The potential of digital well-being in times of physical social distancing

Digital well-being tools hold the promise of empowering users to regain control of time spent online. How successful are these tools during the Covid-19 global pandemic?

Digital detoxes, video-call fatigue, unplugging from the Internet: More people are looking to disconnect from digital devices. The beginning of 2020 marked a sudden shift to an on-life due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, researchers, technology companies and users are seeking for ways to actively mitigate the perceived dominance of digital technologies in daily life. Digital well-being apps are becoming increasingly popular: They can block notifications, minimise app activities and provide information about smartphone or laptop usage, including how much time is spent using the device. Some apps even incentivise their users to switch off the device entirely.

For example, the popular app Forest allows users to grow a virtual forest whenever the device is not in use. The credits earned can even be used to support real tree plantings. Other apps such as Happify and Happier promise to increase happiness through fun activities and to instantly reduce the stress level. Especially in times of the Covid-19 pandemic, these apps became more popular as many social routines were interrupted all of a sudden. This situation has led to a stark rise in online tools and advice designed to help people better navigate everyday digital life, such as strategies for combatting Zoom fatigue and tips for conscious smartphone use.

What is digital well-being?

In short, the idea of digital well-being is to live well with technology. A recent review by Burr, Taddeo & Floridi (2020) highlights positive computing, personalised human-computer interaction, and autonomy and self-determination as key elements of digital well-being. Dedicated apps can help people do what is right for them, since everybody develops an individual pattern of using digital communication channels. Over the past few years, internet use went beyond just browsing and digital services became increasingly pervasive. And constant updates next to new tools, software and content requires users to adapt and learn if they want to keep up to date. It can be challenging to navigate and try to make sense of all online options – news, entertainment, communication, digital education, banking, administration, shopping, meeting the family: The impacts of the global pandemic has shown that, even more than before, completely refraining from online becomes less and less of an option for many people.

How do scientists investigate digital well-being?

Research has shown that digital media, particularly social media, can cause addiction. It is perhaps unsurprising that particularly younger people are increasingly showing addictive behaviour. One study has found that rising exposure to digital media is a major risk factor for emerging depressive symptoms among teenagers and poor physical and mental health among middle-aged adults. Sarah Diefenbach addresses this issue in her research about digital well-being from a psychological perspective.

Sarah Diefenbach ESMH scientistProfessor Sarah Diefenbach, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich: “In the domain of digital self-well-being tools, I try to come up with approaches that support designers to develop tools that help users reach their personal goals, but also respect the “bitter-sweet nature” of self-regulation and change, to come up with visual and interactive designs that are engaging and motivating, and to help people to overcome potential barriers to change, (see my article about the potential and challenges of digital well-being interventions), as well as positive technology research and design in light of the bittersweet ambivalence of change. […] A particular emphasis is on the bittersweet ambivalence of change, including potential relapses and risks of self-threat, so that technology-mediated interventions adapted from (positive) psychology can have the utmost positive impact.” Read the full interview

Another way to investigate digital well-being is to take a closer look at digital self-control tools. 367 of these were analysed in a 2019 paper, which found that the most common feature of these tools was to ‘block or remove distractions’ (74% of tools), followed by ‘self-tracking’ (38% of tools), ‘goal advancement’ (35%), and to ‘reward or punish’ (22%). In short, the results suggest that digital well-being is about switching off from the online world. But is this form of self-imposed censorship really the most effective approach for self-wellbeing? As seen during the global Covid-19 lockdown, switching everything off no longer seems to be an option. Instead, people seek to take a more active role in how they engage with digital technology. Could a more positive, empowering approach to exercise self-control over digital media use be the way to go forward?

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow Matthew James Dennis looks at how we can live well with technology, especially new and emerging online technologies. His scientific research concerns the extent to which technology can both inhibit and optimise human flourishing, specifically how to cultivate digital well-being with apps and other tools. Future versions of these products, Dennis hopes, will contribute to maximising digital well-being in the 21st century. The fact that many digital well-being initiatives are offered by commercial technology companies such as Google need not be problematic.

Matthew James Dennis ESMH scientistMatthew James Dennis, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at Delft University of Technology: “Only by engaging with commercial interests can we ensure that new products prioritise human well-being, rather than allowing them to become one-dimensional, product-driven distractions. Furthermore, the tools and techniques that commercial developers currently employ have many uses outside the market place. European research institutes are well placed to make use of the possibilities that self-care apps offer.”Read the full interview

What way forward for digital well-being in the wake of COVID-19?

Alongside his research on self-care apps, Matthew James Dennis recently initiated the Delft Design for Values and 4TU.Ethics research group dedicated to COVID-19. The group will publish a special issue of the journal Ethics and Information Technology dedicated to the pandemic, run a podcast on COVID-19, and will propose a ‘Philosophy of Pandemics’ PhD course next year. The focus on designing values-based technologies shows how interest in digital well-being has increased as digital communication has seemingly become the new normal.

Matthew James Dennis : “[…] Over the subsequent weeks and months of global lockdown, understanding how our digital well-being affects the quality of our lives has become increasingly important. […] This makes it a very interesting time to study digital well-being, especially as many initiatives that aim to replicate pre-COVID life come with minimal ethical oversights. Governments and policy-makers are more willing than ever to sanction practices that would not even have been considered a few months ago.”

To summarise, the global lockdown did not just call attention to the profound impact that technologies may be having on us psychologically, including on our mental health. It also triggered many users to develop an entirely new approach to how they consume digital media. The emerging digital well-being movement has gained momentum during the pandemic, paving the way for a more conscious way of living with digital technologies.

Useful link:
Harmful internet use – Part I: Internet addiction and problematic use


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