"Content is not story. Content is actually chemistry, packaged through the prism of narrative, with tremendous curative potential"
Over the past few years, social media and digital content consumption have been linked to everything from depression to anxiety to isolation. But what if digital content could make you feel better, not worse?
Lately, scientists and researchers have been turning to screens to administer therapeutic treatments. Digital detoxes have evolved into a more integrative and holistic approach to digital health, from mindful tech to prescription-grade apps to a new dimension of wellbeing practices for the digital self.
Michael Moskowitz, founder and CEO of AeBeZe Labs, believes that digital nutrition is the first step in achieving comprehensive wellness. As the company explains, digital content—when administered properly—has the power to boost emotional resilience, combat cognitive drift, and maximize human health, potential, and happiness.
Below, Michael catches up with us about the biochemistry of content, the future of digital pharmaceuticals and why digital nutrition should be taught in elementary schools.
What is digital nutrition and why is it important for modern consumers?
Digital nutrition is the new sixth pillar of human prosperity. The exposure we have to digital materials every single day—Americans consume on average 12 hours and 7 minutes of digital experiences every day—has a demonstrable impact on behavioral health, emotional resilience and broader wellbeing.
In school, we’re taught about the basics of biology, we’re taught about psychosocial dynamics, and we’re brought crudely up to speed with the consequences of sexual behavior. We’re never, at any age, taught about the basics of digital hygiene, when to partake and when to abstain; digital literacy, the impact that specific materials can have on your mood or body; or digital nutrition, how to consume, self-administer or relate to digital experiences in a manner that can promote rather than impair health.
How is AeBeZe Labs helping people create and stick to healthy digital diets?
Well for one, I think that people need signals and signs. Looking across the contemporary American landscape, we see signals, signs and labels that help us make more informed decisions. And I don’t just mean things like traffic lights; there is a standardized label on all foods and packaged beverages, on prescription medication, even on your mattress.
The last frontier that remains—the wild west—is content. We have the legacy MPAA movie ratings, and Netflix has pushed these slightly forward by adopting their own proprietary letter-based abbreviations: ‘AC’ for adult content, ‘M’ for mature, ‘S’ for sexual content, ‘smoking’ spelled out. And that can act as a deterrent for kids sitting down to watch a program by your side, but it doesn’t help you understand how watching this particular film or series is going to make you feel.
We can’t make smarter, healthier or more responsible decisions unless we have a better understanding of what these materials do to and for us. And so, our approach is, to start, to develop the equivalent of the periodic table of elements for digital content.
It shouldn’t require a PhD to understand the impact that oxytocin, the love molecule, plays in your life; or to make sense of what role endorphins, which lead to elevated energy levels, play; or acetylcholine, which helps us focus. But a majority of Americans have difficulty even pronouncing these words. The hope is that if they can begin to make associations between symbols and substance and use those references to inform the decisions they make about what to watch or listen to, or why and when, it can really begin to have impact at scale. But it requires transparent labelling, which we haven’t had to date.
Do you think that brands, platforms and creators have a responsibility to produce healthy content? Or is it on the consumer to find what nourishes them?
It’s a complicated question. Take Joker: there was a lot of concern when the movie was released that it would lead to violence. What [HBO] would have liked at the time was to say, ‘look, this is not promoting violence, this is simply leveraging norepinephrine in order to drive a visceral reaction. We’re trafficking in a specific hormone or neurotransmitter to make you feel a specific way.’ It’s the same with going to a horror film; when you have music accompanying that picture, it’s terrifying. When you take the music away, it’s suddenly not so haunting. And that’s the role that these mood-altering neurotransmitters can play.
So, one, I think that people can use it creatively to their benefit. Two, I think there’s a bit of a curatorial responsibility that lies squarely on the shoulder of publishers. There’s a strong case to be made for publishers to take personal responsibility for prioritizing different types of stories—still in service of fact-based journalism—that doesn’t drive people mad or make them more anxious.
Consumers are still going to have to take personal responsibility for the decisions they make, whether it’s the food they eat, the amount of sleep they endeavor to secure every single night, how they spend their money, or the content they consume.
But it’s a combination of one, content creators; two, platforms being more transparent about the impact these materials have on their viewers; and three, individuals being aware of the impact that content will have on their mood.
Do you think that there should be a regulatory body, similar to the FDA, that governs and standardizes the health safety of content?
It’s an excellent question, and, frankly, I’m torn. I don’t want to dent the ambitions of creatives and storytellers to make the world a more beautiful and interesting place, or to titillate and tease, or create a sense of wonder and awe. I don’t want regulation to interfere with entertainment. I really don’t.
