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The Problem with ‘Free’ Media…

So much of the media we demand and consume nowadays has a 'free' price-tag. But is it truly 'free'? What implications do click-bait, aggressive advertising, and other aspects of ostensibly free media have on our lives?

Key points

  • Free media relies on advertising revenue
  • This drive for advertising revenue results in ‘click-bait’ headlines and emotive themes that compel you to ‘click’
  • Because of click-bait and other drivers to sites, we can end up wasting time on ‘free’ media
  • We may also be driven to anxiety, depression, and other negative mental health states
  • This model could also cost us more (despite it being ‘free’) due to reactive purchases
  • We may also end up taking income away from creatives who rely on selling their work

One of the biggest problems with the ubiquitous availability of ‘free’ media for entertainment, news, and distraction is not just that it is likely to be bad for both our physical and mental health, but also that it simply is not actually free. The vast majority of what we consider to be ‘free’ is paid for in a variety of ways including our time, advertising revenue, and by freemium models that encourage us to pay for more feature-rich versions of the product/service.

Your time is payment

The old saying is “time is money”, but perhaps more aptly it would be, “time is your life”.

Time is the very currency of your life. Whenever we create and release content, there is an implicit understanding that one of the ways in which people pay for consuming it is through their most valuable currency… TIME. This is hugely important and yet most of us don’t think about it at all when we are online or flicking through various apps.

The question we should ask is, “is what I am doing right now worth spending some of my life on?”

The question we should ask is, “is what I am doing right now worth spending some of my life on?”

Advertising as payment

Mostly, when we consume ‘free’ media, we do so in exchange for listening to or viewing advertisements. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this model, it can result in the unintended consequences of distraction, annoyance (and the resultant stress), and might even result in you spending more money than if you had purchased ad-free content…


Ads are distracting. They reduce the reading or viewing experience by distracting your attention with unwanted calls-to-action and annoying pop-ups and banners.  This can result in you spending more time on the page and increases your latent stress levels.

Knee-jerk purchases

Ads work. If they didn’t, no one would be doing it. The average conversion rates from various platforms for advertising are remarkably high. As you can see in the following graph, average conversion rates run from 0.5 to over 8%, with many of these purchases being reactive ones. Reactive purchases would seldom be made if you had additional time for consideration, or more appropriate purchases would be made if you actually needed something, because you would be more likely to set aside the time to research the best option, to meet your needs, at your budget.

Conversion rates from advertising on free media platforms

(from a report published in Forbes in 2018:

Future purchases

While you may not ‘up and buy’ from seeing an ad, you might be more likely to buy a product you see online now, in the future. A compelling ad and narrative can implant the idea that you ‘need’ that particular product and this can leave you feeling unfulfilled until you acquire it. However, if you hadn’t been exposed to it, you would likely feel just as good without it, and would never really ‘need’ it. Of course, there will be things that you inevitably desire anyway, and I’m by no means saying that companies shouldn’t expose us to their products, but when we have the time and energy to more objectively find the best option for us,  we are more likely to make better spending decisions.

The overwhelming and unceasing exposure to advertising is the problem, not advertising per se.

The overwhelming and unceasing exposure to advertising is the problem, not advertising itself

Is this actually ‘free’?

When we consider that we are ‘paying’ for free media in many ways and that we might very well make unnecessary purchases based on exposure to advertising, we have to ask the question, “is it really free?”. Perhaps most importantly, we need to ponder whether we might have even spent more money (and time…) as a result of consuming ‘free’ media, versus the relatively small cost of purchasing higher quality, ad-free media.

Piracy, clickbait, and the degrading of quality

Along with the advertising revenue model, there is also a huge amount of illegal, free content consumed. Quite obviously, when we download pirated content for free, we are in effect stealing from content creators. Many people will justify this under the guise of a ‘Robin Hood’ mentality that they are less privileged than the wealthy artists who create content. While there HAVE been some benefits from the rise of software like Napster back in the 1990s (such as revising the pricing models of the music industry and reducing some of the largesse), it would be a mistake to think that all, or even most content creators are living high on the hog.

Most creators don’t make a living from their work

Most creators don’t make a living from their work. For example, of the over 3,000,000 books published in the US every year, less than 500 make it the New York Times bestseller list, and 25% of these only appear once. Even more illustrative is the fact that the majority of best-sellers sell between 10,000 and 100,000 copies in their first year.1 Depending on the royalty split, this could be as much as 1.4 million dollars for a relatively high priced ($20) e-book, or as little as ~7000 dollars. The reality is that few ‘best-selling’ authors are having stellar financial success, with some merely making a living, and most requiring other sources of income.

My books can be found on many pirate sites, and the cost of lost revenue is likely to be considerable, especially considering that I am a humble nutrition researcher and educator with only a relatively small social community. Given that it is my ‘job’ to research, write, and teach the outcomes of this research; taking from this affects me, my family, and community.

If you want to read it, buy it… You wouldn’t walk into a store and walk out with a product, so why would you download a pirated piece of content?

You wouldn’t walk into a store and walk out with a product, so why would you download a pirated piece of content?


The need to drive advertising revenues drives ‘click-bait’ headlines, imagery, and increasingly the content itself. Click-bait is designed to elicit strong emotions like anger (do you really want to be angered repeatedly through your day?) and thereby encourage you to reactively click and be exposed to advertising. Not only is this distracting—taking valuable ‘brain-space’ from you and sapping your energy, it also leads you to waste time reading articles you wouldn’t otherwise have read. And the worst of it…the content is typically shit.

Unfortunately, one of the no-win situations that has emerged in several online newspapers is that along with their content having been degraded and their journalistic integrity compromised for clicks, they have excessive advertising AND they have also begun to put behind a paywall ostensibly ‘premium’ articles. This is a gross example of having your cake and eating it…

Of course, there are some bastions of quality journalism that still exist, and I highly suggest you frequent and support these in preference to the plethora of rubbish out there.

Did you miss Part 1. of this series The Effects of Social Media on Health? Check it out HERE


1.          Yucesoy B, Wang X, Huang J, Barabási A-L. Success in books: a big data approach to bestsellers. EPJ Data Science. 2018;7(1):7.

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