Demanding Better Digital Nutrition

A class of content that delivers healthier dividends

Posted Feb 22, 2019

by Chloe Barron
Source: by Chloe Barron

Guest blog by Michael Phillips Moskowitz and Nicco Mele with Carrie

"Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.”  Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, 1826

“You are what you eat.” Victor Lindlhar, 1942

If you think about it, you are what you delve into on your device.  This year Americans will consume about 12 hours of digital information daily. That’s more time than we spend dining or sleeping. From videos to apps like Twitter to television series—we ingest and are influenced by monumental amounts of media. 

How could we not be? Tech is the warp and weft of our lives and here to stay.  Our tech diet can determine the development of our minds, moods and even life direction. What we choose influences who we are and there are many, many choices.  But a sticky issue exists. What feels like a choice may not be an actual choice. 

Tech companies can present information in ways that promote their interests over our well-being.  Technical innovation took off before a governing body or ethical protocol regarding health was established.  While efforts to protect consumers and educate us are underway, for now, better awareness can help us curate what we consume.  The more we can streamline, minimize (abundance itself brings angst) select with insight and control the inflow, the greater our chance for digital nutrition.  An ever-increasing surfeit of online options presents health challenges and opportunities for individuals, communities, organizations, and families. Insight into where we are now begotten curiosity and positive change.

Let’s start with current stats. Right now, one in five Americans meets the criteria for a mental health condition.  Many suffer from mild to moderate anxiety and other forms of stress and distress. Depression diagnoses are on the rise.  More work is required to understand the complex relationship between media diets, moods, and malaise. It is not just about the content. Information overload can be deflating in and of itself because energy is wasted on management and distillation, minutia instead of meaning, breadth instead of depth. While there is something to be said for a moment of warmth with a former friend, a funny meme, a lighthearted image or a grab-fast fact, research shows that we humans need substantive, lasting connections.  We thrive on sustained and engrossing engagement with people, with projects and with our inner lives. Meaning, purpose, and self-awareness, overall and in the moment have much to do with well-being.  With resilience. Some online communities, opportunities, and apps provide these psychological and spiritual nutrients, for sure.  They streamline for us and help us find what we need. Others may distract us from addressing true needs or keep us in a superficial space that just doesn’t take us where we need to go for just a little too long.   

Health apps can be very helpful and not all apps are created equal. Products like Instagram and Calm, for example, aren’t identical. Whether an app is designed for fleeting entertainment, deeper connection, visual communication or overall health it shouldn’t be bucketed as “bad,” or inadequate just because it is a digital product. Studies suggest that certain digital tools and assets have the potential to enhance health in significant ways. Many people feel safer, better and freer with apps or online services because they can be anonymous. While some people crave an enface interchange, others find that intrusive. An app or online community can provide support for liberating self-awareness, a bolstered inner life or a human connection that is invaluable while protecting a personal need for a little bit of distance. Access is also a crucial issue. A well-designed digital offering can be life-saving in a crucial moment when one has limited mobility. Used regularly, an online product can build good self-care habits and inner ballast.  

Where are we going with this? A three-pronged approach to all digital encounters: literacy, hygiene, and labeling empower us. Our call is to re-shape our still primitive and often unruly digital culture into a safer, healthier, more rewarding domain. We cover this in greater depth in our Harvard Business Review article.  

Literacy/Awareness: A basic understanding of the impact of different types of content, their impacts on the brain; and their pros and cons with regard to emotional well-being is called for.  Knowing how to achieve digital nutrition, much like actual nutrition’s famous food pyramid is a form of self-efficacy. People need to know not just what content is, but what content does. (The list of strange substances on the back of a bottle can be daunting, unrecognizable and time-consuming to look up.) Can we make the pros and cons of digital content clear from the get-go?   Recent advances in neuroscience and psychology have increased our understanding of how neurotransmitters like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and GABA, strongly correlated with specific feelings, can be triggered by specific types of digital material.

Health: Knowing when to use, and when to resist, digital content to protect sleep, enhance interpersonal relationships, combat loneliness, and enhance self-care skills like breathing, or mindfulness or cognitive shifts could make a significant difference for individual’s everyday health.  Control over screen time rather than eliminating screen time altogether may be a more realistic and empowering goal. “Abstention” may be ideal, but compulsions are strong, companies are powerful and tech dependency in our everyday lives is just a reality.  We can’t “Just say no” but we can demand that we have a say.

Transparency: If we can understand what’s actually in our digital diet and what it does to us, we can make better health decisions. There’s plenty of reason to believe in the promise of proper labeling, based on prior success in similar categories—from food labeling to TV ratings. Ratings, standards, and labels emerge slowly. In addition, even if we know what ‘s in the product we, may not be fully cognizant of what is inside of us. Sometimes we don’t know who we are and what we really want. We can be easily seduced. What is best for us, may not be the most appealing.  (Self-awareness – knowing and accepting what you love and do not love, what is good for your growth and what is not and how much discomfort  you desire  to get where you want to go is a great tool)  And so far, since tech companies have proven dispiritingly unwilling to do what’s best for people we have a situation that can lead to health challenges. And opportunities. 

A few tech companies are making changes in the interest of human health. Apple is introducing screen tracking tools, to monitor personal use. Google has introduced Filters, and a new Downtime tool to schedule breaks from connected devices. Both are positive steps. So far, Facebook and Twitter have taken minimal measures to address toxic content. There is a broad consensus from decision makers in tech, entertainment, policy, and academics that it’s time for a transparent labeling system. Although the conversation is still in its earliest stages, an initiative to start categorizing various types of digital material is underway. 

We believe that psychological and emotional well-being will be more possible via greater digital literacy, awareness, improved labeling and transparency. History shows that strong cultures evolve through citizens demanding better outcomes for themselves, their children, their peers, parents, spouses, and loved ones.  A healthy entitlement. We are what we consume, so let’s get our digital nutrition right. 

Michael Phillips Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Moodrise and AeBeZe Labs, served previously as the first entrepreneurship fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Nicco Mele is the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and author of the book The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath. His career spans politics, media, and marketing as an entrepreneur, executive, angel investor, and consultant. Nicco tweets at @nicco.