De-Blackboxing the Fallacy: Technology’s Impact on Obesity in Children and Adolescents

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By: Emily Fuerst

Introduction:

Technology is often perceived by our society with a multitude of opinions. Through dialogue, common assumptions and arguments are exchanged based on the outcomes , impacts and effects of various technologies. Leo Marx wrote, “Contemporary discourse, private and public, is filled with hackneyed vignettes of technologically activated social change-pithy accounts of “the direction technology is taking us” or “changing our lives”. (Marx) Within such ideological arguments, our society frequently misattributes agencies, claims and falsehoods to specific technological innovations. Within the last few years, media has attributed the increasing rate of our youth’s obesity as result of technology. Specifically, media frequently focuses on the obsessive sedentary usage of television, video devices and computer games, and the negative effects these mediums have on both children’s and adolescence’s health. These three devices are interpreted as major contributors to the increased rate of obesity in society. If these misconceptions are not confronted and resolved, further sensational arguments and false claims may be asserted. For example, if our culture continues to assert a direct link between technology with childhood obesity, society may begin to question whether our overall direction within entertainment technologies is leading to general health problems. (Layton)

By using my ‘hacker’s toolkit’ I intend on de-blackboxing this fallacy. I believe that technology should be viewed as neutral and not as an agent to blame in childhood obesity; our culture has simultaneously transformed the processing of our food and consumption routines that have progressed to meet the demands of daily lifestyles. Technologies should be viewed as unprincipled, the users make decisions to use technology for repressive or liberatory means (Chandler). By using the Mediology approach, I will examine the cultural transmission of technological pessimism so as to discover the current reasons that societal entities ascribe health risks to technology. Methods alone will not suffice in the revelation of this fallacy. Through the examination of the ideological argument, media’s influence on our society, and the analysis of different theories that discuss pessimistic views towards technologies, I will attempt to liberate this assumption of its black box while delivering alternative ways to view this misconception. Lastly, I will discuss several technologies that contradict these misleading notions, where technological innovation actually supports healthy and active lifestyles within children and adolescents.


Mediological Revolution of Social Pessimism within Technology

In Regis Debray’s piece, Media Manifestos he describes a mediological revolution as, “ The proof of this is that a mediological revolution, stirring together concrete things and myths, crystalizes at the same time around an apparatus and a fetish” (Debray). Through the transmission of time, negative assumptions against technologies have developed based off of these mediological revolutions. Our society attributes children’s rising rates of obesity (concrete) with the ideal that video games provoke a certain power (myth) which results in these technical assumptions. In order to break into the “black box”(the fallacy), I must examine historical transmissions of these fallacies surrounding technologies. By examining the transmission of these cultural assumptions associated with technology , I can observe the dynamics and foundations involved in the creation of these deterministic views.

Such criticism, negative assumptions and resistance of technology was not commenced in our generation. Pessimistic views towards technology have occurred since the early stages of innovation. These views date back to the invention of the pencil. The famous historical figures Plato, Bill Henderson and Henry David Thoreau originally held traditionalist views towards writing as they felt it was untrustworthy and unnatural (Baron). Plato, especially had suspicious views towards writing, “fearing that it would weaken our memories” (Baron). Fear towards new innovation and underlying technologies has been a common theme within societies for decades. Just as agencies misattribute technologies today, many early technologies from previous decades were formerly criticized as having a negative impact on society. As mentioned, writing as a technology produced many skeptics. Cultures questioned the validity of this tool when people began to commit fraud by forging documents (Baron). These criticisms provided that technical innovations such as the pencil almost possessed a strange sense of power, when in reality the actual user of the pencil was responsible for the misbehavior and resultant actions.

The nineteenth century was a significant time period for social pessimism in relation to technology. Leo Marx describes how the character and representation of technology was transformed during this period in his piece, Postmodern Pessimism. Marx explains the development of mechanical power, the collaspe of the Englightment’s plan for a republican society which was replaced by “technocratic idea of progress whose goal was the continuing improvement of technology” were primary foundations in the transformation of the character and representation of technology (Marx Postmodern). This example along with resistance towards literacy technologies exemplifies how technological pessimism has been a familiar concept throughout the generational innovation of technologies.

