The health effects of watching violent viral videos

Posted at 3:43 PM, Jul 08, 2016

Baton Rouge. Falcon Heights. Dallas. In just three days, the violent deaths have not only made headlines, they’ve been viewed—and shared—millions of times through social media.

While our culture becomes more dependent on social media for the spread of information, constant viewing of tragic viral videos could have long term effects on our health, experts say.

“It has been clearly demonstrated that when you’re watching these types of things, your heart rate goes up,” Dr. Elias Shaya, Chief of Psychiatry for MedStar Hospital said. “A lot of people don’t realize that emotional strain is as strenuous on the body as physical strain.”

According to Dr. Shaya, individuals process exposure to violence in different ways based on their level of vulnerability. For some, a disturbing video could be emotionally upsetting, causing them to flinch and look away. In more extreme cases, particularly involving those suffering from psychiatric diseases, violence on screen could push someone over the edge and influence negative behavior.

Dr. Shaya said it isn’t rare for such images to cause bouts of depression. It’s also likely for young people and those whose personal environments mirror the images reflected on camera to “become calloused” over time, according to Dr. Shaya.

This saturation of negative images contributes to what Kalima Young, a lecturer in the Department of Electronic Film and Media at Towson University, calls “mental melancholy.”

Young said that while the sharing of these videos can contribute to a feeling of collective identity and solidarity among people of color, their repetition can cause ongoing psychological trauma and pain.

Without healing or expression, this sadness could create ongoing patterns that “cause people to harm themselves and harm one another.”

Before playing or hitting the “Share” button on a disturbing viral video, Young said it’s important for people to examine their intentions for spreading the image. It’s also important to include trigger warnings and context around the image, she said, understanding that every viewer experiences pain differently.

“What these constant barrage of videos are doing is interfering with the humanity of people,” she said.

Ultimately, it’s up to the viewer’s discretion.

“We have to make those choices ourselves as to whether or not we should avoid it all together," Dr. Shaya said, "or if we may just want to be informed at some level to be engaged in our civic process.”