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Enjoy your viewing ...

There's a lot of hype right now about the Netflix series "13 Reasons Why." Should you watch it, shouldn't you, what's right with it, what's wrong with it... Lots of people from all walks are weighing in from all angles.

I'm not going to. I don't think I'll watch it either, but I could change my mind on that. What I do want to weigh in on is a theme as old as tv - viewer discretion advised.

What grabbed my attention was back to back news stories last night, a warning comment on "13 reasons" and the story caught on camera of a pregnant woman robbed and run over in a bank parking lot. (She's injured but ok, and her baby is fine.) The reporter began the bank story with the warning that the video was graphic and disturbing. My first thought was, "Well then, why are you showing it?" Then, after the (third) play, I realized that the warning had actually made me pay more attention to a very fuzzy camera image trying to figure out what was happening, looking harder for the disturbing part. Yep, they got me. I was encouraged to be disturbed and outraged (as I should be at such a happening), but then left sitting in these feelings with no practical outlet. It didn't even happen in the local area.

Television (and all it's successors) is designed to elicit an emotional response via images while sharing information. And it does that very well, even when we think it doesn't. (Think about the cute Charmin bears, or the latest viral video--why did it go viral?) This isn't so much a critique of the medium. There are all sorts of critiques already out there: a very good one (written in 1985 but perhaps even more valid now) is Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neal Postman. What I want to point out this morning is one reason why viewer discretion, or at least viewer thought and processing, should be advised.

Our brains are designed with a wonderful safety feature. The emotional pathways, those that take in sensory information and process it through the amygdala, are ever so slightly faster than the logic pathways, those that run to the cortex. And in humans visual stimuli tend to be processed slightly faster than auditory stimuli. Sometimes that emotional information triggers the fight or flight side of our nervous system, which can and usually does short circuit the logic processing. What that means in practical terms is that, if I see something threatening like a tiger, I'm going to feel a fear response and start to run before I can rationally decide whether or not to run. So our brains prioritize emotional responses and want us to act on them.

That's fine most of the time. But when we watch emotionally laden news stories, videos, or shows we need to exercise extra effort to notice the emotional responses and urge to action and intentionally run all of it through some logical processing. And adults need to help children notice the difference and learn how to process and critique.

Our thoughts add meaning and depth to the emotional information; processing the emotional and thought content of images and videos together can increase intimacy and connection with others. So enjoy your viewing. Discretion advised.

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