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Have you ever witnessed the scene of a car accident and wondered why it was hard to look away? More often than not, you are left with more questions than answers. How did this happen? What events led up to that moment? Somehow learning the facts makes us feel more in control and less vulnerable. In the same way that a car accident catches our attention, true crime stories have become extremely popular. Murder mysteries are increasingly making their way to everyday platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and Apple Podcasts as well as streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. With the push of a button, teens and tweens have unlimited access to gruesome content like crime scene photos, autopsy reports, and case reenactments. Today’s article covers the genre of true crime, the effects of constant exposure, and GKIS tips to keep your family safe from digital injury.

What is true crime?

True crime is a nonfiction genre that covers real-life events of crime and other acts of deviance. Depending on the medium, the delivery of the story can vary. Cable reserves several channels (Investigation Discovery, Oxygen) for true crime stories told through reenactments and interviews with the victim’s family.

Platforms like YouTube and TikTok typically have the user telling the story, sometimes supported with real crime scene photos or dispatch calls. Netflix has released documentaries like Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer which recounts the horrifying murders committed by Richard Ramirez, a serial killer who lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1985.[1]

While watching these types of true crime series, one episode may turn into two and before you know it, you can fall down a rabbit hole researching related information. While true crime stories may pique your child’s interest, it is important to note that the details embedded in these true crime cases are not age-appropriate for kids, tweens, or even teens.

It can be hard to pinpoint where to start with internet safety, which is why GetKidsInternetSafe has done the research for you. Our free Connected Family Agreement provides a 10-step plan that organizes screen time while maintaining a healthy alliance with your child(ren). In addition, our GKIS Screen Safety Toolkit is a family-tested, outcome-based resource guide that provides links and how-to information about parental controls, social media filtering, and blocking for safe browsing.

The Psychology Behind Indulging in True Crime

You might be wondering why anyone would spend their leisure time exposing themselves to such explicit content. According to Psychology Today, reasons for indulging in true crime are simple— adrenaline, fear, and mystery (figuring out the who, why, and how).[2]

When you experience fear, your sympathetic nervous system is stimulated with the same arousal that you’d experience during a state of emergency. When this system is at work, your body is releasing a stress hormone known as adrenaline.[3] Adrenaline can arouse feelings of fear or pleasure. Whether you’re watching a true-crime documentary or riding a rollercoaster, that same hormone is secreted throughout your body. Frequent reinforcement of that adrenaline can be just as addicting as taking drugs or alcohol.

Other explanations for indulging in true crime involve catharsis. Catharsis is a process of releasing repressed emotion, as one may do while identifying with the victim of a true crime story. Watching true crime allows you to experience fear and anxiety in a controlled environment, without actually being put into the situation at hand.[4] Catharsis is then remedied by feelings of safety, knowing that the suspect was caught, the case was solved, or that the case has left the viewer feeling more aware of what could happen. It’s the same fear/thrill and relief that drives some people to watch horror movies. Some viewers also join true crime communities where they feel a sense of camaraderie as they sleuth through the issues together, leading to feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment. Empowerment over seemingly hopeless situations is genuinely rewarding.

Effects of Constant Exposure


In psychology, desensitization refers to the decline in emotional response due to repeated exposure.[[5]] It makes sense that, just as research has found that playing violent video games causes desensitization to violence for some players, vulnerable kids and teens consuming gruesome details of true-life death, murder, and violent crime may be desensitized as well.[6] An example of kids already becoming desensitized to true crime is the viral TikTok of a live suicide that became embedded in other seemingly innocent videos.

While it may be interesting to learn about deviant behavior, constant exposure to this kind of content may also dull positive emotional responses like empathy and compassion. Research on desensitization has found that constant exposure to violence (even over a short period of time) may result in declines in empathy for victims.[7] This enables the true crime genre to become a source of entertainment, rather than a tribute to the victim and their families.

Cultivation Theory and Hypervigilance

Cultivation theory is a theory that suggests a relationship between media exposure/consumption and how it may alter one’s perception and behavior.[8] In the context of viewing true crime, constant exposure may lead someone to think that they are more susceptible to becoming a victim of a crime. There is a big connection between this theory and news outlets, as the news strives to cover deviant acts that plague the community like robberies, assaults, and police pursuits.

With laptops and cell phones readily available, this exposure is not limited to what the news is covering that day.
Teens and tweens can seek multiple sources for true crime content, which in turn, may increase susceptibility to hypervigilance in their day-to-day life. Hypervigilance is a state of constant alertness and fear, which causes someone to feel that they need to protect themselves from potential danger. Hypervigilance is commonly connected to generalized anxiety disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.

To keep our children safe, we must take the steps to be proactive, not reactive. It can be tricky to virtually monitor their screen time without jeopardizing your parent-child relationship, which is why GKIS founder Dr. Tracy Bennett designed a Social Media Readiness Course. Specifically for teens and tweens, this social media training teaches kids and their parents about digital injuries through modules and mastery quizzes. Kids are also equipped with Dr. Bennett’s psychological wellness techniques to protect them from bad outcomes like depression, anxiety, and self-harm (as seen by many adolescents since the rise in screen time in the past year).

Thanks to GKIS volunteer Kaylen Sanchez for contributing to this GKIS article.

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

Photo Credits

Photo by kat wilcox from Pexels

Photo by Firmbee.com on Unsplash

Photo by Martin Lopez from Pexels

Works Cited

[[1]] Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer. (2021, January 13). Retrieved fromhttps://www.netflix.com/title/81025701

[[2]] Bonn, S. (2016, May 30). The Delightful, Guilty Pleasure of Watching True Crime TV. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201605/the-delightful-guilty-pleasure-watching-true-crime-tv

[[3]] Griggs, R. A. (2014). Psychology: A concise introduction. Worth Publishers

[[4]] Ramsland, K. (2019, July 24). The Unique Allure of the Scene of a Crime. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shadow-boxing/201907/the-unique-allure-the-scene-crime

[[5]] Fanti, K. A., Vanman, E., Henrich, C. C., & Avraamides, M. N. (2009). Desensitization to media violence over a short period of time. Aggressive Behavior35(2), 179–187. https://doi-org.ezproxy.csuci.edu/10.1002/ab.20295

[[6]] Fanti, K. A., Vanman, E., Henrich, C. C., & Avraamides, M. N. (2009). Desensitization to media violence over a short period of time. Aggressive Behavior35(2), 179–187. https://doi-org.ezproxy.csuci.edu/10.1002/ab.20295

[[7]] Fanti, K. A., Vanman, E., Henrich, C. C., & Avraamides, M. N. (2009). Desensitization to media violence over a short period of time. Aggressive Behavior35(2), 179–187. https://doi-org.ezproxy.csuci.edu/10.1002/ab.20295

[[8]] Potter, W. J. (1993). Cultivation theory and research: A conceptual critique. Human Communication Research19(4), 564–601. https://doi-org.ezproxy.csuci.edu/10.1111/j.1468-2958.1993.tb00313.x

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