1: What is Digital Wellbeing?
An Introduction to Wellness
We’re all at least vaguely familiar with what “wellbeing” or “wellness” is – a state of mind in which we judge life positively and feel good, and which comes from being healthy of mind, body, and soul.
Our grasp of this has progressed enormously in recent decades, and there’s now no shortage of advice for people looking to achieve the peace of mind needed for wellbeing.
It encompasses every part of life, from a nutritious diet, regular exercise, and healthy relationships with friends and family, to professional fulfilment, gratifying hobbies, and financial security. Wellbeing even stretches to our relationship with the environment.
There is also a strong psychological component, whereby we regulate our mental health through controlling our emotions and addictions, without overlooking the spiritual or intellectual aspects that give our lives meaning and purpose.
And while this may seem like too many spinning plates for a world overflowing with distractions, temptations, and short-term fixes, it ultimately comes down to developing and sustaining healthy day-to-day habits.
For a concise overview of digital wellbeing, download our bite sized guide.
From Wellness to Digital Wellbeing
These habits extend to our digital lives.
For most people, the internet – and the digital technologies that drive it – is the cornerstone of modern life, with the average person dedicating nearly seven hours to their screen(s) every day (DataReportal).
The digital devices we own are integral to everything, from the professional to the private. We use them to shop, date, and entertain; they know all our routines and secrets, and this has a profound impact on our personal relationships, reputation, and sense of self-worth.
Indeed, it's not clear any more where our digital lives end and our “real” lives begin. But, the importance of the internet to wellbeing is reflected in a body of literature on the subject that has mushroomed over the last few years.
“Digital wellbeing” takes the concept of wellbeing and applies it to our online lives. It refers to the mental, physical, social, and emotional state of someone who has a healthy relationship with the internet and their various devices.
But dig deeper, and the subjectivity of digital wellbeing makes it hard to quantify.
Everyone responds differently to experiences – what’s good for one person can be bad for another – and it’s difficult to separate digital wellbeing from general wellness, because of the way the two feed into each other.
And any understanding of digital health is muddled by the fact the term describes both digital wellness as a destination, and the journey itself. Confusing things further, it’s also used by the healthcare community to refer to eConsultations, eHealth, and related services.
The Substance of Our Digital Habits
It's not all bad; digital technology can bring real benefits to people – reducing loneliness, allowing people living with disabilities to take part in activities they would otherwise be excluded from, and providing a wealth of information that was unimaginable not so long ago.
But screen time has been identified as a key measurement of digital wellbeing, and a reduction in usage has been found to improve mental health issues. However, it’s not necessarily how long we spend online, but what we’re doing that matters.
Are we having conversations with friends or arguing with strangers? Are we learning the truth about the world or disappearing down conspiracy theory rabbit holes? Does our mindless scrolling mean we are sacrificing important real-world relationships?
These are some of the questions around our relationship with our devices, and the answers dictate our level of digital wellbeing.
The Two Digital Wellbeing Perspectives
Generally, we can divide digital wellbeing into two key areas – the personal and the organizational (or societal).
The first relates to what we can do to improve our own digital wellness, while the second refers to the responsibilities that governments, companies, and schools have to this end.
This resource hub is structured around these two perspectives. After this introductory chapter, it will focus on how to improve relationships with our own devices, before moving on in chapter three to what companies can do to help staff on their journey.
We will then look at the effects of digital wellbeing on societies around the world – a crucial subject given all the real world harm caused by big tech companies that prioritize profit over public health, and who have paid only lip service to digital wellbeing for the time being.
We’ve also dedicated a chapter to children, who have never known a world without the internet, and who’s mental health is most vulnerable to negative influences – they are our future, and it's vital that they develop positive online habits if they are to enjoy their lives.
Finally, we’ll look at our own company’s approach to the subject – how we are looking after our own employees and customers, and how the issue of data privacy feeds into digital wellbeing today.
Key Areas of Digital Wellbeing Today
It's fascinating to think that the average person today has a device in their pocket more powerful than anything the richest man could afford even 50 years ago.
Our smartphones mean that we are permanently interconnected and have access to a world of almost limitless possibilities.
We take this advanced technology for granted in everyday life, but there is a flip side to this – behind each screen is a supercomputer that is manipulating us.
It’s also safe to say that we don’t yet fully understand the effect that being permanently plugged in has on us, the people around us, or society at large. This is a crucial issue and one that will only increase in importance as digital technologies become ever more advanced.
However, we can recognize the key indicators of good personal digital health, and can see the impact of bad patterns of behaviour on families, friends, and wider society.
Digital Technologies and Screen Time
Screen time is a key determinant of digital wellbeing, though using phones, tablets, and computers a lot can still in itself be healthy because of their capacity to make almost any task in life easier.
The problems come when habits become obsessive, impulsive, excessive, or compulsive, since these behaviours can stop us from looking after our wider health and negatively affect people around us.
For evidence of this, look at the pedestrian transfixed by their screen as they cross a busy intersection, or the dog in the park waiting for their owner to put away their phones and play.
Screen time also needs to be assessed by how often we interact with our devices, and how easily they distract us from activities in the real world. This makes “pick-ups” another key metric for digital health, with the average person reaching for their phone 58 times a day (Rescue Time).
This susceptibility to our devices is a fundamental human weakness, and is something that tech companies have learnt to exploit with psychological tricks inspired by the gambling world.
And from this perspective, it’s no coincidence that only drug addicts and people online are called “users” – both activities can be highly addictive and self-destructive if left unchecked.
Children’s 24/7 Digital Lifestyles
The internet, along with its related devices, is a great place for children to learn, create things, and socialize. But it also opens them up to potential harm.