But to some degree, we already have regulation that applies to movies, namely the MPAA movie ratings. Are they suffocating and restrictive? No. But they are strong symbols, and it often has a direct impact on potential box office revenue.
I want to be careful. If we have too strict a regulatory scaffolding for content, you might not be able to enjoy the plethora of materials that are available to us today. If we’re going to erect walls around a stadium—I think that’s healthy. If we’re going to start to suggest rules of play on the field—I think that’s healthy. If we’re going to referee each and every individual play—I think that becomes problematic. It’s going to have to be a balancing act.
I think inevitably, because digital therapeutics are going to be the next emerging vertical in pharmaceuticals, the traditional criteria that are applied to the development of proprietary molecules aren’t as appropriate for the development of proprietary products. It can be informed by them, but you don’t necessarily have to go through the four-stage clinical trials that are required by the FDA.
I think a lot of different agencies and interested parties are going to have to collaborate and develop some working consensus about what the right solution should be. Right now, we’re beginning to have those conversations, even with some folks in Washington [D.C.] who are seeking guidance about how to develop recommendations or a working thesis of their own. [Asking questions] like, should the FTC weigh in on this? Should the FDA develop a policy position? Should the FCC be more assertive, or continue to play only occasional referee like the Supreme Court?
These are decisions we’re going to have to wrestle with openly, informed by a concern for behavioral health in America, the desire to scale care for major providers, and an interest in operationalizing data to drive better human health outcomes. If we can start to figure out on a case-by-case basis how materials can augment or impair outcomes, that could transform the entirety of the human experience.
How do you think this will impact the future of storytelling?
There are a lot of lines to draw about the future of science at the intersection of storytelling for the benefit of the health of the republic and for the benefit of individual wellbeing.
You could make the cast that content is not story; content is actually chemistry, packaged through the prism of narrative, with tremendous and undeniable curative potential.
Do you think that younger generations, having grown up with technology, have a higher tolerance or resilience for digital content consumption?
Biologically, children today are no different from their predecessors. The fact that they’ve seen more of this stuff might make them experts in discernment—you know, they might reach the Gladwellian 10,000 hours of expertise by the time that they’re ten. But that doesn’t mean that they’re any less susceptible to violent mood swings or impaired health as a result of that exposure.
I think that these so-called digital natives are, in the words of Jocelyn Brewer (who’s done a lot of work in digital nutrition), digital orphans. We’re all digital orphans. We have never been loved, taught, nursed or guided to make responsible decisions in the field.
What is needed to enable people to make those responsible decisions in healthy content consumption?
I think it’s going to require a variety of tools, including transparency about how this makes us feel and a greater degree of personalization. I’ll give you one tiny example: if you’ve never listened to classical music and you’re suddenly exposed to it, it will likely trigger the release of acetylcholine (the molecule strongly correlated with focus) in your brain. If you are a classical music aficionado, it will likely be a dopaminergic reaction, triggering pleasure. Can it be both? You bet. It’s going to vary from audience to audience.
Right now, I don’t think anybody has the visibility, training, experience, or command of the field to make responsible decisions. I do think that labels will help. I also think the way that we group, publish, purpose, and curate content will help—so we don’t just have genre-based music or movies, we have mood-based music and movies.
And I think there’s also going to have to be an approach that we take in schools. I think it’s pretty universal in America to see the Alphabet spelled out letter by letter in almost every grade school classroom. It’s equally common to find a copy of the Mercator map, alongside a map of America. I happen to think that it’s urgent to place some variety of digital nutritional labels or posters in those same classrooms.
What do you predict for the future of digital nutrition?
In entertainment, space epics have become the substitute for the Western; they’re the last unsettled frontier, a place that we can assign our hopes and dreams. In each of these films, we typically see examples of [digital nutrition]. In Ad Astro, they had comfort rooms, which were literally AeBeZe-like digital treatments broadcast on a wall. In Interstellar, interplanetary travelers were required to undergo preparedness training in order to guard against the creeping consequences of isolation and captivity in small environments. If you look at the materials that they watch and some of the protocol they’re administered, we’re doing those same things for the Air Force right now.
My view is that [digital nutrition] is going to be a household term within the next five to ten years. I think we’re going to have a comprehensive labelling system starting soon, including, of course, the new digital nutrition tracker AeBeZe Labs has developed for use—you might even start to see that labelling alongside or directly on top of videos that you watch in the next several months.
I think that there could also be digital therapeutics that are just as powerful as the proprietary molecules that get sold as conventional medication. So, there’s a version of this that is going to be an emerging vertical in pharma; a version that is going to inform and drive the way that Hollywood presents or packages its materials; version taught as a core curriculum at grade school; and a version addressed by college age students that are thinking about the future of journalism and storytelling.