Why Your True Crime Obsession Is Bad For Your Anxiety

Why Your True Crime Obsession

Is Bad For Your Anxiety

by Gavin Hannegan, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo undergraduate intern, supervised by Dr. Hannah Roberts

Getting scared can feel thrilling and cathartic. Forms of entertainment, like horror movies, are entirely dedicated to instilling these feelings in people. While we can recognize that the monster on the TV screen is not real, the same can’t be said for true crime. There’s an additional layer of fear knowing that these unsolved mysteries or gruesome acts are real-life events. And with podcasts like “Your Own Backyard”, about events that happened in San Luis Obispo County, these stories may feel personally relevant. These aspects are what make the true crime genre distinctly engaging, but they also contribute to some unique health concerns. It’s not the same as watching a scary movie and feeling too scared to fall asleep; with true crime, there are resulting anxieties that persist throughout the day. Read on to understand why you should consider moderating the amount of time spent on true crime.

True Crime Can Make You Feel Vulnerable and Unprotected

We all have a need to feel safe in our environment, but true crime reminds us that safety is not always guaranteed. These cases present the world as a threatening place. International college students report that crime-related media invokes both a general fear of crime and the fear that they may be a victim of a future crime themselves (Shi, 2018). As a result of these fears, our brain responds as if it were dealing with an active threat. College students who frequently interact with crime-based media may modify their behavior in order to protect themselves, whether through spending less time outdoors or carrying a weapon on them. Because women are more often depicted as the victims in crime-related media, women may be more likely to exhibit these behaviors (Custers et al., 2017). Although true crime stories are meant to be unsettling, their use becomes problematic when it impairs our day-to-day functioning.

The More Crime Media We’re Exposed To, the More Fear We Experience

True crime media is easy to consume. There are many different ways to interact with true crime, whether through TV shows, documentaries, or news articles. Podcasts in particular are a popular choice because of their accessibility; you can listen to these stories on your way to school, when you’re working out, or while you’re completing household chores. True crime also encourages consumption. Each series typically provides a deep dive on one specific case. World-building occurs through the extensive details and narratives of each case, which can hook you into the story. Cliffhangers leave you anticipating the next episode. And because these stories are real, we’re more likely to be invested in them (Custers et al., 2017). 

But this extended engagement is when we begin to see the most significant increases in anxiety. In general, there is a strong positive correlation between media consumption and the fear of crime amongst young adults (Intravia et al., 2017). A similar effect was observed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic; in this sample, those who consumed COVID-19 related media for 7 times a day not only were more scared of the pandemic, but they also were at greater risk of experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression (Bendau et al., 2021). Rather than being “sensitized” to such content, the opposite effect occurs: we feel more vulnerable to real threats such as COVID-19 or crime the more time we spend with this type of media. True crime is designed to keep you tuning in to the story, and it becomes easy to fall down the rabbit hole of a true crime obsession. However, to prevent this form of entertainment from causing us harm, we need to be more conscious about how we interact with true crime.

How Can I Moderate My True Crime Exposure?

While an easy solution would be to cut off true crime entirely, the goal is to enjoy this type of media without experiencing strong anxieties. A good starting place is to think about why you engage with true crime media. Some of the most common reasons include entertainment, convenience, and boredom (Boling & Hull, 2018). When true crime is only used to mindlessly pass the time, that’s where the health risks can emerge. With boredom, there’s less of a conscious effort to regulate your media usage. As a result, consuming media out of boredom has made adolescents and emerging adults more prone to detrimental health outcomes ranging from negative moods to financial stress (Stockdale & Coyne, 2020). One reason that has been observed specifically in women is that true crime may provide tips for survival, including information about the criminal justice system and their risk of victimization (Boling & Hull, 2018). But as mentioned previously, constantly absorbing information that reminds you of your vulnerabilities will only exacerbate feelings of anxiety. 

If true crime has caused you any stress, prioritize the entertainment aspects and remove yourself from any connections with the stories. Another recommendation is to determine how much time you want to dedicate to true crime and when you want to listen to it. Start by pacing yourself at an episode per day to avoid overconsumption. Listen to true crime in the middle of the day while it’s bright out, rather than at night when you might feel more unprotected. Turn your true crime usage into a social activity by having a group of friends enjoy the stories with you. Feel free to bring up any concerns with true crime to your therapist so you can both develop personalized strategies for healthier listening. Take back control over your usage with true crime to get the most out of the experience!

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Bendau, A., Petzold, M. B., Pyrkosch, L., Maricic, L. M., Betzler, F., Rogoll, J., Große, J., Ströhle, A., & Plag, J. (2021). Associations between COVID-19 related media consumption and symptoms of anxiety, depression and COVID-19 related fear in the general population in Germany. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 271, 283-291. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00406-020-01171-6

Boling, K. S. & Hull, K. (2018). Undisclosed information–Serial is My Favorite Murder: Examining motivations in the true crime podcast audience. Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 25(1), 92-108. https://doi.org/10.1080/19376529.2017.1370714

Custers, K., Hall, E. D., Smith, S. B., & McNallie, J. (2017). The indirect association between television exposure and self-protective behavior as a result of worry about crime: The moderating role of gender. Mass Communication and Society, 20, 637-662. https://doi.org/10.1080/15205436.2017.1317353

Intravia, J., Wolff, K. T., Paez, R., & Gibbs, B. R. (2017). Investigating the relationship between social media consumption and fear of crime: A partial analysis of mostly young adults. Computers in Human Behavior, 77, 158-168. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.08.047

Shi, L. (2018). A neglected population: Media consumption, perceived risk, and fear of crime among international students. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 36(5-6), 1-24. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260518766428

Stockdale, L. A. & Coyne, S. M. (2020). Bored and online: Reasons for using social media, problematic social networking site use, and behavioral outcomes across the transition from adolescence to emerging adulthood. Journal of Adolescence, 79, 173-183. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2020.01.010

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