Pessimistic views on technology are often held by technological determinists. Those who hold a technological determinist view strongly believe technology is the foundation of societal change. Daniel Chandler explains that various levels of society are affected by technologies such as institutions, social interactions, and individuals in general (Chandler). Causality is a major theme within technological determinism; this leads determinists to believe that all technologies engage in a cause and effect relationship (Chandler). The claim that technical innovations such as video games and computers lead to obese children is simply an assumption of technological determinism.

Marshall McLuhan is yet another prime example of a theorist who supported the views of technological determinism. He believed that when humans were occupied with technologies they became hypnotized since their senses were distracted. (Czitrom) I can identify with this concept since I often feel our society is so engaged in the daily usage of smart phones that many seemingly become oblivious to their surroundings. His legendary quote, “the medium is the message” could serve as a symbolic slogan for technological determinists. The quote specifies the medium as any given technology and describes how these mediums can affect our perception with their messages. However the messages are not always unambiguous. McLuhan felt that technologies effected humans on a “subliminal level of sense ratios and patterns of perception” (Czitrom). Supporters of McLuhan’s work might suggest that children become desensitized to lifestyle changes they may experience due to obsessive patterns of interaction with video games and computers. Their subliminal states of mind could distort the perceptions of time, not to mention the long periods of sedentary activity that are often associated with such behavior.

By examining the social pessimism towards previous, historical innovations, it allows us to gain further insight on the relationship between technology and society. As Regis Debray discusses in What is Mediology, “…the fuzzy zone of interactions between technology and culture, or the interferences between our technologies of memorizing, transmission, and displacement, on the one hand, and our modes of belief, thought and organization, on the other”. (Debray) This ‘fuzzy area of interactions’ allows me to grasp a better idea of why members of society participate in technological pessimism and the foundations that influence this view. It is easier for the human psyche to ascribe faults to a machine or device then to identify with their own shortcomings or mistakes. Now that I have examined the transmission of misattributed fallacies, I will investigate how media’s impact on society can validate these erroneous beliefs.

Media’s Impact on Society

Our society is directly influenced by information provided by the media. The Media Ecology Theory introduced by Neil Postman discusses the conception that media impacts our perceptions while organizing our experiences (West & Turner). Marshall Mcluhan, another seminal figure within this theory, believed that media such as television can manipulate our belief systems in a negative manner (West & Turner). When media channels such as newspapers, magazine articles and the news on television all report similar stories linking technology with children and adolescent’s obesity issues, our culture’s belief systems on this topic are influenced.

Leo Marx’s piece, Technology, The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept provides an interesting viewpoint on how technologies can be misattributed within agencies. Marx discusses at the end of the text how technology is often vulnerable to reification. Technology can be subject to reification in several ways. Daniel Chandler discusses how a variety of technical innovations can symbolically represent technology as undivided (Chandler). Magazine articles typically do not have headings stating “Video games lead to Obesity in Children”; rather they combine the various technologies as a whole and lead with titles such as “Obesity in Children and Technology”. Two examples are below:

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Marx examines technology and reification in another manner. He observed, “We amplify the hazardous character of the concept by investing it with agency - by using the word technology as the subject of active verbs” (Marx). Media asserts that video games and computers have transformed children into living more sedentary lifestyles which results in obesity. By making this presumption, we implicitly characterize these devices as having the power and authority to create change. Marx believed, “By treating these inanimate objects-machines-as causal agents, we divert attention from the human (especially socioeconomic and political ) relations responsible for precipitating this social upheaval” (Marx) This conception that technical devices have their own purposes and consciousness is referred to as anthropomorphism or technological animism (Chandler). Leo Marx’s arguments within this text would conflict with the views of technological determinists. I agree with Marx’s argument that technology is inanimate and does not precipitate behavior; it is the users of the technology that initiate societal change. Video games do not force feed junk food into children’s mouths and they do not require that the user play the video game for hours at a time. Ultimately, the user makes the decision to eat unhealthy foods and mismanage their time via a sedentary existence. Visual imagery is yet another method the media uses to manipulate our society into the belief that technologies provoke children to become overweight.

