Despite our culture’s “problematic” relationship with personal health (yes, I’m straining to be this diplomatic), we sure do like our medical T.V. There’s the news of course, the doctor talk shows, and the dramas: House, HawthoRNe, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice… (I have no doubt I’m missing some.) It’s one of those head scratchers – kind of like our culture’s current penchant for food T.V even though the average American spends less time cooking than ever these days . When it comes to the news, they make anything and everything sound like an imminent emergency. (Swine flu, anyone? ) As for the dramas, there are the good looking people, romantic plotlines, feverish action, and tear-jerking narratives. More to the point, however, you have bizarre assortments of random medical oddities, the suspense leading up to the eventual diagnoses, and the inevitable drama surrounding characters’ medical treatments and tragedies. It’s enough to pique anyone’s curiosity, but some interesting research  shows that we’re getting more than we bargained for from our entertainment.
In a recently published study, a University of Rhode Island professor shares the results of a survey that measured television viewing, health anxiety and life satisfaction. (Hint: this doesn’t end well.) The subjects were 274 students, ages 18-31, from the University of Alabama’s College of Communications. The researchers didn’t share the purpose of the study with survey participants. Study results showed a connection between television watching and an amplified perception of health risks. Not only did television viewing increase viewers’ belief in the likelihood of those health risks; it actually decreased viewers’ sense of “self-efficacy in maintaining personal health.” The study further indicated a related decrease in life satisfaction.
So, all this “informative” and entertainment programming ends up making us more concerned for our health and less convinced we can do anything about it. Isn’t that rich? I’ve said for years that we worry about the wrong things. We go into a full-blown panic over swine flu but simply keep on keepin’ on when it comes to the real health threats in our country: chronic lifestyle diseases like obesity, diabetes , and high blood pressure. Is it the media’s preoccupation with the strange and novel? Is it mere desensitization after hearing the standard health messages so many times? Is it those infernal pharma commercials? As the study author noted , the age group she surveyed is the most likely to feel healthy. “I suspect that if I surveyed a more general population the dissatisfaction would be even higher,” she said.
What exactly is going on here?
The study’s author doesn’t claim to know the why of it, and I won’t claim to pinpoint it either. (My sense is it’s multiple influences anyway.) Yes, for all the good stuff T.V. might offer, I think it can do a number on our perception of reality – all angles of it, health being no exception. There are so many mixed messages out there, erroneous information, unnecessary agitation. And that’s just the news and talk shows! Add the wrenching and off the wall health experiences of viewers’ favorite characters, and it can seem like some risk to life and limb is lurking at every turn. (No matter that a condition is a one in a million. The emotional picture makes it feel more real than a stunning statistic ever could.)
Whatever the why, I think the easy solution is to turn it off and hone in on our own lives and physical well-being. (Grip on reality, anyone?) More subtly, I think we need to be more reflective about the messages we receive and how they affect us – from the T.V. and otherwise. We choose what we bring into our lives and what fills the hours of our day. Is it life giving? Is it encouraging? Does it feed our sense of well-being and self-efficacy?
The study’s author suggests that learning too much about health conditions and risks weighs us down, that ignorance might be bliss. I don’t subscribe to that notion. I’m fully convinced that you can be knowledgeable and satisfied, well-informed and empowered. It’s not just information of course but what you choose to do with it.
Let me turn it over to you. What’s your take on the associations revealed in this study? Thoughts? Rants? Jokes? Cautionary tales? (Just kidding.) Be sure to add your perspective, and have a good weekend, everyone!