Screen images as neighbors

Sept. 7, 1927, is the date of the first electronic video image. Since then the electronic screen has evolved into the hottest commodity in Western culture. From the inaugural television programming (1948) to computers, digital cameras, smart phones and 3-D TVs, this phenomenon is what I and others call "screen culture." If you're reading this sentence then you too participate in screen culture. What you may not know, however, is that screen images subtly affect the way you see other human beings.

One Stanford professor believes that the quantity of time we spend with screens (rather than face-to-face) is affecting our ability to connect with one another. While I agree, I am more concerned here with the direct effect that certain screen images have on us; namely, images of other human beings.

What happens when we see hundreds of virtual screen people every day? I believe that we learn the habit of seeing other human beings as objects instead of subjects. Put another way, screen images decrease empathy.

Studies estimate that viewers in the United States see as many as 5,000 ads per day. In ads, the imaged person is so often tied to the marketed product that s/he becomes mingled with the product, a mere extension of the object. In addition to ads, Americans spend hours viewing virtual humans through various screen mediums (TV, movies, video games, etc.). There can be little doubt that seeing so many screen versions of humanity affects the way we see humanity off the screen. I find it hard to believe that anyone could spend hours playing "Call of Duty" (i.e. pretending to kill human beings) and not be influenced to view human life as expendable. I also find it hard to believe that anyone could spend hours gazing at porn and not be influenced to see others as objects for pleasure. I mention these examples because the images that flood our screens are increasingly violent and sexual.

Objectification is certainly not a new trend for humankind. Ever since Descartes we have tended to view the world outside of ourselves as an object to be controlled and exploited for our own benefit. The proliferation of screens only furthers this trend.

As a devoted Christian and avid participant in screen culture, I too struggle with the propensity to objectify other human beings both on and off screen. But over time I have found that prayer offers a mysteriously effective means to overcome this habit. When I pray for the other human being, whether imaged or in person, it is extremely difficult to see them as an object. When I pray for another, I no longer view them as an object, but rather as a subject. I see them as a sister or brother and as a beloved child of God. Prayer can literally change the way we relate to others.

Jesus challenges the objectification of any human being by naming them “neighbor.” This term is too intimate to permit objectification. In an age of virtual human beings, praying for others can rescue us from this habit of screen culture. May we learn the habit of seeing not objects, but neighbors.

(Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.)

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I appreciate the thoughts here, and might even agree to an extent (especially as pertains to video games) but I think experience tells me something different as a general rule.  To me, the multitude of faces I encounter through media, become more human, not less.  Now, instead of the nameless “starving in China” or “dying in Uganda” or “rioting in Egypt”, etc.  I see faces.  I see people—not nameless, faceless shadows of people who do not and cannot touch my life.  I find it easier to put myself in their shoes, feel their pain, and care about what happens to them.  I find it easier to pray….

Thank you for putting into words exactly why I’m uncomfortable with how much time I (and others) spend on the internet, watching TV, etc. It’s not that we’ve lost the ability to have conversations, it’s that it’s become easier to see real people as just another image to consume.


Thank you for an interesting post. I wonder, though, how to relate your thoughts to humankind’s long history of creating representative objects (cf.… well before Descartes—-some of those being quite overtly objectifying or celebrating violence and aggression. Is fidelity of representation somehow important? Is a verisimilar object icon better or worse than one that is clearly a human artifact? Was the ubiquitous “bang, bang, you’re dead” imaginary gun play of fifty years ago categorically different than a computer-generated animated image of the same? I’m more inclined to see all of it as a manifestation of a basic human (sinful) impulse rather than different in kind. Even so, I think your perspective applies: people are ends not means and their representations are special precisely because of peoples’ special nature. That’s why icons are both powerful and dangerous.


Thanks for the response and questions, Jason. You raise an insightful question as to the “potency” of an icon/image depending on its ability to re-present the original.  Though there is no right answer, my opinion is that the closer the icon/image is to the original the more powerfully it can manipulate.  Therefore, I would argue that screen images today are more powerful than the “bang, bang, you’re dead” imagery of silent films 50 years back.  I would think that the more “real” an image seems to us, the more inclined our brain’s mirror-neurons are to respond.

I agree with you KJML. Seeing the actual people affected by disasters has personalized their plight to me and perhaps increased empathy. However, I get the sense that Joshua is talking about fictional avatars, video games, entertainment, TV, Movies and commercials. Apparently I am in the minority in my discomfort with video games (see the Skyrim blog) so it is reassuring to hear Joshua saying “I find it hard to believe that anyone could spend hours playing “Call of Duty” (i.e. pretending to kill human beings) and not be influenced to view human life as expendable. I also find it hard to believe that anyone could spend hours gazing at porn and not be influenced to see others as objects for pleasure. I mention these examples because the images that flood our screens are increasingly violent and sexual.”
How far removed is saying “I am only practicing, rehearsing or playing violence and sorcery” from the grim reality. Especially when it is hyper-realistic and sensory rich. I would like to see more studies of the impact of dehumanizing video entertainment on empathy.


Thanks. I was actually thinking more of children of the 50s and 60s playing with toy guns; there the mind imagines based on cap guns and felt cowboy hats, and there I wonder if the effect should be the same or perhaps even greater than viewing or video-game play.

The “presence” and VR literature (e.g., Mel Slater and also folks at UCSD) suggests that realistic neural and physical response depends less of perfect representational accuracy and more on task-specific fidelity and other related factors. Play-acting gets those factors right.

Now, when we’re not actually acting (as in a video game or in real-life play acting) but viewing, as in a movie, the mirror-neuron issue is more at play, and I’m not familiar enough with that literature to know how fidelity matters.

I wonder, though, about the ability of early man to worship such primitive icons. OT prophets always seem to almost mock the idols’ lack of realism, but the people were little deterred in their worship.

Something else is in play here, something about icons and images that is very core to humanity, though I’m not sure quite what.


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