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It’s Time to Embrace Digital Nutrition

Online consumption should be considered the next pillar of health alongside diet, exercise, and sleep

Credit: Jutta Kuss/Getty

Co-authored by Hans Ringertz, MD, PhD

The leading cause of disability worldwide is not violent conflicts, car accidents, natural disasters, or even cancer — it’s mental illness. More than 300 million people, including nearly one in five Americans, suffer from clinical depression. Behavioral disorders are the third leading cause of hospitalization for adults ages 18 to 44 in the United States, and economists estimate that depression leads to an annual loss of $193 billion of income-earning potential. The suicide rate among teenage girls in the United States has more than doubled since 2007, and the rate among teenage boys has increased by 31 percent. Across the developing world, the percentage of people affected by mood disorders appears to be even higher.

These statistical increases may be attributable, in part, to better reporting procedures, a wider array of treatment options, and a reduction in the social stigma around mental illness. But these factors alone cannot fully account for the upward trends in emotional distress, self-harm, and hospitalization.

Some experts attribute this sharp rise to increasing social aggravation: family separation, bereavement, geographic dislocation, or isolation (particularly among the elderly). Others link mental health disorders to economic challenges like wage stagnation, unemployment, debt, and other financial hardships. Many clinicians voice concerns about a still-inadequate public understanding of mental health care options, limited mental health support resources, and scarcity of affordable care. No matter the country, these issues remain thorny, tangled, and contentious.

Leaders from vastly different fields and areas of expertise consistently emphasize the importance of five fundamental pillars: diet, exercise, sleep hygiene, vocation, and interpersonal relationships.

What we, the authors of this essay, have come to believe through our separate paths of enquiry over the past decade is that a possible sixth pillar of health has emerged in the era of smartphone addiction and ubiquitous computing. We call this element “digital nutrition,” and in our view, healthy digital habits urgently warrant adoption.

In this increasingly wireless world, we need a more realistic strategy.

We define digital nutrition as two distinct but complementary behaviors. The first is the healthful consumption of digital assets, or any positive, purposeful content designed to alleviate emotional distress or maximize human potential, health, and happiness. The second behavior is smarter decision-making, aided by greater transparency around the composition and behavioral consequences of specific types of digital content.

People already use music, film, TV, video games, and various digital devices to relax and escape or to avoid painful and unpleasant feelings or decisions. But in this increasingly wireless world, we need a more realistic strategy. Digital material can—and, in our view, should—be leveraged for preventative purposes (to maintain mood and avoid regular descents into depression), for palliative purposes (to ease acute anxiety and other unpleasant feelings), and for regulatory purposes (to track volume of personal exposure to digital asset types known to produce negative outcomes).

Of course, many people don’t want to adopt healthier diets, whether it comes to food or digital content. We all need more than room temperature water and steamed vegetables to survive and thrive. But as with eating, it’s nearly impossible to achieve better emotional health or balance without at least a basic understanding of digital nutrition and how specific experiences or content types actually affect your brain and broader sense of well-being.

Over the next several years, we anticipate the emergence of a new labeling system for digital content — one that goes further than today’s film and TV ratings and more closely resembles nutritional information on food packaging. This assumption stems from our conviction that Americans are living in a moment that will someday be characterized as “peak content.” Every day, the average American adult scrolls through a vertical band of digital materials three times taller than the Statue of Liberty. More startling is that smartphone users in the United States consume, on average, 12 hours of media each and every day. That’s more than 182 uninterrupted days of digital material, pushed through the eyes and ears of each person, every year.

But unlike the process of reforming the food business, for instance — which remains incomplete even after 50 years of doctor- and dietician-led advocacy — digital media is on a far faster trajectory. The public debate around the perils of digital content is already underway. In our view, it’s destined to accelerate and mature over the next several years with the help of industry pioneers like Sean Parker, Chamath Palihapitiya, and Tristan Harris — just a few of the many leaders calling for change.

We do not believe digital abstinence is realistic — and for lovers of film, music, and other media, the prospect of abstaining is patently undesirable. That’s why we challenge and encourage creators, curators, broadcasters, designers, and startups to embrace the broader goals of digital nutrition and accelerate efforts to develop virtual experiences that steward a transition from “anything goes” to healthier goals that demonstrably improve the human condition. It’s not just good policy — it’s good business, particularly in a wellness market that pierced the $4 trillion threshold last year.

Achieving greater emotional resilience for everyone will require an approach that balances business goals with responsible content-measurement tools and vocal support for new values around content consumption and behavioral health. It certainly will not be as easy as deleting or censoring any single app or championing self-restraint.

These are early days for the field of digital nutrition. Critics might challenge the assertion that technology can address or resolve the very problems it appears to have either aggravated or triggered in the first place. But digital tools and services, precisely because of their central role in daily life, are critical to any sustainable solution. There is growing evidence to suggest that digital interventions like screen-time tracking are more effective than drastic methods such as digital abstinence, but we are still in the age of promise rather than delivery.

Social media presents a different challenge, and its impact on health and well-being isn’t fully understood. Clinical data doesn’t yet support findings that hold Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat definitively accountable for contributing to the global rise in anxiety, depression, or self-harm, though many researchers are concerned.

Given the beleaguered state of mental health in the United States, there has never been greater demand for experiments that improve the social and emotional landscape we all inhabit. Teenagers at risk, adults in pain, and members of the elderly community suffering in silence deserve our attention — and those who make decisions about their well-being, from legislators to app developers to caregivers, ought to be willing to try something new.

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