by Brian Tomasik
First written: 27 Aug. 2014; last update: 19 Apr. 2015

Summary

Children cannot always clearly distinguish fiction from reality. Even adults are influenced by fiction, in both positive or negative ways. Popular media can cause harm by inspiring dangerous behavior, including unsafe sex and risky stunts. Horror movies may traumatize some people, and there's debate about whether media violence encourages more real-world aggression. Reform is not just an obligation for media producers because consumer demand drives many of the darker sides of entertainment. Education, parental supervision, and constructive outlets for thrill-seeking would also help. While this issue is important to think about, reducing harm from media influences probably doesn't rank at the top of a list of altruistic priorities for most activists, relative to more neglected topics like animal welfare and far-future suffering.

Disclaimer

I enjoy consuming some popular culture. While this essay points out several negative aspects of certain forms of entertainment, fiction also can make people more compassionate and tolerant. Society would benefit from shifting media more toward positive directions and downsizing its most harm-provoking elements.

Fictional persuasion

Movies, TV shows, and other forms of fiction are often regarded as a chance for people to escape from reality. It seems clear enough to most of us that what we see on the screen isn't real, and so it shouldn't have an impact on our real-life choices, right?

Several studies have shown that fiction can persuade people in subtle ways. From "Persuasive Effects of Fictional Narratives Increase Over Time":

Fact-related information contained in fictional narratives may induce substantial changes in readers' real-world beliefs. [...] beliefs acquired by reading fictional narratives are integrated into real-world knowledge.

There's further literature on the subject of fictional persuasion, such as

It's unclear how much the population at large is swayed by elements in fiction. And of course, this persuasion can be positive as well as negative, such as the anti-homophobic effects of Will & Grace. Unfortunately, in some cases, fictional persuasion leads to life-threatening outcomes. For instance:

Influencing what we think about

We humans are impressionable beings. This is why advertising works. Even just controlling what we think about has a massive impact on us. How can I burn calories and lose weight? How can I get bigger muscles? Should I wear make-up and shave my legs? Are romantic relationships and parenting the most important parts of life? How can I be more cool like the people I see on TV?

Other questions that could be asked include: How can I best help others? What matters most in life? How can I challenge my conventional ways of thinking? And so on. Yet these latter questions appear less often in popular media. Of course, partly this is because these questions may be inherently less interesting. Popular media are heavily optimized toward what people like, especially in this age of big data. Personal issues with immediate emotional appeal will naturally draw more attention. At the same time, part of what we find emotionally engaging is what we're already interested in. If society placed more emphasis on altruism, we would likely see it reflected in popular culture.

Merely increasing the salience of negative behaviors can increase their prevalence. Think of copycat suicide. Almost everyone knows about suicide already, but the copycat effect occurs because suicide becomes a center of attention. Maybe reading about suicide inclines people to imagine themselves carrying it out; imagination is the first step of action. Or maybe suicide encourages more thinking in a "to be or not to be" framework rather than using other cognitive strategies to cope with their problems. Similar principles can operate with other harmful role modeling in popular media.

Setting bad examples

There are many instances where fiction seems to encourage unsafe behavior. Probably the most notable is with violence. There's some evidence that media violence seems to play a causal role in real-world violence (including in the case of video games), though other studies find no effect. This has been discussed by many others, so I won't explore it further here, but it may rank at the top of the list of harms caused by media influence -- at least in expectation given factual uncertainty about correlation vs. causation.

While almost everyone knows that violence in media is fake and not to be imitated, some of what's depicted on TV and in films is not obviously bad and hence can set a really dangerous example to people who don't know better. Just a few examples:

  • One episode of the TV show Newton's Apple featured a host having her feet covered with cement, under the pretense that criminals would toss her into a lake. The set-up aimed to provide an exciting opportunity to discuss how cement worked, but the implicitly suggested behavior was very dangerous. What if someone were to actually try that?
  • In The Parent Trap (1998), one the Lindsay Lohan twins pierces the other's ear by herself using a piece of metal found in the camp lodge. This is not safe. How many kids tried their own ear piercings after this? Perhaps some of them got infected?

The list could go on. Fiction is rampant with demonstrations of unsafe behavior. While it's easy enough to shrug them off and leave it up to viewers to distinguish fact from fiction, the reality is that many viewers don't. When kids watch 5 hours of TV per day, there's no way they can check on the factual accuracy of everything they see. Rather, entertainment producers should take some responsibility to think about the implications when millions of people watch what they create.

