A Not-So-Hidden Health Threat
There is an already pervasive and rapidly expanding force of disease that no doubt affects you on a daily basis. It is a potentially harmful force that many people, quite frankly, cannot resist and may actively seek exposure to like an unknowing addict. I am talking about electronic media which includes the news media, television, social media, email, and the internet in general. Many will, of course, immediately argue that electronic media is not all harmful and point to its many efficiently informative and individually empowering aspects.
While this is most certainly true, discussions regarding the benefits of electronic media are highly prevalent. Most individuals need little persuasion to agree that this tantalizing technology is generally positive or even some type of utopian catalyst. In contrast, I believe the harmful power of this technology is severely overlooked or denied, leading to a dangerously positive and careless attitude toward its use. The negative impacts of electronic media are extremely broad (just as broad as its positive impacts), including significant environmental, social, political, and economic effects. To keep this essay brief, however, I’ll focus mainly on individual health effects.
Who Controls You?
Before you decide that you, unlike many others, have this issue under control and move on to consume electronic media without further concern, let me tell you that you are NOT in control. Nothing less than your personal freedom is at stake here, and you might be surprised just how much that freedom has been eroded without your awareness. I’m drawing from the field of affect theory here, a cultural studies concept that examines how individuals and populations are “affected” by various social and cultural forces to behave, believe, and consume in specific ways. Many researchers and authors have written extensively on this subject yet I’ll keep my discussion here brief. For those wishing to examine the concept in more detail, the “Affect Theory Reader” is a good start for a more academic discussion.
The concept is well developed, allowing industry, government, marketers, and the news media to make constant and effective use of manipulative psychological techniques intended to affect your behavior, thoughts, and material consumption. We commonly call this marketing, but before it was called marketing, it was called the “engineering of consent.” Marketing is much more than simply informing the public. It is achieving uniformed, irrational, and emotional consent. You might be surprised to learn that many modern marketing techniques were largely pioneered by Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who drew upon Freudian psychological theory (among other systems) to manipulate the masses.
Bernays defined the engineering of consent as the art of manipulating people, who he claims are fundamentally irrational, emotional, and not under their own conscious control. The most simple of these techniques involve concealing manipulative marketing content as informational “news” and engineering deceptive inferences and associations between commodities with aversive or harmful qualities to unrelated appealing and positive qualities. The four hour BBC documentary entitled “The Century of the Self” examines the emergence of such manipulative approaches in the U.S. and worldwide.
Suffice it to say, they were highly effective and Bernays is thought by many to have been one of the most powerful and influential individuals in shaping modern American consumerism, corporate lifestyle manipulation, and even a new definition of democracy. To quote Bernays, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”
The potency of Bernays techniques have since been refined, expanded, and relentlessly administered worldwide. Now the “engineering of consent” is not only prevalent in “news” but can be found just about everywhere, propagating itself in social discourse, opinions, and gossip and often seeping into science as well. Electronic media is perhaps the ground zero of this manipulative assault on an individual’s freedom of choice due to its unmatched potential for viral-like propagation. Every minute of news, commercials, online ads, editorials, campaign speeches, and selective scientific reporting is laced with affect and quietly working on your perception of the world, below the level of your awareness.
It then spreads out, amplifies, and loops back through social media networks. The explicit content may seem informational while the implicit content successfully manipulates our emotional, irrational, and subconscious impulses. No matter how willfully independent and stubborn we may be, we are affected. The exposure is all that is needed. Decisions are made for us, only to be rationally defended after the fact (for interesting examples, see the book “Subliminal”).
Affective manipulation works like a toxicant. If we wish to preserve our individual freedom of choice, the freedom of consent, the freedom to live a healthy life, we must work to avoid toxic media. Our control may end with the remote control. Our power may be limited to the power switch. It may be impossible to avoid completely, as it is now entirely ubiquitous and clearly expands well beyond electronic media, but every effort to do so is an effort to preserve personal freedom.
Try An Electronic Media Fast
Aside from impacting our health by manipulating our behavior and deeply affecting our lifestyles, electronic media has more direct health effects as well. Effect number one is stress. Stress, anxiety, and worry are useful in manipulating consent and so the news media attempts to manufacture these feelings whenever possible, to keep their viewers glued to their show and its advertisements. The electronic media contributes heavily to stress; less intentionally, however, by simply connecting us to stressful events around the world. There are always terrible events happening around the world, even when our local experience of that world may be quite peaceful and pleasant.
Constantly being connected to atrocious events around the world is to constantly be affected by those events, to experience those events in some way, and to feel the stress of those events to some degree. Women appear to be more sensitive to negative news reports than men, with one study showing elevations in the stress hormone cortisol in women after reading negative news reports about events that did not directly affect them. News reports about events that have more directly concerned an individual can be even more stressful, causing one to essentially re-experience the event. Studies done after the September 11 terrorist attacks showed that those U.S. citizens who watched more news coverage of the attacks were more likely to develop post traumatic stress disorder than those who did not watch as much news coverage. Similarly, children whose family watched more September 11 news coverage showed more signs of distress.
I believe it is generally good to be aware of important worldly events, but we have to consider dosage and chronicity. Is there a threshold at which this awareness produces no extra benefit and becomes mostly harmful? The answer is probably “yes.” Dr. Andrew Weil of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine recommends people periodically take a “news fast.” He says: “Perceiving the world as violent, unsafe and hostile can have negative effects on your body… By taking a news fast, you can develop a more conscious relationship with the media – and promote greater mental calm within yourself. When you spend more time in harmonious mental states, your body will function better, and anxiety and over-stimulation may be minimized. ”
Even seemingly positive or neutral electronic media content, however, seems to create novel stress in our lives. In a survey conducted by the advertising agency, JWT Singapore, over 50% of 19-26 year olds felt stressed by their social media commitments. They felt that social media expectations like responding to posts by friends or “liking” friend’s activities on Facebook had become time-consuming chores which had negative impacts on their work, school, family, or social life. Dr. Larry Rosen, PhD recites research demonstrating that Facebook use is associated with narcissism and anti-social behavior in teens and young adults.
