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Originally Titled: Digitally Engineered Disease: The Content of Discontent
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.