Media Nutrition

Hi. My name is Robin. I have a kid. The kid was born about 6 months after the first iPad was launched and he will never know a world without responsive touch screens (worldwide apocalypse, notwithstanding). This made me wonder what else will become a basic expectation of his generation. The one thing that I am confident about is that there will be a never-ending stream of information and entertainment always on-tap, ready to be consumed and this constant flow will try to command his attention in an increasing numbers of ways.

That’s fine. That’s progress/technology/the world we live in. I don’t particularly want to get into the “technology and media are wonderful and connect us” versus “technology and media are awful and disconnect us” debate, because it’s been going on for centuries and isn’t going to come to a conclusion any time soon. Instead I want to discuss how we navigate the world we live in, with all its flashing lights, update alerts and assorted shiny things. I see it as my job to give the kid the analytical tools to think through the new things he encounters so he can make a reasoned assessment of the positives and negatives.

A bit of background:

A little over five years ago I moved from New York to London. One of the things that caught me by surprise was how difficult it is to buy laundry detergent when you have no previous exposure to any of the brands. Laundry detergent really does represent the pinnacle of marketing and advertising because there is almost no discernable difference between one product and another. And the packaging is surprisingly unhelpful. This made me realize how much my shopping habits and expectations were actually influenced by the advertising I had seen throughout my life. This gave me a bit of a jolt because I worked in media and thought of myself as someone who had seen behind the curtain and could tune it all out. A few years later I started thinking about food in this same way. Instead of “why am I buying the thing I’m buying?” I started asking myself “why am I eating the things I’m eating?” I challenged myself to answer two questions whenever I had a craving for something in particular (generally junk food): “Why do you want this?” and “How will you feel 30 minutes later?” It took a while but eventually the answers kept coming back “Because it’s a treat and I’m bored/need a break” and “Crappy”. The “treat” craving never goes away but I found I was able to satisfy it with a more nutritious option once I was honest with myself about the underlying motivation. I went through this same process with alcohol when I got pregnant. A significant part of my social life happens in bars and pubs and it’s really boring sitting around drinking water. So I used the same questions and realized it wasn’t the alcohol I was missing but the “something different than what I can get at home” feeling. So I substituted something non-alcoholic I couldn’t get if I was just sitting at home, like a cranberry and soda. Not very exotic, I know, but it fit the bill. These experiences made me realize how much of our day to day lives are made up of a series of habits that we don’t really think twice about. Later on the New York Times confirmed this with, you know, actual research and real world examples.

This process also works for how we engage with the technology and media in our lives. There was a while when I felt a certain amount of angst if I missed any updates on Twitter. I follow a moderate number of people who tweet a lot, so I was spending roughly 3 hours a day just keeping up. When I was at home with a newborn Twitter helped me feel connected and there were so many interesting and inspiring things I found there. Eventually those 3 hours I could devote to sitting still, staring at my iPhone evaporated. After trying to keep up with my Twitter feed at the expense of sleep, I eventually let go. Now I dip in and out of Twitter, mostly in the background while I’m at work. The world still revolves around its axis and, just like before Twitter, there are interesting things going on that I don’t know about.

This is what media nutrition is all about: the process of questioning the underlying motivation and what our expectations are of the end result. Actively fighting against TV, video games, and various connected hand held devices is a losing battle. I think cutting these out undermines natural curiosity and desire to learn about new things. Plus, there is lots of evidence that you can learn important skills, like pattern recognition, multi-tasking and attention to detail through engagement with these mediums. But like food nutrition, media nutrition is about not overindulging and trying to maintain a balance across a variety of categories. No one diet suits everyone and people make their decisions based on the information they have. The purpose of this blog is to talk about the information around technology and media consumption and use it to make more informed decisions.

A few notes on format:

My goal is to post an update on the first of every month. As I’ve already mentioned, I am a mom and I work so that’s about as much as I feel comfortable committing to. I want to hear what you think but also keep my own sanity, so all comments will be approved before they are posted publicly. Finally, I’ve read some interesting articles on how links within articles have a negative impact on comprehension. With this in mind I’m going to experiment with having a set of relevant links at the end of each post for further reading.

Further Reading:

The New York Times “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” “Yes, the Internet is rotting your brain and Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows” has the evidence to prove it”