In popular Netflix shows such as “House of Cards” and “Daredevil,” violence weaves into the show’s scenes and plot. Researchers in Boston University’s College of Communication studied the effects of depictions of violence and found binge-watching violent television shows online can distort viewers’ perceptions of reality.
According to the study, published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, high exposure to violent shows fosters a “mean world syndrome,” in which people view the world as a meaner and scarier place.
Sarah Krongard, a doctoral student in COM’s Division of Emerging Media Studies and one of the researchers on the study, said she was interested in the project because media technology is constantly evolving.
Digital streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime give customers instant access to a variety of content, which encouraging binge-watching, Krongard explained.
“It is important to investigate the content of these narratives and the potential implications for viewers,” she said. “Once we understand the impact, we can begin to empower ourselves as TV users with the tools and skills to critically evaluate and question the content we are consuming.”
Krongard said she was surprised the stories in online TV programs have not changed much in regards to how violence intersects with race and gender.
“I was optimistically expecting that we might see fewer stereotypical illustrations, but our study suggests that demonstrations of violence still seem to convey traditional power dynamics, where systematically oppressed groups continue to be represented in harmful, biased ways,” she said.
For example, the researchers found white perpetrators were often committing morally justified violence, such as fighting for the greater good or defending the powerless, while non-white perpetrators did not receive this privilege in shows, Krongard said.
Though these digital platforms are relatively new, their stories often lack progressive representations, she explained.
According to Krongard, it would be helpful in the future to study a greater number of television programs to understand whether these trends persist across a wide variety of online TV. She added she would like to survey viewers other than college students to see the broader effects of these shows.
Mina Tsay-Vogel, co-director of BU’s Communication Research Center who worked on the study with Krongard, said this study was based on the long-standing theory of the “cultivation effect,” in which media changes the way viewers perceive the world.
Previous studies revealed people who frequently watch broadcast television tend to see the world as a meaner place, but this new study focused on whether the cultivation effect is relevant today in an age of online streaming, Tsay-Vogel said.
“You will see today that a lot of people don’t watch television live anymore,” she said. “They watch recordings of shows, and more people rely on streaming platforms.”
Tsay-Vogel said she was surprised to find violence is a dominant theme in today’s media. In the first seasons of the five most popularly binge-watched programs today, there were about 310 acts of violence, averaging nearly six acts of violence per hour, she said.
“The acts of violence that were portrayed were highly explicit, graphic in nature, had serious significance to the narrative plot and were intentional acts of violence,” Tsay-Vogel explained.
The cultivation theory may be applicable to other forms of technology, as well. Tsay-Vogel said she would be interested in studying the psychological effects when social media users are exposed to themes of materialism through advertisements or narcissism through selfies and status updates.
“I think you can apply cultivation theory to even new media environments,” she said, “by looking at how technology has a powerful social effect on people.”