The price of fiction: Unpacking the effects of media on our lives

I just want to live my life like I’m the protagonist of a movie: confident, handsome and effortlessly successful. Don’t we all though? Wouldn’t everyone like to live the glamorous, exciting, emotionally charged fantasies that so many of us fiendishly consume on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu? I know I would. But I think the modern ubiquity of media has greater ramifications than an innocent desire for the improbably emotionally substantive.

We all watch hundreds of hours of media content in the regular course of our lives. It’s unavoidable. The silver screen stares back at us in restaurants, public streets, the privacy of our own homes and, as is increasingly prevalent in today’s society, even out of the palms of our hands. Much of the time we spend meeting its glaring gaze is devoted to productivity and social interaction, but every coin has two sides, and so as technology becomes more widespread, we also spend more time exposed to the idealized fictions of others.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. I grew up in a household where film was (and is) regarded as an art form. I would not dare to disparage the brilliant, creative minds so involved with the craft of visual and auditory storytelling any more than I would an author or a painter. However, the effect that media consumption has on us goes beyond the intellectual understanding of character, plot and humanity garnered from watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. The characters and situations illustrated in these stories are comparable to our reality: They walk like us, talk like us and look like us (although they don’t seem to go to the bathroom as much as we do). Thus, it is only natural to juxtapose our own existences to those of our favorite fictitious characters. While unavoidable, this is, in my humble opinion, an unhealthy comparison for anyone to make.

We add to this grand illusion with our incessant posting of curated content to the world wide web. Our lives are narrated to our peers by the painstakingly selected, meticulously edited and fervently monitored pictures and videos that we post on Instagram, Facebook or whatever other medium we might desire. Too often, I have watched a beautiful smile subside to apathy once the photographer’s flash faded. Too often is the purpose of an adventure or experience the visual proof of its worth. Everyone has an internet façade, and the stories they tell are as indicative of our own lives as they are of the fantasies conceived in Disney’s studios. And so, it is all too easy to notice that everywhere in the world seems filled with excitement and wonder except the very place that you are standing.

It isn’t a pleasant feeling to believe that your own life, the very nature of your existence, is laughably less exciting than that of another. While we know that this perceived alternative is a fabricated one, we (or at least I) make the comparison nonetheless. It’s difficult to qualify the effect that media consumption has on us, but, at least personally, I feel that when I immerse myself in the harrowing tales of a contrived reality, I find my own reality boring and at times depressing. I can claim no causation, but, as I observe others of my generation falling into depression in disturbing numbers, I cannot help but wonder if this saddening phenomenon is not the result of our failure to live up to the impossible standards imposed upon us by our very own consumption.

I hope that I am wrong. I hope that my paranoia and suspicion are results of my own inability to assimilate to a technologically-focused society. But I worry nonetheless. I encourage all my peers, and indeed all people, to consider how media makes you feel. Notice the next time you compare yourself to your favorite Hollywood character or you feel secluded from the myriad of enthralling things people are all talking and posting about on social media. Notice this, and then do something about it. Put down your phone – not in your pocket, but in your desk drawer – close your laptop, turn off the TV. The world outside the silver screen is complex, unpredictable, frustrating, fascinating and terrifying. It is vast and delicate and powerful and subtle. The lives we live are the only ones we have, and they are too short to spend counting the likes on a picture or fantasizing about an improbable existence. So sing a song, go somewhere you’ve never been, fall in love, paint a picture, cry about a loss, do some charity work or spend time with your family, because nothing will ever be as beautiful as it is when you live it.

Nevin Bernet ’20 is from Topanga, Calif. He intends to double major in computer science and economics.

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