If you're reading this, you're at risk.
You, along with probably 90 percent of the American population older than 6 months, are susceptible to a variety of sneaky maladies associated with the Media Age: information overload, couch potato-obesity, social isolation, stressful multitasking and leisure time deficits. The "vast wasteland" is wasting us, as promised.
I recently learned there is a young, interdisciplinary academic field devoted to protecting us from media toxicity. It's called media ecology. In fact, I discovered that I have been a practicing media environmentalist for quite a while without even knowing it. I'm an E-Green and proud of it.
The idea of media ecology, I know, sounds like something Marshall McLuhan groupies argue about over tall skim chai lattes with Foucault followers — the winner gets a Derrida decoder ring. And it does have some navel-gazing heritage and aspects. "Media ecology looks into the matter of how media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling and value, and how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances of survival," wrote Neil Postman, one of the trade's founders, in 1970.
In the drone of everyday life, media ecology is unwittingly practiced by parents who tear their children away from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City on PlayStation. It is preached by priests, rabbis and ministers who warn about the materialism, prurience and violence that laces so much pop culture. It is one form of pollution that liberals (see Thomas de Zengotita's Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It) and conservatives (see Rod Dreher's Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots), seculars and believers dislike, though they describe their enmity with different vocabularies.
Unfortunately, not very many people listen to us nutty homespun ecologists of the media environment. Put another way, people don't turn their media machines off enough.
Evidence of this came in dramatic and clinical form this week. A comprehensive report on 30 years of research into the effect of media on children found overwhelming evidence that increased media exposure correlates with unhealthy things — obesity, tobacco use, sexual behavior and low academic performance. In other words, it affirmed common sense and simple observation.
The report by doctors at Yale University and the National Institutes of Health in conjunction with a nonprofit organization called Common Sense Media worked this way: Researchers evaluated 30,000 quantitative studies of issues related to children and media, then selected 173 that met established quality standards to use as the database. Overall, 80 percent of the 173 studies found that greater media exposure was associated with negative health outcomes for children and teens.
Of the studies that looked at the relation of specific content (sex in movies) to health risks (early sex, unsafe sex), 93 percent found associations. Interestingly, 75 percent of the studies that looked only at the quantity of media consumed (TV, music, video games and the Web) found more media equals more bad outcomes. So it doesn't matter that much what screen your kid is in front of; chances are, it isn't doing much good.
The evidence is the strongest for obesity and tobacco use, slightly less strong for drug use, alcohol use, sexual behavior and bad performance at school. Evidence tying media exposure to ADHD was the thinnest, though there hasn't been much research.
The study estimated that kids spend 45 hours a week with their various screens and ear pods; they spend 30 hours in school and 17 hours with parents. Media are what kids engage with most, except for their pillows.
Occasionally reports like this one, or some semi-scandal pertaining to a violent movie or sick lyric, lead to calls to regulate the content of media aimed at kids. That misses the point.
The quantity of media is far more important than the quality. Sex, violence, booze, drugs and potty humor are not new things to the species; exposure to mass quantities of omnipresent electronic information and images 24/7 on multiple, portable devices is a new kind of stimulus for our old brains. We process mediated information and stimulus differently than unmediated, directly perceived input.
This is what we complain about when we talk of information overload or info-glut. David Berreby, the author of Us & Them: The Science of Identity, suggested in a recent paper to a group of media ecologists that our anxiety doesn't come from absorbing more raw information than people in simpler times; it comes from absorbing a whole different kind of information — mediated information.
For example, we feel swamped by how much information is instantly available on the front page of The New York Times or on NPR.org. But Berreby notes that a tribal African who hunted to survive would be swamped by information when seeing a wildebeest in a field: Male or female? Alone? Wind direction? Predators nearby? What kind of trees in the distant forest? None of this data is mediated, trivial or distant. We have (had?) a lot of Darwinian hard-wiring to process that kind of data.
That isn't true of media information: It doesn't engage all the senses. It is all crafted by humans, much of it deliberately intended to sell or market or be addictive — or get our attention. It is harder to filter this information than unmediated information, harder to attend to only the important. "We aren't overwhelmed by information," Berreby said. "We're overwhelmed by information anxiety."
Virtually all the media that children consume pose cognitive risks, so the quantity is the key variable. One key distinction worth noting about the quality of media — its content — is that most kid-to-machine time (watching television, gaming, surfing the Web) is associated with negative outcomes, while no such difficulties have been discovered with kid-to-person time (e-mailing, text messaging and social media). The risk of e-communication is simply that it can cut into the regular way of being with people — spending time with them in the same room. The media explosion creates all kinds of opportunities for social isolation.
Being mindful of your media diet is media ecology. The wonderful thing is that unlike with global warming and pollution, you can control your own exposure. All media are optional. One click, and this screen is gone.
The simple key to being a media environmentalist is proper use of the off button. To be an E-Green, fade to black.