Desensitizing violence

In violent movies, dozens of "bad guys" may be killed painfully without giving viewers any time to process the awfulness of their suffering. If I see someone getting injured or killed on the news, I often pause for a few seconds to feel dismay and remorse at the tragedy that occurred. In violent action movies, there's typically no time to feel sad for all the people getting hurt, unless those getting hurt are protagonists. I feel like this encourages me to stop feeling bad about violence more generally, since it trains away thoughtful, emotional reactions to seeing violence.

Unsafe sex

Most sex scenes in movies don't mention condoms, STI status, or sexual history. Presumably that would break the drama or passion of the moment. But this sends precisely the wrong message: that condoms and safety considerations are lame and take away the appeal of sex. I wonder how much sexual safety would increase and teen pregnancy would drop if in every sexual encounter in entertainment, the actors took precautionary steps first. After all, these are role models for many teenagers and even adults. My impression is that some modern movies and TV shows discuss condoms more, but I don't have data on the details, and the prevalence of such considerations is still far too low.

The situation is at least as bleak with porn, which almost never involves condoms and never raises issues of STIs or pregnancy prevention. Behind the scenes, porn actors in the US are quite vigilant about STIs and typically get tested at least once a month. Yet a 2010 study found that 28% of porn actors in Los Angeles County had one or both of gonorrhea and chlamydia, and there have been 8 instances of HIV among porn actors since 2004.

But the main problem is not STIs for the porn actors, who mostly know what they're doing; it's the influence that depictions of unsafe sex have on those who watch it -- which includes many teenagers who may not know much else about sex. Lorelei Lee defends porn by claiming that "the overwhelming majority of porn is fiction, and the world it portrays is one of fantasy. I have to believe that most people who encounter porn know this." But I don't think everyone does. Debby Herbenick reports that many of her students don't realize the ways in which porn is distorted from reality, especially students who have had little sex ed. Meghan Murphy replies to Lee more forcefully:

Seriously? SERIOUSLY?? Are we really still trying to make the argument that pornography is fiction and that this supposed "fantasy" has no impact on real life or on people's real life ideas about sex and sexuality? Is pornography somehow exempt as a form of media?

[...]

I’d be willing to bet that if porn portrayed condom use as, simply, as a regular old part of sex, people who watched porn would probably also think that condom use was a regular old part of sex.

It's not clear whether we can improve the situation using legislation like Measure B, which requires condom use in porn filmed in Los Angeles. Female performers legitimately complained that condoms would cause terrible friction because shooting scenes can take hours. If legislation is merely local, it's also likely to move porn production elsewhere. The fundamental issue is on the demand side: As long as people insist on condom-free porn, it'll come from somewhere.

So why the demand for condom-free performances, both in regular movies and porn? Maybe people find condoms less pleasant in real life and hence wish to indulge in condom-less fantasies. But part of the issue may be culturally constructed: Popular actors and porn movies don't use condoms, so people assume that's the more hip way for things to be. Whatever the reason, it seems that the primary vehicles for addressing the problem are education and cultural movements that make condoms and STI safety more "cool".

Similar comments apply for other parts of porn that may encourage unhealthy behaviors by viewers, including male aggressiveness.

Dangerous stunts

There are few things that make me viscerally angry. One of them is reality TV shows like Jackass or Fear Factor in which people hurt themselves -- physically, emotionally, or both -- for the amusement of viewers. Knowingly harming yourself or inducing others to harm themselves makes my skin crawl. My aversive reaction to this is perhaps out of proportion to the actual harm incurred, relative to other terrible things in the world, but this doesn't trivialize the harm that reality TV does cause.

Bigger than the direct pain that actors and contestants suffer may be the injury by those who try the stunts "at home". Some examples:

This last example reminds us that people are not the only ones hurt by reality TV. Animals involved in the stunts are also hurt -- especially insects that are eaten alive, such as the worms and cockroaches that Archbold scarfed down. Or the goldfish swallowed alive during a Perrysburg High School basketball game. Or the countless bugs and other creatures eaten alive during jungle-adventure shows. The fake website of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Insects makes a real point when it decries the "untold suffering" caused by eating live insects on Survivor.

Stupid stunts are not just popularized by formal media but also by social media. Young men on Instagram try to acquire followers by posting photos of themselves climbing city structures. The "Fire Challenge" on YouTube and Facebook has left one Texas boy dead and others with "Weeks if not months of rehab, lifelong scarring and disfigurement and movement loss [...]." Even the seemingly harmless "Ice Bucket Challenge" has directly caused one death and inspired another deadly stunt.

I'm less viscerally outraged by stunts performed in action movies and TV shows by trained stuntpeople, since injury rates are lower, and such stunts are less likely to inspire copycats at home. Still, there were 17 stunt-related deaths between 1980 and 1987. And these death rates are higher than necessary because "Prior to the push for realism of the last couple of decades, many such stunts would have been faked without anyone being able to tell the difference." Wikipedia has a sad list of film accidents.

