The new mobile digital technologies, health and the body

I’ve just had an article accepted in the journal Social Theory & Health (see link below). It looks at the phenomenon of ‘m-health’, or the use of mobile digital devices such as smartphones and tablet computers to promote health. There are now a plethora of apps available for downloading onto these devices that measure and monitor aspects of the user’s health: blood pressure and heart rate, ovulation, hearing function, body mass index (BMI), adherence to a medication regime, alcohol and cigarette intake, diet, sleep quality and length, exercise frequency and level and other bodily functions and activities can all be monitored using such apps. Apple has produced technologies and apps that allow users to hook up a blood pressure monitor or a set of scales to their mobile devices to record blood pressure and weight, produce tables and readouts of these and compare daily (or hourly) fluctuations. These data can then be shared with other people via social media, so that friends or followers may keep a close eye on how many kilometres a user has run that week, what her or his heart rate was for each run, how the user’s weight has changed (or not), what kind of diet they have consumed, whether they have stuck to their medication and so on.

Many of these apps are produced by commercial developers. However health promoters are beginning to see their potential and to consider and adopt the capabilities of mobile digital devices to individualise and target health promotion messages so as to change people’s behaviour. As one writer argued in a recent blog post on the use of messaging for public health objectives, such apps can be used to ‘become a “personal health coach”‘ to remind people to takeup health-related behaviours.

The use of mobile digital devices in health promotion endeavours represents a significant shift in the methods of health promotion. Health promotion has traditionally been a low tech area of public health in comparison with the vast array of medical technologies used in the clinical setting. The primary use of technology in health promotion has tended to be in employing communication media to disseminate illness-prevention messages to a wide audience. Health promotion has borrowed extensively from commercially-oriented social marketing, advertising and public relations approaches and methods to do so. These industries are now embracing social media and mobile devices as part of their publicising efforts. Here again, therefore, health promotion can be seen to be taking the lead from commercial enterprises which are directed at marking and selling commodities.

Writers from medical and health promotion backgrounds about the new social media and mobile devices tend to confine themselves in their discussions to describing how these technologies could be most effectively used as tools in their efforts to help people deal with medical conditions or improve their general health and wellbeing. From a sociological perspective, a more critical analysis may be undertaken of how these technologies may operate to construct various forms of identities and ways of experiencing and viewing one’s body. This analysis includes identifying the kinds of assumptions that are made about the target of these technologies and what the moral and ethical ramifications of using them may be. Moral implications include the kinds of meanings and the representation of the ideal subject that are related to the use of these technologies in the interests of promoting health. Ethical issues include questioning the extent to which health promotion practice should intrude into their targeted populations’ private lives and what kinds of messages and practices they employ when using digital surveillance devices. The article addresses these and other issues, drawing upon a range of social and cultural theory to do so.

I argue that m-health technologies produce a digital cyborg body. They are able to act not only as prostheses but also as interpreters of the body. The subject produced through the use of m-health technologies is constructed as both an object of surveillance and persuasion and as a responsible citizen who is willing and able to act on the health imperatives issuing forth from the technologies and to present their body/self as open to continual measurement and assessment. The implications of this new way of monitoring and regulating health have yet to be fully explored. These include privacy issues, questions about the intrusion of health promotion even more insistently into everyday lives and the possible ways in which concepts of ‘health’ might be reconfigured via the use of these new technologies.

References

Lupton, D. (in press) M-health and health promotion: the digital cyborg and surveillance society. Social Theory & Health. Advance online pre-publication details are here.

See my pinterest board on ‘M-health and the Digital Cyborg‘ for images related to this topic.

5 thoughts on “The new mobile digital technologies, health and the body

  1. Pingback: Living the quantified self: the realities of self-tracking for health | This Sociological Life

  2. Pingback: Moving attachments: our emotional relationship with mobile digital media technologies | This Sociological Life

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