Graphic courtesy of Florida Hospital Nicholson Center
In 2008, Nicholas Carr published a provocative message in The Atlantic magazine, "Is Google making us stupid?", which he followed with the longer book The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains. In both he claimed that online reading was changing our brains and our basic level of intelligence. It was turning us from deep readers of books and newspaper articles, into quick snackers of blog posts and Twitter messages. We were losing the ability to focus on a topic for a longer period of time and to explore it in depth. Nearly ten years have passed since that message appeared and the diet of the modern reader has continued to slide into short, quick bites of information. Today we dine on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Pinterest, and similar crowd-sourced social media. When we do settle down to focus our attention on a single topic for hours, it is to binge watch a new series on Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, or Amazon Prime Video. All of these are delicious, high production forms of entertainment, but they are the candy, soda, and chips of the mental diet. The modern European and American mind is becoming more flabby and diabetic every year, losing the ability to explore topics in depth, having no patience for information that takes more than a few minutes to ingest and digest. Every subject must be considered and judged within a 30 second social post, two minute news summary, or a 30 minute moralized television program.
As our minds become fat and diabetic, perhaps what we need is a food pyramid for the media we are consuming; a guide that identifies the mental nutritional value of the various forms of media and prescribes some ratio of healthy consumption at each level. The UK and American Food Pyramid were first promoted in the early 1990's, after being adopted from the 1974 Swedish version. For almost 25 years the pyramid served as a guideline and picture for how to structure the healthy consumption of food. Though not a perfect model, it was huge improvement over the misinformation that existed in its absence. For mental media consumption we are currently absent any structured model for healthy consumption, nutritional values, or recommendations to support healthy mental, emotional, and social thinking.
Perhaps it is time to create a Media Food Pyramid. A healthy mental media diet should have a foundation in growth and development. Educational materials which maintain and enhance real knowledge and professional skills should be the basis of our diet for a lifetime. Most people eliminate these from their diets as soon as they graduate from high school or college, as if learning should not continue much past the early 20's. The second layer might consist of curated news and electronic messages. Much is made today of "fake news" which has no valuable constructive purpose, but is dressed up to provide provocative entertainment, often based on inflammatory options. But there remain a number of excellent sources of news and opinion that are managed for quality, objectivity, and fair treatment of all viewpoints. At the third level, once we have consumed the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains of our media diet, we can supplement those with the meat and dairy of social media that we so enjoy. Finally, entertainment should be consumed in smaller quantities, causing us to exercise more care in the selection of these sweet treats, rather than attempting to binge on every sweet new series that is offered on Netflix.
Is this the ideal Media Food Pyramid? Is there a scientific formula for a healthier diet for our brains? Where are the experts who can develop a defensible model? Addressing the growing trend to dine entirely on entertainment and social media is as important as addressing the physical eating habits of a nation. Will we raise a generation of citizens on media sweet treats that create mental obesity or on a healthier balance that stimulates mental and emotional growth and development?