Historians and clinicians may someday call this moment “peak content.” In 2019, Americans will consume an average of 12 hours and 7 minutes of digital assets every single day. That’s more time than we spend eating and sleeping. Out of this cloud of mood-altering material emerges a new set of health challenges. One in five Americans is clinically depressed. Tens of millions more suffer from mild to moderate anxiety and other mood disorders. But current research doesn’t yet support a clear and causal link. More work is required to understand the complex relationship between media diets and depression–mood disorders are not a new phenomenon, even if suicide rates appear to be increasing. The technologies fueling our media consumption are outpacing the rate of scientific inquiry, making real or verifiable effects hard to understand and perhaps harder study appropriately. Not all apps are created equal. Products like Instagram and Calm aren’t identical—they’re nearly antithetical, and shouldn’t be summarily bucketed as “bad,” just because they’re digital products. Studies suggest that certain digital tools and assets have the potential not just to avoid harm, as we might hope, but to heal—to actually improve, rather than impair, behavioral health. Now is the moment to pursue a three-pronged approach to all digital encounters: literacy, hygiene, and labeling. We have the opportunity of a lifetime to re-shape our still primitive and often unruly digital culture into a safer, healthier, more rewarding domain.
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