People fearful of terrorism or who have been victims of violence are more likely to watch videos posted online of beheadings, and negative mental health outcomes are routinely experienced by such viewers a couple years later, according to a recent UC Irvine study.
“Our study is the first to identify the motivations behind viewing a beheading video and the long-term consequences of doing so,” says senior author Roxane Cohen Silver, a UCI professor of Psychological Science. “Our findings suggest that when individuals are afraid of horrific acts of cruelty occurring in the world, they may be curious to seek out graphic coverage of these types of events. But this may only exacerbate their distress and anxiety over time, locking them into a spiral of fear.”
The study–which found that about one in five adults in a representative sample of Americans had watched at least part of such beheading videos posted online by the Islamic State group formerly known as ISIS–is covered in American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association.
Sarah Redmond, a Ph.D. student in Psychological Science, is the first author of the report, and Nickolas M. Jones, a former Psychological Science doctoral student, and E. Alison Holman, a UCI associate professor of Nursing, contributed to the study, whose data collection was supported by National Science Foundation grants to Holman and Silver.
“We found that those who watched a graphic beheading video experienced increased negative mental health outcomes approximately two years later and that individuals who view these images may be at risk for the same psychological and physical distress symptoms usually seen in those directly exposed to trauma,” Redmond says.
“The current media landscape offers easy access to images and videos of community traumas as they unfold with ever-increasing frequency,” Silver notes. “New forms of media seem to expose individuals to more graphic content than ever before.”
The ease of public access to such disturbing videos has long been debated in media circles. For instance, in 2014, The Atlantic‘s Simon Conttee compared beheading videos to gonzo pornography.  Brian M. Jenkins wrote that “terrorism is theater” in a 1974 Rand Institute paper, but he likely could not fathom the ease and speed in which images of it would one day be produced and distributed, as Conttee notes.
Silver cautions that given the mounting evidence of the negative psychological consequences associated with exposure to graphic imagery, it may be important for individuals to be made aware of the potential psychological risks of being exposed to violent content in the media.”