In recent months, National Public Radio published a piece about the ethics of true crime as entertainment, coinciding with a number of surveys that report just how popular true crime watching happens to be in the U.S.. As it happens, true crime is immensely popular with almost two out of three Americans calling themselves fans of true crime shows or books. But is true crime watching or binging affecting our mental health? Could a true crime obsession be doing more harm than good?
True crime is so popular that Netflix reported that its release of Dahmer-Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is its second-most popular release of all time. Tuning in to serial killer true crime films or documentaries has broad appeal. Two-thirds of U.S. adults report that they are fans of these productions. In fact, 80 percent of all millennials say they are fans of serial killer content.
Fans primarily tune in to true crime shows because of an interest to know more about the psychology behind killers and other criminals. Some say this form of entertainment helps them feel more informed about the world and more prepared for how to avoid becoming a victim. Regardless of the reasons for an interest in true crime—(some psychologists have even likened intense interest to addiction)—its impacts on an individual’s psyche may not be benign.
What True Crime Consumption Can Do to Mental Health
For psychiatric professionals, it very nearly goes without saying that a person’s environment can impact their mental health. In a very similar fashion to “we are what we eat,” the idea that our minds are affected by what they consume isn’t a stretch. But how do medical professionals qualify that, and what’s the proof?
First, there isn’t a uniform effect that occurs from watching true crime. For some, the result of binging through a series like Dahmer leaves them feeling angsty or fearful. Others may report feeling lucky but also guilty because their lives are better than those depicted in the documentaries and films. So, when might binging true crime shows or reading true crime books become harmful?
If you are already feeling down in the dumps–depressed or anxious–binging or even watching a single episode of a true crime show could magnify those feelings. If you’re already feeling fearful or worried, those shows are more likely to reinforce than alleviate those feelings. The truth is, many people enjoy being scared as a form of entertainment. (That’s why the horror genre continues to be so popular.)
Usually, though, when one leaves the roller coaster car behind, those feelings of fear and excitement quickly dissipate. Binging true crime shows and exposing oneself to their macabre and often downright gruesome scenes delivers constant reinforcement of fear and negative emotions, and that’s not the most healthful way to spend one’s free time. If watching these shows makes one feel uneasy or emotionally uncomfortable, it’s important to change the channel. Too much negative media is feeding the brain too much negativity—and unnecessarily so.
How Viewing Habits Affect the Viewer
Why is the Hallmark channel with its syrupy, sweet love stories also popular? Because there is a segment of viewers who, naturally, know that love is seldom so cliche and gagging sweet (sorry, Hallmark), but watching the films makes them feel good. It lifts their mood.
Why do people engage in any hobby? Most of the time, it’s because it makes them feel a certain way that they desire to feel. A person might knit because it calms them. A person might jog for the rush.
What we watch or read does affect us. Sometimes the effects are minimal. Sometimes they are substantial. Binging involves a huge dose of whatever it is we’re binging. It’s bound to have more of a pronounced impact on how a person feels than a mild or moderate amount of viewing.
But feelings aren’t the only thing affected by watching true crime. A person’s perceptions of reality can also become skewed from binging. Their fear can become heightened: They might look for signs of criminals everywhere or have trouble sleeping; they might avoid certain places because of their growing sense of unease about the world around them–a world tenanted by serial killers, murderers, and home invaders.
Watching someone–even actors–become victims onscreen forces us to react to what we are seeing. We may feel sympathetic or empathetic to the victim. After viewing so many of these scenes, a person might even become desensitized to them. which may become problematic in its own right. Do we want to become “used to” these crimes?
Everyone Is Affected Differently
Again, people are affected differently by viewing true crime shows and films. In fact, the same person might be impacted differently based on what’s currently going on in their lives. If they’re under stress, the film can add to that stress. If they’re feeling good, they may be more resilient to the impact of the media content. Ideally, a person has to consider for themselves if these shows are harming them in some way.
In most cases, a therapist is going to counsel a patient who has anxiety or depression to avoid these shows or watch them with caution and avoid overdoing it. A brain that’s currently struggling with a mental health condition doesn’t need the added stress that true crime is apt to add. Entertainment should entertain–not undermine one’s mental health.
Take a Break
If you watch a show and it has a negative effect on how you feel, take a break. Yes, it may be incredibly interesting or highly entertaining or both, but your mental health is more important. Instead, give yourself a rest. Watch a comedy or go for a walk. Take a break from that 24-hr Forensic Files marathon. The idea is to feed the brain with a diverse range of stimuli–much of it positive.
Negativity is inevitable. We’re all going to confront it at some point and in different ways. But you have control of the remote. You don’t have to feed your true crime obsession. Give it some snacks, but don’t make it the chief part of your viewing diet.
Remember that if you’re feeling persistently anxious or depressed, it may be time to consult a medical professional. The sooner you get help, the sooner you can start feeling better and learn to manage your condition going forward.