- Personal Development -

A New Health Basic: Digital-Media Literacy

Founding editor Pilar Gerasimo discusses why media literacy matters to health seekers.

Pilar Gerasimo

When we think about “health basics,” we think about things like diet, exercise, and washing our hands after we sneeze.

Needless to say, there’s a bit more to it than that. Yes, nutrition, activity, and hygiene matter hugely. But so do stress, mental and emotional patterns, socio-economic and environmental factors, cultural norms, and a great deal more. Which is why Experience Life has always covered such a diverse range of topics (as evidenced by our “Game Changers”).

One often-overlooked subject that we’ve taken a particular interest in over the years is media literacy.

Wikipedia describes media literacy as “a repertoire of competencies that enable people to analyze, evaluate, and create messages in a wide variety of media modes, genres, and formats.”

Why does this matter to health seekers? Because as consumers of information, most of what we know about health — or think we know — we “read” (and watch, listen to, and experience) via a wide variety of media channels.

Research suggests that how we consume media can have a profound effect not just on our perceptions of reality, but also on our health, happiness, and general sense of well-being.

That’s why we’ve written, for example, about the value of consciously evaluating and refining your media intake (“Media-Diet Makeover,” April 2006).

It’s why we offered advice on making sense of the confounding science in popular news stories (“A Study In Confusion,” December 2007).

And this past May, it’s why we published a fascinating feature called “Decoding Health Media.” That feature explored, among other things, how profit-driven interests may skew scientific research and manipulate public opinion to their advantage. (If you ever want to know more about that, I encourage you to read John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s classic books: Toxic Sludge Is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry; and Trust Us, We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future.)

As our media landscape grows ever more complicated, of course, the competencies involved with media literacy do, too.

Today, we’re getting more of our health information digitally — not just from news and science outlets, but also from blogs, apps, social-media streams, and a wide assortment of minimally edited “content aggregators.”

Increasingly, we scan rather than read. We may “like,” share, and comment on media we’ve barely processed.

Increasingly, we scan rather than read. We may “like,” share, and comment on media we’ve barely processed. And we may find ourselves overwhelmed by the conflicting data and opinions with which we’re bombarded on a daily basis.

With this in mind, the team here at Experience Life has developed a growing curiosity about the influence all these fast-morphing digital streams are having on our health-related perceptions.

Here are just a few of the questions we’ve been knocking around:

  • To what extent does being a heavy user of social media affect our health, happiness, and general mindset?
  • How do the opinions we see online affect our beliefs and behaviors? How do online forums and communities influence us, for better or for worse?
  • How does the quest for “virality” and the fight for social traffic influence what gets reported and promoted online, and how?
  • Given the ease with which online identities can be disguised, multiplied, and automated, how much confidence can we have that what appear to be social-media “movements” really are?
  • How can consumers of digital health media know when they are being misled? How can we all make more discerning choices about what and whom to trust?

Our interest in all these questions was intensified recently, when we saw an unusual stream of social-media activity related to one of our covers. What we discovered was illuminating — and great fodder for an investigative feature we’ve now got under way. We look forward to sharing it in an upcoming issue.

Pilar Gerasimo is Experience Life’s founding editor. Follow her on Twitter @pgerasimo.

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