Amidst the mounting problem of rising loneliness amongst teenage girls comes mukbangers to the rescue. You heard me right, mukbangers. Mukbangs involve people broadcasting their meals, typically large amounts with unexpected food combinations, on the internet, while viewers eat and interact right alongside them in the comfort and solitude of their homes. The concern I have with this relatively new phenomenon lies with the word solitude.
As I watched an interview segment on CBS Sunday Morning about mukbang, I was struck by the comments of regular viewers of these shows. One teenage girl said watching the shows help calm her symptoms of anxiety and ADHD. Another woman reported that she liked having company while she ate. This reminds me of the 2018 National College Health Assessment Report that found that amongst university female students, 69% felt overwhelming anxiety, 45% felt so depressed it was hard to function, and 67% felt very lonely. Eating alone has become increasingly common as the number of single-person households grows. Why is watching people gorge online so helpful?
Our brains receive what is termed an autonomous sensory meridian responses (ASMR) or ‘tingle’ when we see or hear something the brain perceives as pleasant, especially novel stimuli. There are popular ASMR videos involving people brushing their hair or kneading putty, and now we add the loud sounds from people gorging food. The brain regions of the prefrontal cortex and inferior frontal gyrus become activated by these sounds, and also whenever we receive encouraging attention from others. Thus, viewers may be responding not just to the sensory stimuli but also by the caring, kind attitudes of the hosts. Receiving positive energy and connection, even through the screen, probably causes the brain to release those feel-good chemicals like oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins.
What that means, bottom line, is that people who are feeling lonely experience a kind of connection from watching the shows while they eat. Any kind of attention and connection is better than none. As the new year unfolds, I encourage everyone to reach out to people who live alone and invite them out to their favorite restaurant or better yet, have them over for a home-cooked meal. This might be an elderly person who lives alone or a teenager with absent or distracted parents. There is something experienced with that kind of in-person fellowship that is much more fulfilling than an online mukbang show. In this era when so many people feel disconnected and lonely, we could all use some good old fashion TLC. Thanx to Lennon and McCartney, we understand that “All you need is love”. So, this year, give it freely and often.