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True crime is a popular trend that plays off our fascination with the morbid. As popular streaming services produce documentaries and dramatizations to meet the demand for true crime content, these crimes become less of a horrific event and more of a meme or something to live tweet. These exposés also tend to be led by actors who are well known for their looks, like Evan Peters, Zac Efron, and Ross Lynch, adding more to the romanticization of serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy. Today’s article covers why this romanticization is dangerous and how you can keep your child safe from digital injury with our GKIS Screen Safety Toolkit.

Why has true crime skyrocketed in popularity?

Netflix’s recent limited-run Dahmer series has been viewed by 56 million households for a total of 701.37 million hours, putting it as their second most-viewed English Netflix series of all time.[1] In fact, true crime documentaries have covered the Netflix top 10 trending list for a combined total of 232 days, meaning that if your child is logging into Netflix, chances are they will be suggested one of these exposés.[2] There is no denying that true crime is hot content, and it does not seem to be declining in popularity anytime soon. This begs the question of why our society and humans, in general, are so obsessed with the morbid acts of our fellow human beings.

Evolutionary scientists have attributed this obsession to the fact that murder, rape, and theft have been part of our society for as long as humanity has existed. We are fascinated with learning about the facts of true crime as a form of human preservation and how we can protect ourselves and our families from the same fate.[3]

Psychologists agree and add that we also feel a sort of elation at these stories, glad that we are not the victims of such a crime. They also believe that we feel elated that we are not the perpetrator of the crime either.[4] This suggests on some level that we can relate to the perpetrator, a feeling that adds to the romanticization of criminals.

Psychology and Social Effects of Romanticizing Criminals

Movie violence as shown in true crime documentaries and dramatizations has been shown to have real lasting effects on viewers, including overall desensitization to real-life violence. A study found that youth with medium levels of exposure to TV/movie violence had much lower blood pressure when viewing violent media compared to those with low exposure.[5] These results show that sustained exposure to violent media leads to emotional numbing when presented with violence.

Following the release of the 2019 film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, in which Ted Bundy is played by Zac Efron, a concerning TikTok trend began of young girls dressing up as Bundy’s victims using makeup to create blood, bruising, and bite marks on their skin.[6]

These exposés create an impression on children and teens that they are not real events, but rather just make-believe, a trend, or a meme. The use of conventionally attractive actors to play these criminals leads to the romanticization of their crimes. This delusion creates hardships for the families of these crimes who watch as the atrocities their family faced are reduced to trends and memes online.

Mother of Dahmer victim Tony Hughes, Shirley Hughes, shared that learning about the series and its content brought her to tears. She told The Guardian, “I shed tears. They’re not tears of sorrow, and it’s not disbelief in the Lord. The tears [are] tears of hurt because it hurts. It hurts real bad.”[7] Not only do these exposés hurt our children, but they hurt the families of these violent crimes and cause them to relieve their trauma publicly over and over.

What Parents Can Do

  • If your child is interested in true crime, it is important to express to them that is okay and understandable. Notable psychologists believe that interest in crime is healthy and something that is natural, so long as that interest is confined to health habits.[8] Express to your child that these true crime stories are more than just a “limited-run show” but something that has real-life effects on people. Perhaps even share with them the thoughts and feelings of the families of these crimes as an empathy-building exercise.
  • Another important action you can take is to look at parental guides online for the media your child is consuming so that you can understand exactly what is in it. Also, sit and watch the show together so that you can fast forward through anything inappropriate and have a conversation about it.
  • To help guide you in these healthy conversations, check out our GKIS Connected Families Screen Agreement to work with your child to create a collaborative, living document.
  • If you fear your child may be watching these true crime exposés without your knowledge and permission, check out our GKIS Screen Safety Toolkit. This toolkit helps to empower parents and provides them with smart tech tools to filter, monitor, and manage online behavior.

Thanks to CSUCI intern, Katherine Carroll for researching true crime exposés and the romanticization of serial killers. To learn more about true crime and its consequences check out our article, “Is Your Child Following True Crime?”.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

Works Cited

[1] Tassi, P. (2022). ‘Dahmer’ Is Netflix’s Second Highest Viewed English Language Show Ever. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/paultassi/2022/10/12/dahmer-is-netflixs-second-highest-viewed-english-language-show-ever/?sh=2592e60d40e0

[2] Sayles, J. (2021).  The Bloody Bubble. The Ringer. https://www.theringer.com/tv/2021/7/9/22567381/true-crime-documentaries-boom-bubble-netflix-hbo

[3] BBC Science Focus Magazine. (2021).  Why are we so obsessed with true crime? BBC Science Focus. https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/why-are-we-so-obsessed-with-true-crime/

[4] McCarthy, E. (2018). 12 Reasons We Love True Crime, According to the Experts. Mental Floss. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/559256/why-we-love-true-crime

[5] Mrug, S., Madan, A., Cook, E. W., 3rd, & Wright, R.A. (2015). Emotional and physiological desensitization to real-life and movie violence. Journal of youth and adolescence, 44(5), 1092–1108. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-014-0202-z

[6] Lockwood, J. (2021). The danger of romanticising serial killers. Palatinate. https://www.palatinate.org.uk/the-danger-of-romanticising-serial-killers/

[7] Vargas, R. (2022). Mother of Dahmer victim condemns Netflix series: ‘I don’t see how they can do that’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/oct/10/dahmer-victim-tony-hughes-mother-condemns-netflix-series

[8] Cox, T. (2009). The Psychology Behind America’s Crime Obsession. NPR. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/99803591

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