During our first five years as newlyweds, my husband, Tom, and I watched every episode of The X-Files. I was convinced that demented serial killers worked the late shift everywhere that my small town of 7,000 could possibly employ them.
Granted, as a pastor’s kid I had grown up without television, so my imagination was maybe making up for lost time. Or maybe I’m just uniquely susceptible to calculated suspense. But even the smallest clunk from our ancient apartment building meant, in my hyper-vigilance, that the socially awkward single guy down the hall probably was installing some kind of spy camera behind our bathroom mirror. Or that something mutant and drooling stalked us in the ductwork, biding its diabolical time.
It took months after the final X-Files episode before the buzz of fight-or-flight adrenaline wore off. But when it did, I was genuinely surprised at how kind and warm and helpful most people seemed to have become. And was there way more daylight and sunshine that year—or was it me?
It was me. I had succumbed to what one researcher called “mean world syndrome.” As Scott Bader-Saye describes in his book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, research on television violence has found “not so much a direct link between TV violence and real-world violence as a link between TV violence and exaggerated fearfulness.” In fact, “people who watch a lot of TV are more likely than others to believe that their neighborhoods are unsafe, to assume that crime rates are rising, and to overestimate their own odds of being a victim.” Evangelicals, presumably, included.
Though I had grown up without television, regular screen time during that season of my young adult life had convinced ...1
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