None of us really know how much we’ve been influenced by the media. We can’t really put a scale to the effect it has on our lives because for so many of us, growing up around it has just become the norm; it’s hard to picture what life without it could be like.
Imagine not having podcasts, audiobooks, Netflix, Instagram, Tik Tok or whatever else that’s kept us hinged to our sanity for much of the COVID-19 pandemic. Imagine disconnecting from everything. I don’t mean temporarily, where you disconnect for a lovely weekend camping, I mean not being plugged in at all. The full extent of being “unplugged” is unimaginable to most because media has encroached our lives for everything, entertaining us, distracting us, connecting us, and informing us. In the true nature of being human, we’ve adapted to all forms of media as they were churned out.
Scientists say our ability to adapt is related to our inner need to survive, but we haven’t really stopped to think about the blind spots from quickly adapting to stimuli like digital media. As we’ve developed into adults, our brains have automated so many processes we go through, breathing, tying our shoes and more. For both examples, most don’t stop to think of the step-by-step way of doing them. Overtime, scientists are weary that we will come to a point where our brains take in information without thinking too much about it. They’re worried we’ll automate our critical thinking skills.
The idea of automating critical thinking feels a little bit far fetched, but our brains are geared towards reducing our cognitive load (the amount of time and attention needed to finish a task), and this creates shortcuts for the way we take in information from the internet. This way of processing information, coupled with our brain’s great ability to give into confirmation bias, will draw our perspective into seeing things in one way. If something confirms our biases, we are extra likely to believe it’s true, and if it doesn’t, we believe that it’s false.
Social media apps are a perfect example of this because they are built to reward our biases. The algorithms pull together content it knows you like and as time goes on, your social media will be filled with just the things you approve of. On the surface this doesn’t seem harmful at all, but for every conscious decision we make, there is a subconscious response your brain has. So, if consciously you see and like the things that reward your biases, subconsciously your brain is likely to develop an immediate sense of rejection to things that don’t feed into those biases. This effect is most evident when it comes to politics and how small disagreements on political views can quickly escalate to heated arguments, where the left and the right see each other as liars because their opposing views don’t feed into their biases.
Film and TV shows have a great deal of influence on how we see the world. An easy example of this would be the airing of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 movie, Birth of a Nation. It not only reflected the openly racist attitudes that prevailed in American society, but it enabled people to act on their racism more. Richard Brody, a movie listings editor from the New Yorker argued that “the real crime was not Griffith’s, but the world’s: the fact that most viewers knew little about slavery and little about Reconstruction and little about Jim Crow and little about the Klan, and were all too ready to swallow the very worst of the movie without question.” His argument here prompts me to wonder what effect the media we visually consume has on us, when we don’t take the time to question the purpose behind it and whether it accurately depicts reality. It’s an enabling argument that offers viewers a sense of responsibility for what they watch.
Mainstream movies and shows today seem to have a greater sense of social responsibility. In part this is because the entertainment business is geared towards providing what’s in demand. However, this heightened sense of social responsibility is owed to the growing number of social activists who act as catalysts to social change. This expanded scope in purpose for the industry has allowed us as people to develop a greater sense of empathy for each other.
Our dependency on media for entertainment, information, and connection has risen dramatically over the years, but we must stop to think of the purpose behind some of these forms of media. Not being cognisant of the intention behind it poses a danger because our brains have blind spots that make us easily fall prey to misleading perspectives. In the grand scheme of things, I’d argue media has been good to us, but in some cases, it has brought out the worst in us.