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It is almost impossible not to correlate obesity with video games and television after viewing these images. All of these images were extracted from articles supporting the position that technology is a leading contributor to the societal dilemma of overweight children. What these photos refrain from showing are the locations of the parents. An essential part of parenting is the guidance and oversight they can provide to their children in structuring the amount of time they should spend watching television and playing video games. This goes hand-in-hand with educating their children on the consumption of nutritious snacks versus junk food. Many of these obese children would not be overweight if they did not have easy access to food groups loaded with processed sugar and trans fats. In my next section, I will examine how the media saturates our society with attributes that directly correlate technology to weight gain in children and adolescents.

Media’s Argument

In order to better comprehend the rationale behind how media attributes obesity to video games, computers and television, it is important to disclose the research and associated studies. Obesity is a serious hazard to a child’s or adolescent’s life since it can lead to more severe long term illnesses. Cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, social and psychological issues are just a few of the risks associated with obesity. (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) Typically, when a health risk such as obesity becomes prevalent in a younger age group, our society will quickly react, which can lead to false accusations. Since obesity within children has more than tripled within the past 30 years, our culture strives to find justifications for this detrimental growth (Center for Disease Control and Prevention).

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Within these justifications, the media frequently blames technology as a leading contributor. Claims are established that children have no choice but to resort to a sedentary lifestyles due to the rapid increase and availability of video games, television and computers.

After surveying different media outlets which attempt to bring validation to these false claims, I experienced an epiphany within my research. It would be unjust to blame technology as a major contributor of obesity since technology has seemingly always existed. Video games, computers and televisions are examples of McLuhan’s third law of media: Retrieval. This law is based off the conception, “…that media recovers or restores something that was once lost” (West & Turner). This relationship occurred to me after reading an article that links childhood obesity with technology which stated, “Children spend a lot of time in front of the television, playing video games, and researching and learning on the computer”(Cespedes). I want to examine this statement a little further, as the three technologies in accusation are television, video games and computers. The television has been around for over 30 years, video games are synonymous to latest versions of board games and the use of the computer for studying and research via the Internet is similar to previous generations’ reliance on libraries. It is just as easy to proclaim that the transformations of technical innovations are not to blame for children’s growing obesity rates. Rather, the media might better serve society through a concerted focus on better time management techniques, availability of non-processed snack foods and improved parenting structures as more realistic ways to address child obesity.


Technologies That Challenge this Assumption
omron-hj113e-pedometer-02.jpgEven though the majority of technical innovations have a bad reputation within the health realm of society, many technologies have been created that encourage a healthy and active lifestyle. Before I discuss some of these tools, it is important for me to establish that even technological devices which are developed to encourage our society to be healthy does not mean that they impact the decisions of our society. These devices are similar to video games and computers whereas the user decides the duration they will use the device and the purpose. A popular tool the health conscious can purchase are pedometers. These devices allow users to track the amount of steps they take in a given day and an estimation of the number of calories they have burned. These devices are beneficial for people who are trying to lose weight by increasing their level of activity by continuous feedback. By monitoring the amount of steps or distance you cover daily, one can decipher whether or not you are increasing the rate of calories that are being expended within an individual’s daily routine.

After video games companies continued to receive negative press associating their games with sedentary lifestyles, many gaming corporations fought back and developed new games that required the user to physically ‘get off the couch’. Nintendo’s Wii received tremendous hype and demand after its release in 2006, as the video game console’s controllers were redesigned in order to require movement from the user. I recall viewing initial commercials for this console and advertisements would illustrate families playing the device together. It was not long after its introduction, that the Wii Fit became popular worldwide. The Wii Fit game is but one example of how the gaming companies responded to and fought back on the misconceptions that video games lead to obesity.


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Dance, Dance Revolution is another video game that children can access on a variety of video game consoles. This game was originally featured in arcades; I often remember fearing the game since I felt it would be embarrassing to hop around to different sections of the platform in public. In order to play this game, the user must be moving at all times. I have not played this specific game but I have played Just Dance for Wii and the amount of activity required in both video games actually works up a sweat! These examples of videos games challenge the misconception that the heavy usage of home entertainment technologies inherently leads to weight gain and long term health problems. The following video demonstrates a child playing Dance, Dance Revolution at their home. ( I had errors loading the video within the wiki, I provided the link for the YouTube page in case the video does not appear)


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JzcqALklRs



Conclusion:

