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Feeling virtuous with a good old paperback? Well, don't. Switching to traditional media does not improve mood

Study hopes to take the elitism out media consumption

Those attempting a digital detox might settle down with a paper book in the assumption they are nurturing their well-being. But the benefits of traditional versus new media are not as clear as received wisdom leads us to believe.

This is according to researchers that found steering clear of digital media such as games and social platforms and sticking to traditional, some would say more virtuous pastimes might not offer as much of a boost to well-being as many seem to think.

Be mindful of your social media use, says one well-being piece in Huffington Post, while The Graun reports on a study that claimed playing fantasy football can lead to a decline in mental health.

However, evidence for this is lacking. Oxford University researchers conducted a nationally representative survey of media consumption habits and well-being levels of 2,159 UK adults between April and May 2020. Participants reported the time they had spent engaging with music, television, films, video games, books, magazines, and audiobooks during the previous week and their happiness and anxiety levels during the previous day.

The study published in Nature's Scientific Reports shows that subjects who consumed books, magazines or audiobooks had similar happiness and anxiety levels to those who did not. It also shows those who engaged with music, television, films, and video games tended to have lower happiness and higher anxiety levels than those who did not. Meanwhile, people in the study reporting lower happiness and higher anxiety levels were also more likely to engage with music, television, films, and video games, but not books, magazines or audiobooks.

However, the differences are small and not causal, according to the findings, and changing habits might not have the desired effect. Changes in the types of media participants consumed and the amount of time they spent engaging with traditional media did not predict substantial changes in anxiety or happiness levels.

University of Oxford post-doctoral behavioural scientist Niklas Johannes said the findings suggest the overall impact of consuming traditional forms of media on short-term well-being are negligible.

The reason for the research was to remove the suspicion of elitism from the debate about new-versus-old media usage and their impact on well-being.

"There is a lively debate on the harmful effects of digital devices (such as smartphones) or new media (social networking sites). That narrative is ambivalent: Technology use is considered an enjoyable pastime and simultaneously harmful. Additionally, this discourse places high value on 'traditional' media like books, but considers 'newer' media, such as social networking sites, of low value," the study said.

Meanwhile, new media like social networks allegedly exert an almost addictive effect on their users, whereas traditional media like books are considered a beneficial pastime, it argued.

"Our results do not suggest that using traditional media harms or benefits users in the intermediate; an elitist view of, for example, books does not seem warranted. Based on these broad, net effects there seems to be no need for policymakers to encourage or discourage media use on the basis of well-being alone," the paper said.

But before anyone embarks on a nine-hour doomscroll of social media, more research is needed to understand the relative effects of different media on mood. "There is much to learn on the optimal time lag, underlying causal models, potential confounders, and what people actually do with media, rather than relying on a simplistic linear dose-response model," the research argues. ®

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