When I was a pre-teen, I loved movie stunts, explosions, etc., and my taste for such things wasn't satisfied by drama, romance, or comedy. Now that I'm older, I find the so-called "higher" pleasures of movies/TV to be more rewarding. I enjoy skillful development of personal relationships, mysteries, or hilarious scenarios by the writers of a movie or show. In my opinion, a screenplay determines 70% of the overall value of a movie/show, even though writers aren't usually glorified with that level of esteem.

Horror movies and anxiety disorders

People differ significantly in their reactions to horror movies. Some children have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from horror films. There are anecdotal reports along these lines as well:

Holly Ketchum:

As I began recalling childhood memories and experiences, I could see links between scenes in horror movies, my childish reactions to those scenes, and the damage I was discovering in my life. [...] I must conclude, therefore, that the symptoms I observed in my life were indicating a damage caused by such early exposure to horror movies.

The 1992 program Ghostwatch led several children to be diagnosed with PTSD. After an initial paper on the subject, "several other cases were published as replies to these initial reports producing a small case series of PTSD caused by the TV show." Due to a revision in the DSM-5, "electronic media, television, movies, or pictures" are now omitted from the PTSD definition. This seems stupid to me. A disorder is characterized by the harm it causes, not where it originates.

The Calm Clinic claims that

It's highly, highly unlikely that TV can create an anxiety disorder. There are a few exceptions - some people do develop fears and phobias because of television - but in general you are likely to already have anxiety in some way and television simply makes it worse.

But we still have to ask: Why cause any potentially lifelong disorders with horror movies? Of course, one hopes that those averse to horror films will avoid them, but social pressure may sometimes make that difficult, or perhaps people don't discover the trauma they'll suffer until the movie is over.

Is the pleasure of the horror enthusiasts worth this cost? Many would say yes. But in light of the hedonic treadmill, it's not clear that the enjoyment of horror fans leads to long-term improvements in welfare relative to the counterfactual. In addition, one has to wonder what impacts horror films have on empathy for real-world suffering.

The demand side of the equation

While I've been pointing to harmful influences in media, responsibility for changing the situation does not rest only with content creators. As noted before, media production is heavily influenced by what sells. Many people have natural thrill-seeking instincts that incline them toward violence, risk, and rubbernecking. These are not modern phenomena; just think of gladiator fights in the Roman Colosseum or the spectacle of public executions throughout history.

So in many cases modern media are merely tapping into these strong, animalistic cravings. If people weren't watching dumb stunts on TV, they might be doing their own in real life. There may be a legitimate argument that media can serve as an outlet for these drives. On the other hand, it seems very plausible that depictions in media encourage more of these behaviors in real life. The net balance is unclear a priori. Contrary to the "hydraulic theory", emotions are not fluids that build up until released. For instance, expressing anger tends to elicit more anger. At the same time, some drives may demand attention until satisfied; this is clearly the case for hunger, for instance (at least until fat-burning ketosis sets in). The difficult debate over whether porn increases or decreases sexual violence is an example of the non-obviousness of these questions.

Because much harmful media content is driven on the demand side, legislation is not the only answer. The situation is not just the fault of the media creators -- they're following incentives set by people's tastes. Discussion and education can also help. So can creating new activities for young people to pursue as outlets for their energy and status-seeking inclinations. Testosterone-driven risk-taking in the realm of activism is much more constructive than in the realm of daredevil home videos.

Professor Lou Manza at Lebanon Valley College hypothesizes that stunt performances are efforts to "break up the monotony" of everday existence: "We're striving for something that gives life meaning, something beyond the ordinary." Altruism can also give deep meaning to life. How sad that meaning-seeking urges end up hurting people and animals rather than helping them.

While the demand side of media is important, changes on the supply side can make a difference as well. Fred Rogers was inspired to go into television after seeing TV violence, and in so doing, he helped millions of people become more emotionally positive and compassionate. Many other admirable media producers have strived for similar outcomes. When healthier content is available, it can be consumed more.

Putting priorities in perspective

The influence of media on behavior is a salient topic because most of us see and read popular media on a regular basis. As a result, issues like I've been discussing here receive a lot of attention already -- much more than other ethical questions concerning the Third World poor, livestock on factory farms, wild animals being eaten alive by predators, and suffering sentient beings of the future.

I doubt that activism to change norms about media portrayals of risky behavior is the most effective use of one's resources, unless one is already heavily engaged in this topic or otherwise extremely passionate about it. I think my aversion to reality TV is excessive relative to harms that animals endure every second of every day in other ways. Nonetheless, media plays a massive role in the lives of most people in rich countries, which makes it a powerful force for shaping social trajectories.

See also