Media can affect people’s spirituality — for better or worse

Media can affect people’s spirituality — for better or worse

Brian Primack
Brian Primack

Let’s face it: it’s difficult to disconnect.

Americans are incessantly lured by the call of the media. It beckons us through televisions, computers, tablets, phones, music and movies.

It manipulates us and wastes our time. It can make us depressed, fat and sick.

We know this, and still it is hard to unplug.

The effects of a media-driven society on our health and psychological well-being have been studied extensively by Dr. Brian Primack, director of the Program for Research on Media and Health at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Expanding upon that research, Primack will discuss  “American Idolatry: Exploring How Mass Media Can Thwart or Support Jewish Spirituality,” at Congregation Beth Shalom, Monday, March 4, at 7:30 p.m. as part of Beth Shalom Health Initiative’s three-part series. The series is made possible by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, the UPMC Cancer Center and the Fine Foundation. The course is free and open to the public.

The program will focus on the challenges to Jewish spirituality posed by pervasive media. It will examine media alongside readings from the Tanach and Talmud. The program will go beyond mere criticism of the media to explore innovative ways in which it can be used to actually foster Jewish spiritual growth.

Primack has studied the negative aspects of media, such as the effect of the widespread promotion of tobacco and alcohol, and the phenomenon of “Facebook depression,” in which people are constantly comparing their lives to that of their social media friends, who are posting only positive statuses or touting their successes.

But media can also be a means to achieve wellness.

“It’s not all bad,” Primack said. “It’s also a tool that is really amazing. If you have Crohn’s disease, for example, you can have a support group with people in New Zealand and Australia. There are video games that are not just a waste of time, but that promote health and improve physical fitness.”

“The concept here,” he continued, “is that it is the same thing with regard to spirituality and Judaism.”

We live in a “media-driven world that can be at odds with Jewish spirituality,” Primack said, noting, as an example, the difficulty in putting our devices away on Shabbat.

“There are some talmudic passages that almost presaged this,” he said. “In Pirkei Avot, there is a passage that says, ‘There is nothing as good for the body as silence.’ ”

Another passage in Pirkei Avot, regarding “gratitude and abundance,” can also be applied to help counter the effect of today’s onslaught of media, Primack said.

“The whole point of advertisers is to make you feel like you don’t have enough,” he said. “Our ancestors presaged this, too.  We live in a world where we want things, but it is good to be thankful first for what we have.”

The third major tenet of Judaism applicable to the challenges of the media is that of valuing justice and truth.

The media, Primack contended, is largely built on lies. Magazines promise the impossible: rock-hard abs in three days, or a one-paragraph technique may claim to put an end to a child’s whining forever.

But, when used in the right way, the media can actually help promote spirituality.

“The media also makes it easier to find Jewish texts that are valuable,” he said, “to find quotations that are meaningful to me, that remind me to take a breath and remind me of the spiritual nature of things.”

The first step in quelling the harm and focusing on the good of media is awareness, according to Primack.

“People may not realize the depth of it, how ubiquitous these messages are,” he said. “I really want to create some ‘Aha’ moments, and to make it less abstract. I think that awareness is crucial as a first step.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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