What You Watch Matters
The neurochemistry of content can reshape our lives.
Posted May 21, 2020
This is a guest blog by Michael Phillips Moskowitz. Michael is the CEO of AeBeZe Labs, a behavioral health company working in partnership with the U.S. Air Force. He previously served as the first entrepreneurship fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Global Chief Curator at eBay.
Restless. Lonely. Bored and blue. We all feel either warped or weary after weeks of quarantine and social distancing. What’s more worrisome is that the secondary shocks of COVID-19—alienation, unemployment, and broader uncertainty—might yet trigger the most severe mental health crisis on record. Researchers warn that the pandemic could inflict long-lasting emotional trauma on an unprecedented global scale. What comes next, in terms of how we will live, function, cope and connect, is not yet clear.
What is clear is that screens are now a constant in our lives as we turn to them for needed solace, relief, and distraction. Recent reports indicate that video game playing is already up 75 percent since the beginning of March, and content streaming has increased by 85 percent. Researchers estimate that Americans devour 12 hours and seven minutes of digital assets every day. On average. That’s more time than we devote to biological imperatives like eating, drinking, and sleeping—combined.
To protect and promote greater emotional resilience, we need far more structured approaches to (and awareness of) the impacts that the digital materials we consume have on us. Moods can slip or rise based on what we choose to watch or read. Taking stock is essential: Does this video make me uneasy, anxious, or sad? Does this film or television show make me feel joy? Hyper-selectivity when it comes to one’s time spent online is a critical first step on the path to better choices that serve the psyche. And that better serve society in turn.
It is our strong belief that content consumption shouldn’t be measured by volume or by frequency of exposure, but rather by the nature of the materials themselves. The contents of your content are paramount. What we choose to watch or listen to can actually make us less healthy, less resilient, and more vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and depression. A 2017 study published in Clinical Psychological Science surveyed around 500,000 adolescents in the U.S. and found increased rates of suicide and depression between 2010 and 2015 (more significantly in females). These increased rates were correlated with prolonged smartphone usage, time spent on social media, and other virtual content consumption. Mothers everywhere used to warn us that TV would rot our brain. Their admonitions, it turns out, had some merit.
Of course, not all content is toxic. Certain types of music, film, television, and digital media can deliver measurable psychological benefits. Many viewers wonder how High Maintenance manages to cast an intoxicating spell over audiences, making them feel eerily under the influence. Or when we watch segments of Planet Earth, why do certain sequences seem to nurse us into a state of semi-meditative calm? The answers lie in brain chemistry.
An ever-growing body of peer-reviewed literature demonstrates a correlation between certain types of digital materials and the release of specific mood-altering brain neurotransmitters. A 2019 study published by the University of Barcelona and New York University examines the impact of “curated” sounds on deep brain systems (like the striatum) that are responsible for regulating dopamine production. Similarly, we know that movie soundtracks and background music have been associated with the activation of these same reward pathways in the brain, as well as with our emotional response. (Ever watch a horror movie with the sound turned off? Not so scary anymore.) Pleasurable ‘skin tingling’ sensations that audio-video media on platforms such as YouTube and Instagram evoke have also been a hot topic in the world of neuroscience.
Does all of this mean that we should apply stricter limits to what we watch? Filter noise? Only tune into programs with a positive emotional rating, or that have a proven positive impact on our brains? This choice, we believe, is best left to consumers, but the ability to carefully and intelligently select nutritious digital materials—supported by research—is new, radically relevant, and, we believe, essential for audiences everywhere.
Cute puppy videos cannot be reasonably expected to cure clinical depression, but what they have been proven to do is trigger the release of oxytocin, the bonding and love molecule expressed during moments of real intimacy or physical caress. There are millions of terabytes of such content online—across every major platform—ready and available to self-administer like micrograms of medicine, with purposeful, positive dividends. What they need is proper labeling.
“Conscientious consumption” has already reshaped every corner of commercial life. Cereal boxes have clear and concise labels. Fast food restaurants display calories on their menus to aid decision-making. Labels also appear on vitamins, health supplements, medications sold over the counter, prescription drugs, and even mattresses. More recently, movie ratings on Netflix have evolved to include abbreviations that describe expected subject matter: N for nudity; AC for Adult Content; V for violence. It’s no longer farfetched to imagine, or demand, that all content come with an equally informative health label. Show us, tell us, what this will do to our mood.
If we apply the principles of careful measurement and mindful consumption, and extend them to the web, mobile apps, and streaming services, we can transform digital life and promote better health at scale. In order to have a significant impact on consumers’ well-being, what’s missing is a simple but robust framework: a digital nutrition table and labeling tool.
Entrepreneurs and educators throughout Silicon Valley, aided by clinicians at leading research universities, are working assiduously on a combination of digital literacy, digital hygiene, and digital nutrition. Short provisions of potent, therapeutic content can be tailored to improve specific mood-states. Some are starting to rely on a digital nutrition table, which deliberately resembles the Periodic Table of Elements. More work is required to make these tools commonly available, easily understandable, and applicable to every programmed moment of digital life in America.
This next period of our lives will require a tremendous amount of resilience. The right digital diet can help us meet these demands. Watch what you watch and see where it takes you. Self-awareness is a great way to take control of your health.