Digital technologies have brought great opportunities: new methods of communication, different ways to connect with others, and easy access to information. In this blog, I explore how to manage the negative side of digital interactions.
According to Ofcom data, the average adult spends more than 22 hours online per week and our mobile phones have become integral to everyday life, with 51% of adults indicating that they would miss their mobile phones the most out of all their devices.
Living in a digital world
With the positives that digital technologies present also come negatives:
- 53% of internet users encountered hateful content online in the past year
- "Gaming disorder" was identified as a mental health issue by the World Health Organisation in 2018
- The NHS opened its first specialist gaming addiction clinic in 2019
With digital technologies becoming ubiquitous with modern work, education and entertainment, it is increasingly important to identify strategies that promote positive digital wellbeing.
Exploring digital wellbeing
I first got interested in exploring the various facets of digital wellbeing back in 2016, initially due to a personal need to address digital interactions that were causing me stress and anxiety.
However, I soon realised that digital wellbeing couldn’t be explored just from a personal perspective; our wellbeing is impacted by our interactions with others, how we connect with broader society and the underlying design principles of the apps and platforms that we interact with.
I used this definition of digital wellbeing, which has emerged from Jisc's building digital capability work, as a basis for my investigations. It picks up on the need to explore this topic from a broad range of perspectives. It’s important to reflect on personal behaviours, understand our responsibilities as employers and educators, and to identify broader societal and environmental perspectives.
As part of my explorations of digital wellbeing, I worked with colleagues from across the University of York. I encountered academics from a range of disciplines, whose research included the use of technologies to treat anxiety, gamification to encourage civic engagement and behaviour change, and the impact of data and metrics on democracy.
What was clear from my interactions with the researchers was that digital wellbeing is a complex and multifaceted topic. I think Lina Gega summed it up best when she said:
“When it comes to mental wellbeing and mental health, digital media is like a gust of air; it can fuel as much as blow out a fire.”
Personal digital wellbeing
As identified in the aforementioned definition of digital wellbeing, from an individual perspective the first steps towards improvement is to identify the positive and negative impacts of digital interactions on emotions and relationships. We need to understand our habits and what works for us.
While I was reflecting on my own digital wellbeing I drew on techniques from positive psychology. I found useful ideas for change on Action for Happiness and used Martin Seligman's PERMA Model (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishments) to reflect on my digital interactions.
The bad habits that I identified were my tendency to check work emails in the evening and in social situations and work on documents and presentations outside of working hours. For example, I once wrote a presentation on my phone while out for a birthday meal with my husband. I was ‘always on’ and often felt anxious and resentful that work was permeating all areas of my life.
From recognising my own habits and reflecting on which activities caused positive and negative emotions, I indentified some positive steps I could make to change my behaviours and manage digital distractions. One of the most simple but effective changes was turning off alerts on my phone to combat my tendency to check email outside work.
My colleagues and I have shared our learning, the research from academics on digital wellbeing and our own reflections in a free digital wellbeing online course. We have included information about broader societal perspectives and technological design principles to enable staff and students to make informed decisions about the technologies they adopt. There is guidance on how to deal with digital distractions, combating cyberbullying and how to implement ethical universal design principles so learners can improve their digital wellbeing.
Staff and student digital wellbeing
Jisc identified some areas to consider when supporting other people’s digital wellbeing in two sets of briefing papers launched before Christmas. As a sector, we need to think about the inclusivity and accessibility of our services and systems and we must enable our staff and students to develop the skills and understandings to effectively manage the impact of digital technologies on wellbeing.
From our work on this at York, we have found it important to avoid being too prescriptive in any guidance to promote positive digital wellbeing. There is no one-size-fits-all; instead, it’s better to reflect on the impact that digital technologies have on our emotional and physical wellbeing, to enable us to make positive changes that will improve our own and others' relationships with technology.
Susan will be hosting a session on 'becoming a digital citizen: research, opinion and fairytales’. at Digifest, which takes place in Birmingham on 10-11 March 2020. Book your place to hear this, and a host of other sessions, workshops and experiences. Tickets are free for Jisc member institutions.