Why The “Balanced (Social) Media Diet” Analogy Is Flawed
How often do we hear the analogy of following a healthy media diet? We talk about how a media diet should be balanced, just like a balanced food diet with lots of vegetables, nuts and fruits and healthy fats and little sugar and meat.
I think that this analogy is not working well for us and, in fact, is harming the idea of digital well-being.
Why? Because here in America, most people do not have balanced diet, nor are they healthy.
According to the CDC 72% of American adults above the age of 20 are overweight, including those that are obese, which are almost 40%. That means that basically three quarters of the American population do NOT follow a balanced diet and therefore have a very skewed understanding of what a balanced diet even looks like.
Additionally, food is not only a source of nutrition anymore, but it is used for emotion regulation. Emotional eating. 25% of the American population rates their stress levels as 8 or more on a 10 point scale according to the Amercian psychology Association, and stress has been related to overeating.
Mindful eating has certainly become a rare sight in today’s media saturated environment. And how could it be with the stress levels people have to deal with, and the misinformation about food and various diets out there that a pushed by people with political agendas.
So I wonder: How can we expect those same people to have a balanced media diet?
That is, many people fall for the addictive nature of social media and certain apps, and are unaware of the detriments of social media overuse such as self-esteem issues, body image problems, loneliness and depressive symptoms (Meier, Domahidi, & Gunther, 2018). This applies particularly to people who already struggle with mental health issues. So they insta away without knowing the consequences from their consumption.
One in five Americans suffers from a mental illness according to 2016 statistics by the NIH. This applies also particularly to the millennial generation (18-25 year olds) which actually has an even higher prevalence of mental illness then adults that are 26 and older.
Knowing these numbers, how can we expect the millennial generation to gain any benefits from using social media when the consciousness with which they use it, is already problematic?
No wonder, research finds that the most positive effects of social media, including things like social capital and social support, hold true mostly for older adults (Meier et al., 2018).
The prefrontal cortex of young adults under the age of 25 is still developing and with that their ability to control their impulses and regulate their emotions. These, however, are the very things that social media high-jack: quick dopamine releases that get us hooked and used to an impulsive pattern of checking our phone more than 80 times a day. https://nypost.com/2017/11/08/americans-check-their-phones-80-times-a-day-study/
Social media is certainly made in a way that makes us easily addictive and provide ample opportunities to be used in detrimental ways.
But it also has the power to build real social support, connection, information sharing and sources for inspiration.
Research has shown that participation in a support group online can lead to decreased depression, increased quality of life and self-efficacy to manage one’s health condition (Rains, & Young, 2009). Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in fact have a help center where users can report their concerns about another online friend who then provide online resources and phone numbers of suicide hotlines around the world. Instagram has a tool that helps users to flag posts of other users who whose content or searchers contains information about self-harm or suicide. The user then gets a message from Instagram with encouragements to speak to a friend or seek professional help with local helpline numbers provided. That just is to say that social media companies are aware of the mental health crisis we are facing
It is important to know that a lot of the research out there and reported by the press is still correlational. Only few studies provide any real “causal” data and there are many factors that play a role when it comes to how social media impacts us, for example the context in which it is used, the way it is used, the content that is consumed, who consumes it (mental health), when, and for how long.
Certainly, just taking a “balanced social media diet” approach is not the solution. A balanced approach would mean that the user has a healthy mindset to begin with. If people lead a balanced life in general, their social media use can be more easily be balanced as well, once we are aware of the addictive power of the tools.
Interestingly, for people with a healthy mindset social media indeed seems not to have any negative effects. A study just published last month in the Journal of Happiness studies found that positive mental health was negatively related to problematic internet use and problematic Facebook use. This means that positive mental health is a protector against negative effects of internet use and facebook use in particular.
Social media or digital technologies in general, are amplifiers. When FB first came out its goal was to help people to connect more easily. People, however, were already connected.
When Instagram came about it helped people to focus on the beautiful moments they experience and amplify it by capturing it and making it even nicer with filters. The beautiful moment was already experienced even before Instagram.
But, of course, when people approach these tools with a mindset of low self-worth, anxiety and loneliness, these tools then amplify these states of lack. Research clearly suggests that self-esteem, loneliness and anxiety are predictors rather then effects of social media (Liu et al., 2016; Prizant-Passal et al., 2016; Song et al., 2014).
A balanced diet is a great one, if the person is healthy to begin with. When I am not in need of any medication, I don’t have any sleep issues, bathroom issues or other digestive issues, have a healthy weight, and eat to fuel my body more so than for sense gratification then sure, the ice cream here and there is not harming my health.
Similarly, a balanced social media diet only works if I am emotionally, cognitively and physically balanced and use the tools to amplify my experiences. But if we use it for emotion management, a quick fix, to derive some fleeting pleasure via dopamine release, just as emotional eating does, nothing good comes out of it.
In addition to demanding changes from the technology companies to create tools that certainly don’t exploit our human nature, just as so many food companies exploit our bodies by putting sugar in everything, we also need to continue working on building healthy minds of our American people.
Instead of talking about a balanced media diet, let’s change the discussion to regard media as a tool for a balanced life.
Meier, A., Domahidi, E., & Günther, E. (accepted). Computer-mediated communication and mental health: A computational scoping review of an interdisciplinary field. To appear in S. Yates & R. E. Rice (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Digital Technology and Society. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.