Fictional drama that is too close for comfort
October 25 2021 12:04 AM

Life has undergone a total change ever since Covid-19 cases were first identified in China’s Wuhan city in late 2019 and subsequently spread across the world, causing at least 4.93mn deaths and 242mn cases over the past 22 months and shifting many activities online. When outdoor access got restricted and people had to stay indoors, television and Over-the-Top (OTT) video content became the most preferred entertainment options. Though life has entered a hybrid phase of late with Covid-19 cases dropping in several countries, online entertainment avenues continue to occupy the prime slots. 

It is in this context that a letter – sent recently by a private school in Doha to parents warning children not to watch a TV series, Squid Game, as it could cause them psychological damage – gains relevance. The nine-episode horror series on Netflix has hit No. 1 in 90 of the streaming service’s markets around the world, including South Korea, where it was made. The fictional drama portrays contestants who are deeply in debt play children’s games in order to win a bounty. The Parents Television and Media Council in the US recently cautioned that the "incredibly violent" series Squid Game should be on parents's 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 programmes, and are often the focus of concern when it comes to such shows, 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 and 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 desensitisation, and it decreases pro-social behaviours like helping others, co-operation and sharing things.” Even brief exposure to media violence can increase aggressive thinking and behaviour, Bushman says, but the consequences worsen with duration. “It’s kind of like smoking cigarettes,” he says. 
Of course, not everyone who watches such a programme 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.” 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 the 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.”
Dr Sandra Wheatley, a British social psychologist specialising in parenting, has warned parents may be teaching their children to be bullies by letting them watch the ultra-violent series. Last week, John Bramston Primary School in Ilford, east London, wrote to parents warning them pupils were copying scenes in the playground. Viewers in South Korea say the show is all the more disturbing because it injects death and violence into playground games like Red Light, Green Light and tug of war.

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