What is your favorite pastime? What do you like to do for fun? These are two of the most commonly asked questions when someone wants to know you better. Watching TV and movies, listening to music, and playing video games are among the most popular answers. During the pandemic, where people were/are stuck at home with nothing else to do for entertainment, they turned to these mass media platforms, making them quite popular in the past year.

They have numerous benefits, such as helping people escape the unpleasantness of the real world by taking them to a virtual world where things are better(sometimes). Moreover, they are an excellent source of information and education, fun, relaxation, and improve motor skills(video games). However, just like it is with food, what you consume visually and listen to affects your mental health.

Here are some of the impacts of playing video games, listening to music, and watching TV shows and Movies on mental health.

  1. Cultural imperialism and body dissatisfaction

Cultural imperialism is where a larger, more influential community imposes its culture on a smaller, non-dominant culture. It is a term commonly used to describe the effect of Western mass media on foreign audiences. Although Hollywood is based in the US, its influence can be felt in other countries just the same. For instance, watching western TV shows, movies, and music, has changed global beauty standards and views on body image for the worse.

With Hollywood always casting skinny leading women and muscular men in movie roles, one can internalize the thin-body ideal or muscular male body ideal leading to body dissatisfaction. Witnessing the body-shaming celebrities in ‘bigger’ bodies go through can damage your body image and trigger unhealthy eating habits.

You might set unrealistic goals for yourself and get frustrated or stressed if you can’t change your appearance to be more acceptable by society. Body dissatisfaction is associated with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and eating disorders.

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  1. Exposure to inappropriate/triggering content 

In recent years, including inappropriate or violent scenes in TV shows and movies has become common. These could include sex scenes, racism, sexism, substance abuse, use of profanities, and violent scenes showing bombings, bullying, suicides, self-harm, rapes, or mutilated people. These scenes are supposed to be educational, raising awareness, or showing reality as it is. However, despite the ‘good intentions’ behind the scenes, they could alter the way people think and normalize violence.  

Watching movies that include violent and sex scenes could lead to immoral behavior, desensitization to pain, and lack of empathy. They can also inspire aggressive behavior among viewers.

A recent case of the Kenyan student who killed his entire family and later confessed that he was inspired by the actions of the character Villanelle from the TV series Killing Eve proves how much TV shows can influence someone’s actions. 

An example of TV not handling heavy themes well is the TV show Bridgerton. It aired a male rape scene that wasn’t treated like one. Many viewers felt it was not handled well and could normalize male rape. Another instance happened more recently with Netflix’s Ginny and Georgia and 13 Reasons Why airing graphic scenes of self-harm and suicide, which could inspire teenagers to perform such acts themselves.

Furthermore, such scenes could trigger feelings of anxiety and stress for people who have undergone similar trauma in the past, forcing them to relive unpleasant experiences.

  1. Addiction and anxiety

How many times have you binge-watched an entire TV show or were so engrossed playing a video game that you completely lost track of time? These two are addictive, and they stimulate the reward center of the brain, making it difficult for you to stop once you start.

Unfortunately, as enjoyable as spending your time this way is, these activities might risk your physical and mental health. When binge-watching or gaming, one spends hours sitting or lying down doing minimal physical activity. You also tend to eat more often. This sedentary life can lead to a higher risk of lifestyle diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and stroke.

Studies have associated binge-watching with loneliness and depression. You feel empty and in low spirits after you finish binging a show. Your low mood can also worsen if your favorite characters die at the end or when the ending is disappointing. For example, if a hardcore fan decided to binge-watch Game of Thrones Season 8, they might get disappointed.

Playing video games too much has been linked to insomnia, anxiety, stress, and depression. These could result from dopamine exhaustion, low motivation, and loneliness when playing by yourself. Furthermore, people develop game anxiety when they can’t complete challenges or win in a game and cannot move on to another until they succeed. 

  1. Depiction of people with mental illness on TV

Today, many TV shows and movies try to raise awareness about particular mental illnesses by having characters struggling with mental health disorders. However, more often than not, their depiction of mentally ill people falls short.

TVs shows and movies make the mental illnesses easier to diagnose, deal with, live with, and more aesthetically appealing hence romanticizing or trivializing them. Viewers who don’t know any better will think that is the way it is in real life and not take these issues seriously, making it harder for people with mental illnesses to get the help they need.

Also, watching these TV shows and movies can worsen the conditions of those already struggling with poor mental health. They will try to imitate what they saw on TV, for instance, the behaviors of the characters supposedly living with a mental illness, believing that they should look or act the same way, which can be destructive.

The other problem is the stigmatization of mental illnesses in the media. Most TV shows and movies portray stereotypes of people with various mental illnesses, affecting viewers’ perceptions. For instance, they are often depicted as violent, dangerous, and unpredictable, thus should be feared and isolated from society. Depressed people are stereotyped as suicidal; refer to people with schizophrenia as ‘crazy’, while showing that they all hallucinate and have homicidal tendencies, which is not always the case.

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  1. Sad music and depression

Listening to sad music elicits mixed feelings for different people. Some feel relaxed, peaceful, and more connected with others when they listen to sad music. While for others, such as depressed people, their negative thinking and emotions intensify when listening to sad music, and especially those with negative lyrics.

Additionally, one might feel nostalgic and get sadder when a song brings forth memories of better times, reminds them of things they have lost or past traumatic events. This could result in suicidal thoughts or rumination which could make them get stuck dwelling on things that happened in past.

According to studies, people who listen to music often, say 3-4 hours/day, have a higher probability of developing depression than those who do not.

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Bottom Line

TV shows, movies, music, and video games are a great source of entertainment and have numerous benefits. However, due to its far reach, mass media can influence how one feels about themselves, thinks, and behaves. You should be careful with the amount and type of content you consume to protect your mental health.

Do you know any movies or TV shows that depict mental health disorders accurately? If you do, please share in the comment section.


NOTE: If you are struggling or need someone to talk to, please reach out to a friend, family member, or call these hotlines for help: Suicide prevention hotlines for all countries.

This is the fourth installment in the Mental Health Awareness Month Series by Aisles of Life. Read the other posts here;

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