In his book “iDisorder”, he argues that electronic media may contribute to or exacerbate a number of psychological disorders. Other researchers have even proposed a disorder called “Facebook Addiction Disorder.” One study suggests that Facebook may be more addicting than cigarettes or sex. Another recent study published proposed diagnostic criteria for “Facebook Addiction Disorder”. Furthermore, a recent Italian study revealed that 5% of students may be addicted more generally to the internet. Addictions, by definition, significantly impact one’s ability to lead a balanced and healthy life and, so, the relatively high prevalence of Facebook and internet addiction should be deeply concerning.
Entertainment (non news or social network) media exposure may also have significant effects on individual behavior and relationships. A 2006 workshop on the effect of media on children and young adults concluded that exposure to violent entertainment media increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior, including physical assault and spousal abuse, and reduces the likelihood of “helping” behaviors. These conclusions were supported by another study which found that reducing all forms of electronic media use in youths resulted in a reduction in aggressive behavior.
Extending the concept of a “news fast” to all electronic media offers an interesting self-experiment. How might you feel if you went a day, a week, or a month without Facebook or the news? Can you go a day without your smart phone? What feelings arise from doing so? Might you be a bit more addicted to electronic media than you thought? Might you treat others differently (perhaps more kindly) during an electronic media fast?
I suspect many people will at first feel anxious and even fearful as they embark on an electronic media fast, but then find the experience liberating overall. Many might find themselves using the time that was once committed to electronic media to enjoy more healthy activities like exercise, getting outdoors, talking with family, preparing healthy meals, or sleeping. Furthermore, one will quickly realize that our good old’ non-digital society still works in keeping us up to date by word of mouth with truly important news.
Television: tuning in the future of digital disease
Many of the harmful health effects we might expect from emerging electronic media technologies have been foreshadowed for decades in studies done specifically on television viewing. Medical science and epidemiology lag behind technological advances for the sole reason that it takes time to study time-dependent effects. Since television has been widely available and widely consumed for decades and the interface is very similar that of computers, tablets, and smart phones, it is reasonable to extrapolate outcomes from television studies to electronic media in general.
As we review the results of several studies, keep in mind that these studies control for activity and exercise. That means that, while television viewing can certainly take time away from exercise, the results of these studies indicate the additional risk of television viewing beyond its impact on exercise!
Television watching has been associated with an increased risk of death from heart disease, cancer, and all-causes. A 2010 Australian study showed that, for every hour of television viewing, the risk of death from heart disease, cancer, and any cause increases 18%, 9%, and 11% respectively. The study showed that overall risk of death rose 46% for greater than 4 hours of television viewing per day. A 2011 study published in JAMA demonstrated similar risks for heart disease and all-cause deaths, but also showed that 2 hours of television viewing per day increased the risk of type II diabetes by 20%.
Research on the effects of television viewing on children is even more concerning. Though children may be more sensitive to the effects of television and electronic media due to the intensity of their ongoing development, we need to remember that development (as in neuroplasticity) never ends and continues on across the lifespan. It is reasonable to expect that the results of these studies may apply to adults to some degree as well.
Television use has been proposed as a major factor in the escalating worldwide childhood obesity epidemic and interventions to reduce childhood television viewing have been proposed as an important component of childhood obesity prevention.
In regard to sleep issues, a 1999 review article described the associations between television viewing and bedtime resistance, delayed onset of sleep, anxiety about falling asleep, and shorter sleep duration.
Numerous studies have shown that television viewing (as little as 1 hour per day) is associated with the development of impaired attention and learning difficulties in children and young adults,,.
It should not be surprising that subjecting a young child to hours of novel two dimensional photic stimulation might produce the unwanted and unexpected developmental outcomes described above, yet more acute disorders may present as well. For example, a Japanese cartoon called “Pocket Monsters” actually caused several children to have seizures.
For the reasons above, the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages television viewing by children under the age of 2. Yet, to believe that the adverse effects of television viewing subside after the age of 2 would be foolish. Clearly, the evidence presented in this discussion of health and electronic media suggests that television and electronic media use continue to threaten health across the lifespan.
Dodging Digital Disease
So are we digitally doomed to disease? How can we avoid or mitigate these adverse health effects in the electronic media age? The answer could be as simple as electronically disconnecting. To turn off the technologies that lull us into digital complacency and media addiction is to liberate oneself from pervasive powers of disease promoting coercion. Yet, this is largely impractical. Electronic media has become the new infrastructure of society and commerce. I believe that by developing an awareness of the potential harms of electronic media along with an awareness of how much one actually uses electronic media, answers may begin to present themselves. Electronic media fasts, self-imposed rules of use, specific goal-driven use, simplifying available technologies for efficient use, and the prioritization of health generating activities can all reduce electronic media overuse and addiction. Dialing in a more appropriate dosage of this tantalizing technology will help one reclaim the individual freedom and power that is necessary to achieve optimal health in the modern age.
-  Andreassen CS, Torsheim T, Brunborg GS, Pallesen S. Development of a Facebook Addiction Scale. Psychol Rep. 2012;110(2):501-17.
- Robinson TN. Reducing children’s television viewing to prevent obesity: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 1999 Oct 27;282(16):1561-7.