TW: discussions about violence, gun violence, death
With media impacting so many portions of our lives, it is almost impossible for us to separate ourselves from it. The media can be used for the spread of good news as well as bad, and this contributes to our desensitization. We are no longer surprised when we see graphic gore on our screens. Deaths come across our feeds and we barely bat an eye. We share or just like it and then keep scrolling and living as if nothing is different. In the face of mass tragedy, we lose our empathy.
On Tuesday, November 1, 2022, Takeoff, a member of the group Migos, was shot and killed in Houston, Texas. Video footage of his death was uploaded to social media and went viral that morning. Images and videos of celebrity deaths or disasters are not new. When Kobe Bryant died, pictures of his helicopter crash got leaked and spread throughout the internet.
Another aspect of our desensitization lies in the “true crime” genre of media. Streaming services, YouTube channels, and podcasts have all taken to retelling the stories and sharing pictures and videos of murders and homicides. Actors are cast to play serial killers in shows and movies that tell the same stories that we either grew up hearing about or lived through. We never sit back and realize that we are continuing our trauma and the trauma of the victims and their families by doing so.
Celebrity deaths and serial killers are not the only tragedies that have aided in desensitizing people, particularly Americans. We have faced a pandemic that has lasted over two years and taken one million U.S. lives, deaths in the streets due to the fight for racial equality, a war in Ukraine that we only have to see when it begins to affect us directly, a riot at the U.S. capital, mass shootings, and so much more in only the past five yearst.
My generation is particularly desensitized to tragedy as we grew up watching videos of the 9/11 tragedy yearly. Videos of people jumping from the towers or phone calls from the planes were shown to us as children and only got more graphic as we grew up. We also grew up with the reality of school shootings. I was in grade school when Sandy Hook happened. I was walking the halls of my high school while scrolling through the Tweets about the Stoneman Douglas shooting. These events have been with me and those in my generation as we have gone through school. We grew up knowing that the place we were sent to learn was not safe. The U.S. has had 2,032 school shootings since 1970 and these numbers are increasing. 948 school shootings have taken place since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. Columbine, Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas, and Uvalde are names that all Americans are familiar with. We know these tragedies, and even if we weren’t alive or physically there to witness them, footage from these events and recent sharing on social media from inside of the schools has put us in these moments forever.
Our trauma lives on in the form of social media and the only way for us to rationalize this is to become desensitized to what we see. A study published in 2014 examined the effects of real-life and movie violence on adolescents. They found that “youth exposed to higher levels of real-life violence do show some signs of emotional desensitization involving lower empathy.” The inundation with real tragedy from childhood has led us to no longer be capable of the same level of empathy as before.
We can name the celebrities, we can name the schools, we can name the serial killers, but we never name the trauma. Our continued sensationalization of tragedy and violence contributes to our lack of empathy toward graphic violence and death. Vaile Wright, Senior Director for Healthcare Innovation at the APA says that human bodies are not meant to be so frequently in a state of agitation and because they are, people may become desensitized to violence as a defense. Understanding the toxic nature of the media that we consume is essential to healing the trauma that we have continued to experience.