Misconceptions in regards to various technologies are seemingly a habitual tendency within our society. Whether we are blaming reality television for lowering our culture’s I.Q. levels or video games resulting in sedentary lifestyles, the attributions associated with these technologies are often fabricated. By looking at these assumptions with a mediological mind frame, we are able to track the transmission of these assumptions over time. Observing the reasons our society develops social pessimism towards technologies assists in understanding why these misconceptions are created and poses new methods of viewing the technical devices. By examining the reification of technologies, we are able to comprehend why people attribute power to inanimate objects such as the television. When people assign technical devices as causal agents, they are removing the attention away from the human’s behavior and diverting it to a lifeless object. Media’s impact on society plays a significant role in the dispersal of these fallacies amount cultures. Our society relies on media channels for the latest news, studies and research. All of these factors contribute to the network of fallacies in relation to technologies.

It is important for our society to focus on policies, innovations and business decisions that reduce obesity in children, instead of assigning blame to defenseless objects. Policies to improve the nutrition in school lunches and to discard vending machines full of sodas and candy in schools are gaining recognition and would naturally be extremely beneficial to children’s health. Classes that emphasize healthy eating and exercise should be considered for adoption into elementary school’s curriculums. Recent efforts by the National Football League (NFL) have highlighted the need for increased physical education for children. Their program, Play60, communicates the need for children to play at least 60 minutes daily. Weekly games on television and cable also prominently display the Play60 logo on the sides of the playing field as positive reinforcement.

Most importantly, the parents of today’s youth play the most significant role and have the greatest impact on their children’s health. Continual encouragement and daily reinforcement of daily routines to spend an equal amount of time playing active and inactive games is paramount. If children have zero guidance on the proper, nutritional meals to eat, they have a higher chance in developing poor eating habits. The bottom line from this is that instead of faulting innovation and technology for the rise in obesity rates, agencies should embrace a concerted focus on development of proactive media methods to reduce obesity in our society!



Bibliography

Baron, Dennis. From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies. 1. Utah State University Press, 1999. Print
Cespedes, Andrea. "Obesity in Children & Technology." LiveStrong. (2011): n. page. Web. 9 Dec. 2012. <http://www.livestrong.com/article/46320-obesity-children-technology/>.
Chandler, Daniel (1995): 'Technological or Media Determinism' [WWW document] URL http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html [Date of Visit]
Czitrom, Daniel J.. "Media and the American Mind From Morse to McLuhan." . University of North Carolina Press. Web. 12 Dec 2012.
Debray, Regis. "Debray, What Is Mediology?" Debray, What Is Mediology? N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2012. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Debray-What_is_Mediology.html>.
Debray, Regis. "Media Manifestos." . N.p.. Web. 15 Oct 2012. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Debray-MediaManifestos1.pdf>.
Layton, Julia. "Is technology behind the rise in childhood obesity?" 01 March 2012. HowStuffWorks.com. <http://tlc.howstuffworks.com/family/technology-behind-rise-of-childhood-obesity.htm> 12 December 2012.
Marx, Leo. "Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept." Project MUSE. The Johns Hopkins University Press, n.d. Web. 11 Dec 2012. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Marx-TC-2010-51.pdf>.
Marx, Leo, "The Idea of 'Technology' and Postmodern Pessimism," Does technology drive history?: the dilemma of technological determinism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994).
West, Richard, and Lynn H. Turner. Introduction Communication Theory. 4th. New York: McGraw Hill, 2010. Print.
United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Childhood Obesity Facts. 2012. Web. <http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/obesity/facts.htm>.


References for Images

http://tlc.howstuffworks.com/family/technology-behind-rise-of-childhood-obesity1.htm
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JzcqALklRs
http://www.dietandfitnessresources.co.uk/fitness_exercise/omron_hj113_walking_style_step_counter.htm
http://www.livestrong.com/article/46320-obesity-children-technology
http://www.toptenz.net/top-10-issues-facing-our-youth-today.php
http://sustainablecitiescollective.com/holiver/56176/walking-and-biking-key-reducing-risk-obesity
http://www.presstv.ir/detail/182733.html

http://janaina-bax.blogspot.com/2011/02/trend-greatest-pleasure-in-life-is.html