Still, she felt compelled to keep watching so she had something to discuss at work. After episode four, she had one request for this reporter: “Wish me luck” with the rest of the ultraviolent, disturbing series.
Witman isn’t the only person reluctantly streaming “Squid Game,” a South Korean series that pits impoverished characters against one another in a “Hunger Games”-style, winner-takes-all battle. The series has become a cultural phenomenon, leading some to turn it on and cover their eyes through the grisly parts, just so they can keep up at the water cooler or on Instagram. (Looking at you, “Red Light, Green Light” memes.)
It’s natural to want to tune into a show to feel in on something seemingly everyone’s talking about, says Kent Bausman, a professor of sociology at Maryville University in St. Louis. His students had been coaxing him to watch “Squid Game” since it was released, and last week, he gave it a try — and was eager to inform his class that he thought it was “very good.” “We’ll have our cultural bonding moment,” he predicted of discussing the show with his students.
Still, watching isn’t necessarily fun for everyone. If you’re among the reluctant viewers of “Squid Game” — or any other show that challenges your emotional capacity — here’s a look at why TV violence has such an effect on us, plus advice for standing your ground as a non-viewer or, if you decide to watch, hacks for making that more tolerable.
How and why watching violence affects us
The Parents Television and Media Council recently cautioned that the “incredibly violent” “Squid Game” should be on parents’ radar, because children are finding ways to watch it and are also being exposed to violent memes. But although kids tend to be most affected by violent TV programs, and are often the focus of concern when it comes to shows such as “Squid Game,” violent content can also affect adults.
“The research shows that exposure to violent media increases aggressive thoughts,” says Brad J. Bushman, a professor of communication at Ohio State University who studies the causes, consequences and solutions to human aggression and violence. “It increases angry feelings. It increases physiological arousal, like heart rate and blood pressure.” Plus, he says, watching violent TV “decreases feelings of empathy and compassion for others. It makes people numb to the pain and suffering of others, which researchers call desensitization, and it decreases pro-social behaviors like helping others, cooperation and sharing things.”
Even brief exposure to media violence can increase aggressive thinking and behavior, Bushman says, but the consequences worsen with duration. “It’s kind of like smoking cigarettes,” he says. “Probably smoking one won’t give you lung cancer, but it will still harm you, and every cigarette has a cumulative effect over time.”
Of course, not everyone who watches such a program will become violent, but their upset feelings might linger. This could lead to long-term anxiety, depression or nightmares, says Beverly Hills-based psychiatrist Carole Lieberman. “At the same time, it has an addictive quality to it that makes you come back for more — like when you can’t stop staring at a terrible car accident on the side of the road.”
Lieberman notes that “Squid Game” is “very disturbing — more for its grotesque close-ups of dying people who are desperate for money than for the actual violence we see in the games.” She worries that the show could have particularly troubling ripple effects now, as our society is already on edge after a tumultuous couple of years. “Not everyone becomes a serial killer, but the aggression can show itself in road rage, air rage, domestic violence and so on,” she says. Plus, “the more hours of violent media we watch, the more we become convinced that we live in a mean world.”
But why would watching something that we know is staged affect us so deeply? Bushman likens it to virtual reality. He has observed people wearing a 3-D headset who attempt to walk across a thin board that stretches over a virtual canyon. Some are too frightened to take a single step. “People know for sure that there’s not a canyon beneath them, but they’re terrified,” he says. “We’re hardwired to avoid violence. If our ancient ancestors ignored the saber-tooth tiger, they didn’t pass on their genes to the next generation. Violent cues immediately grab our attention, and even though our prefrontal cortex may tell us it’s not real, the ancient parts of our brain don’t know that.”
How to stick to your decision to not watch
If you truly don’t want to watch an uncomfortable show such as “Squid Game,” experts say you shouldn’t force yourself — no matter how much you worry your social currency might drop.
“I’d recommend acknowledging and validating your emotions and then reminding yourself why you made the decision,” says Jessica Tappana, a licensed clinical social worker and director of Aspire Counseling in Columbia, Mo. For example, she suggests telling yourself: “Violence upsets me, and I don’t need a reason to feel that way. I also feel left out when I don’t understand what everyone else is talking about. Both of these can be true.”
Tappana’s philosophy: “Just own your personal truth that you don’t enjoy the show.” Sometimes, she drops silly comments into the conversation, like, “Yup. Once again, I’m the only one who doesn’t understand the references,” in a way that makes clear she’s joking. Tone is important, she says. You don’t want to come across as judging others for watching these shows.
Another tip: Focus on what you do have in common with whoever is chatting about a TV show you haven’t watched, Tappana says. “Sometimes, I may even look for opportunities to change the conversation,” she says. “But undoubtedly, there will be moments where everyone else feels like they’re sharing inside jokes. Mentally remind yourself of the moments where you do feel connected to these individuals, and then maybe look for more opportunities to seek those moments out.”
Hacks for making watching easier
If you’re determined to endure a gory or violent show, no matter how reluctantly, experts say there are strategies that can help make the experience more tolerable. Consider these tips:
Read a synopsis ahead of time. Then, only watch the nonviolent parts of the show, Lieberman suggests. You’ll still be in the loop enough to discuss the plot with friends, but you won’t have to endure the scenes that upset you. Another idea: Watch with someone who can tell you (in a toned-down way) what happened during the violent parts, during which you can leave the room.
Focus on the corners of the screen. When Bausman is struggling through a violent program, he holds his hands over his eyes and just watches the corners of the screen. “You kind of get the gist” through your peripheral vision, he says, in a majorly watered-down, more bearable way. When the scene passes, drop your hands and continue viewing as usual.
Think about something else during the stressful parts. “For example, I might mentally compose an email to a co-worker that I plan to write the next day,” Tappana says. Or you could run through your grocery list, then ponder what you want to do on the weekend. The key is that you’re distracting your brain with something harmless.
Watch in small doses rather than all at once. Even though Bausman was enjoying “Squid Game,” he took breaks in between episodes to recalibrate. Remember: Just because you can inhale a series in one sitting doesn’t mean you have to, or that doing so is the healthiest option.
Find a way to ground yourself in the present moment. “I might just hold on to a pillow, noticing the feel of the pillow,” Tappana says. Or, if it’s a particularly intense scene, she uses the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique, which involves naming: five things you can see around you at that moment; four things you can feel; three things you can hear; two things you can smell; and one thing you can taste.
Make up a backstory for the “scary” characters. Often, the program you’re watching will have already revealed something about the characters’ lives. “I like to try to come up with even more of a background story that can help me feel some empathy for the ‘bad’ characters,” Tappana says. “I find them a lot less scary when I’m feeling compassion for them.”
Talk about it. Albert Bonfil, director of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles, doesn’t recommend trying to make uncomfortable media more tolerable; “emotional avoidance,” as he describes it, generally isn’t helpful. He recommends first reminding yourself of the filmmakers’ intention. “If the subject matter is difficult, you should probably feel difficult emotions in response to it,” he says. Another way to process what you watched is to discuss it with others. “Talk to other people about what their reactions were,” he says. “Talking about it might also help you gain some new understanding or insight or achieve some higher kind of aim that the filmmaker was probably ultimately” striving for.