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Watching too much true crime TV can be bad for your mental health, experts say

Courtney Dickerson and Erik Brady 

Youthcast Media Group®

 When watching true crime on television, how much is too much?

That depends on the individual, according to Chivonna Childs, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. She says watching too much can, in the most severe cases, lead to anxiety and depression.

Chivonna Childs (Courtesy of Childs).

Childs is talking about true crime shows such as “Snapped” and “Forensic Files,” as well as fictional crime dramas that are often based on real-life cases, such as “Law & Order” and “Criminal Minds.” She says some people who watch too much of these shows can suffer from hypervigilance, where people see danger lurking around every corner, or fear of socialization, where they don't want to leave the house.

Both of these behaviors are dangerous to our wellbeing, and watching too much of these shows can contribute to that.

“You become very anxious, or you become depressed because of this true crime you’re watching," Childs says. “That’s when it is detrimental to our mental health.”

Rachel Monroe often writes about true crime for The New Yorker magazine. She says it is important to remember that serial killers are far from common.

"If you're just constantly reading about terrible things that happen to other people, it starts to feel like that's everywhere, you know, even when it's actually quite rare," she says.

"Stories about serial killers are so popular, but in terms of actual crime statistics, people are much more likely to be harmed by somebody they know – somebody in their own family, somebody close to them – than a random stranger. The crimes that get focused on can lead to a distorted perception of what danger really looks like."

Often, people don’t realize when they’re overconsuming true crime because the behavioral effects can be good at first.

“The positive effect of true crime is that it teaches us to be aware of our surroundings,” Childs says. But some people take such vigilance too far and begin to be frightened by normal, everyday occurrences.

“Hypervigilance is when you’re extra jumpy, everything scares you,” she says. “You think there’s a killer around every corner. You think every white van has a killer in it."

Monroe is the author of the 2019 book "Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession." The story links four archetypes of the genre – detective, victim, defender, killer – to observe the cultural fascination with crime, especially by women.

"There were true-crime magazines in the 1940s and 1950s that catered to men with gangster stories," she says. Today's true crime is more often about "the murderer next door. So, I think the domestic context is kind of aimed at a female audience and so that's who consumes it."

Monroe worries that "as a society, we glamorize murderers even as we condemn them. And so I think that certainly women who consume that culture are just as susceptible as the rest of us to kind of finding that fascination."

Childs points out overconsumption of anything can be bad for our mental or physical health. “If you have too much water, too much food, it can be a bad thing,” she says, "so it’s important to exercise moderation in everything."

Fear of socialization is an extreme side effect of hypervigilance. This goes back to being suspicious of everybody, even your own friends and colleagues. In true-crime television, there is a lot of backstabbing and betrayal. Spouses murder spouses. Friends kill friends. While it is true that real-life murders are often committed by people the victim knew, this fact can make it difficult for those who overconsume crime shows to trust some of the people they know and love. And that leads them to shut themselves off from the world.

“You don’t leave your home," Childs says. "You stop socializing with your friends. You stop doing anything.”

There is a difference between choosing not to associate with friends because they are engaging in potentially dangerous behavior, and choosing not to associate with them because they suddenly seem “suspicious.” Childs says this can also cause us to misjudge others. “We might start to treat people differently, even people who did nothing wrong other than they look like somebody we saw on this true crime show.”

Such behavior can cause rifts in our relationships with those who are close to us, or even extend to strangers on the street.

"That’s where we go into isolation and people not wanting to be around other people, keeping to ourselves or not speaking to other people," Childs says. “We might not want to cross the street when we see someone who looks 'suspicious.' "

When you binge-watch true crime shows, you see hour after hour of people being murdered by criminals who may not feel remorse. The grisly scenes can lead to a fear of it happening to you.

“Oftentimes, we can think, 'What if that happened to me?' "Childs says. "Or 'What would I do?' It can trigger us if we know someone who’s been in that position or if we’ve been in that situation.”

All of which is why it is important to know your limits when it comes to watching any kind of television. Know what scares you and what doesn’t, and when to turn the TV off.

Childs says networks are obligated to include disclaimers when shows contain on-screen violence and the like, but she says it is up to the viewer what to watch.

"We do have free will to determine whether we’re not going to watch something or if we will,” Childs says. “We must be diligent with what we put into our brains.”

Childs suggests setting up a schedule of what you plan to watch on a given day.

“If you find you're losing sleep, or having nightmares, or you’re losing appetite, or you’re more depressed, or not wanting to spend time with friends or family, these are all signs of anxiety and depression,” she says. "I tell people to watch cartoons, listen to good music or watch TV that makes you feel good. ... Make sure you have a good mix of everything, and you’re not overconsumed with anything.”

Rachel Monroe (Courtesy of Monroe).

Monroe says it is easy to overconsume true crime: "Particularly the shows on cable TV, they want to almost hypnotize you. I don't know if you've ever had this experience: You get sucked in, and then the next thing you know, you're like, 'Wow, did I just watch like six episodes of that?' "

Monroe figures it is a matter of watching with a critical eye.

"People should consume whatever media is compelling to them, but just make sure to keep your mind open and think about what are the underlying messages that it's telling me," she says. "Are those messages true? Is there a part of the story that I'm not getting? Are there things that they're over emphasizing? Are there things they're leaving out?

"I really think that anything that you watch with that kind of active, curious, critical mindset, you're going to be fine."

Courtney Dickerson is a rising sophomore at Annandale High School in Virginia. She worked on this article with Youthcast Media Group, which has a partnership with Annandale’s journalism class. Erik Brady is a YMG Mentor-Editor and former USA Today sports reporter. 


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