. https://readtheforum.org/22272/features/how-the-rise-of-gore-and-unsettling-images-in-the-media-impacts-teens/


Krahé, B., Möller, I., Huesmann, L. R., Kirwil, L., Felber, J., & Berger, A. (2011). Desensitization to media violence: Links with habitual media violence exposure, aggressive cognitions, and aggressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(4), 630–646. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021711


Reporter, A. I. (n.d.). Mental health distress: Decoding the impact of social media on Generation Z | Policy Circle. Retrieved February 15, 2024, from https://www.policycircle.org/ainews/mental-health-distress-gen-z/


Social media and mental health: The impact on Gen Z | McKinsey. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2024, from https://www.mckinsey.com/mhi/our-insights/gen-z-mental-health-the-impact-of-tech-and-social-media


The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Secondary traumatic stress—A fact sheet for child-serving professionals.


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