Dominant Cultural Meanings of Health and Illness: The Media and New Technologies

Critical researchers have also been interested in the ways in which health itself is understood as a concept, how it is used in everyday life, and how dominant meanings and understandings of health affect not just how we live, but how we take notice of our bodies, recognise bodily changes, interpret bodily signs as symptoms and engage with health professionals. It is at the mundane, routine and ordinary everyday level that we gain our understandings about what it is to be healthy or ill, male or female, a little unwell or seriously sick. The biomedical view assumes that most physical symptoms are caused by some kind of pathology within the body, and people can perceive symptoms of this pathology directly and clearly. However, how we make sense of physical changes in our bodies, and interpret them as symptoms, depends heavily on the psychological, social and cultural meanings we bring to them (Lyons & Chamberlain, 2006). Meanings about health, illness, medicine and health care are (re)created and circulated pervasively throughout mass media and popular culture.

Media representations of health and illness circulate expert and lay accounts to the public, define and shape societal attitudes, influence agenda-setting and are widely influential at the individual level through attention, framing, perception and creating meaning (Lyons, 2000). Hether and Murphy’s (2010) research into gender and health storylines in fictional television demonstrates that characters can have a major impact on what viewers attend to in their bodies, what they learn about disease, and what they mimic, all in gendered ways. This may in turn affect recognising bodily sensations, interpreting them as symptoms, and seeking help. Media frame health topics in particular ways, privilege dominant ways of viewing health, and restrict attention to the social determinants of health such as poverty, homelessness and housing (Hodgetts & Chamberlain, 2006).

New digital media also play a major role in many aspects of health and wellbeing. Social media and networking technologies (such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter) are now a key part of social life for many people. For many young people, social media are a ubiquitous part of their everyday lives, increasingly accessed on mobile technologies and used to enact social identities and maintain valued social relationships (Boyd, 2007; Livingstone, 2008). Yet social media are commercial platforms which profit heavily from the social media practices of their users (Fuchs, 2012). This includes selling data to third parties and enabling sophisticated marketing of many products related to (ill) health and well-being, including alcohol, which raises new issues and concerns (McCreanor et al., 2013). For example, recent research suggests the pervasiveness of digital alcohol marketing on Facebook and other social media sites has exponentially increased youth exposure to pro-alcohol consumption messages (Mart, 2011; Moraes, Michaelidou, & Meneses, 2014) and may pose “even greater risks for promoting alcohol abuse than traditional marketing” (Hoffman, Pinkleton, Weintraub Austin, & Reyes-Velazquez, 2014, p. 333). Furthermore, alcohol marketing content on social media is shared by young people through their social networks which functions to normalise alcohol consumption (Niland, Lyons, Goodwin, & Hutton, 2014) and directly influence consumption behaviour (Moraes et al., 2014). Thus these more recent forms of media raise new issues related to health and well-being that require sustained critical attention.

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