Things like cyberbullying, pornography, and violent content will all affect children more than the average adult, and the impact of bad experiences during formative years means that digital wellbeing should be a key pillar of their wider development from a young age.
And while these dangers predate the internet, they are far more endemic than they were in the past. Children are permanently online, they know how to bypass parental limits and age restrictions, and it's difficult to protect them from all the dangers all of the time.
In the UK, over half of children aged 11-16 have seen explicit material online. One third of them have suffered sexism, racism, or other forms of discrimination. One in ten aged 8-11 say they’ve seen something nasty or worrying online (Internet Matters).
Ultimately, these bad experiences can damage a child’s mental state, self worth, and body image. The consequences of this can be seen in the rates of suicide, self harm, and depression - particularly among teenage girls - that have increased significantly since the arrival of the smartphone.
And, even when experiences are good, excessive screen time among children is known to cause obesity, underdeveloped social skills, and poor mental health that can all stay with them for life.
This has wider societal implications, particularly since the next generation that will leave school and enter the workforce has never known a world without smartphones.
It means that schools and parents alike need to take digital wellbeing seriously, and to find ways to guide children towards healthy digital independence.
COVID and the Rush to Digital
The COVID-19 pandemic has substantially increased the amount of time that people spend online, and it looks like a lot of the new habits it fostered are here to stay.
People are working from home more than ever before, while students are now accustomed to remote learning. And, with shops closed and people stuck indoors, the internet became all the more popular - and vital - as a hub for socializing and commerce.
Admittedly, the pandemic simply accelerated pre-existing trends towards digitization, and a lot of workers particularly prefer this new state of affairs.
It’s easy to see why, since this gives them more flexibility about where, when, and how they work.
But this has served to increase the importance of digital wellbeing, since teleworking can escalate feelings of isolation and stress, while reducing the ability of workers to “switch off” outside working hours.
What’s more, the pandemic arrived suddenly, and most businesses were forced to build a remote working dynamic in a moment of panic. This means that policies and practices are far from perfect, and developing digital wellness at work can improve productivity and revenue.
But digital wellbeing provides companies with another avenue to increase productivity, and can be built into their brand to attract wellness-conscious customers.
Societal Cost of Poor Digital Wellness
Poor digital wellbeing has wider implications, and one thing we need to ask ourselves is this - is our reliance on digital technologies pushing society in the right direction?
Suicide rates have skyrocketed since the advent of the internet - and particularly social media.
Workers in the gig economy are paid a pittance and have to work 15 hour days to make ends meet.
Family dynamics have suffered, as members prioritize their phones over interacting with each other.
These are all crucial issues for society, with the roots lying in poor relationships with personal devices - that are also designed without the digital wellness of users in mind.
What’s more, internet users are being manipulated by fake news and misinformation. This is not concept creep, since the often angry or even violent responses are the opposite of wellness in the digital age.
People are more divided than ever, and the real world consequences of this extend to rigged elections, genocide, and ethnic cleansing.
And, by spending more and more time on our devices, we are making a small number of Silicon Valley corporations hugely powerful, and the damage that companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google do to societies is not open to debate.
Being truly mindful also means considering the environmental and human cost of activities like mining the red earth minerals needed for computing components in already unstable parts of the world, or working conditions in third world factories that build the devices we buy.
Digital Wellbeing in a Data-Powered World
People worry today about what information about them is available online, who has access to it, and what happens to this data.
These concerns are far from unfounded; phishing, catfishing, and other nefarious activities can cause anxiety that seeps out into the real world.
And with so much of our financial and health information digitized, the potential of cybercrime to hurt people’s lives and livelihoods is greater than ever.
Beating these criminals at their own game is hard, but less tech-savvy people, like pensioners and those living with learning difficulties, are even more vulnerable.
Moreover, there is far more personal information available online than most of us are aware of.
Social media should be seen as one big psychological experiment; these sites are designed to be as addictive as possible, while our likes, clicks, and scrolling reveal far more about ourselves than we realize.
The information collected is then fed into advanced marketing campaigns that aim to sell us things that we don’t necessarily need, or can’t afford. People who already have gambling or shopping addictions, for instance, must rue the day the internet was invented.
We live in a data-powered world and this isn’t going to change any time soon. Some people are still opting for a digitally dark lifestyle, but it's getting harder and harder for them to do the most basic things without a device or internet connection.
Even getting state welfare requires us to be connected and to ensure that our personal data is available on government databases. In this context, undocumented migrants, gig workers, and poor people without digital devices are most at risk of getting left behind.
The Future of Digital Wellbeing
Knowledge about the negative impact of digital technologies has existed for around a decade, but “digital wellness” as a term was only invented - by Google - in 2018.
And so, despite the large amount of advice and apps available, we could well be only scratching the surface of what it means and how to optimize it.
Despite its young age, digital wellbeing is fast catching public attention, since it meshes with wider thinking about the importance of personal health in the modern world.
This does place real pressure on social media companies, to the point that we could see them taking more substantial measures to protect their users. We can hope that Elon Musk will remove some of the toxicity from Twitter, and that others will follow suit.
The arrival of digital wellbeing laws will only increase, as governments look for ways to protect citizens as they work from home in ever-increasing numbers. At the same time, it’s clear that the impact of digital technologies - if left unchecked - will continue to affect society in negative ways.
Ultimately, the future of digital wellness is ours to shape as a society, and is our collective responsibility as a community.
From governments and businesses to parents and carers, we all need to work together to enhance our digital wellbeing, address challenges posed by new digital innovations, and minimize potential risks.
Why does Digital Wellbeing Matter?
Ultimately, our personal devices can bring real benefits to our lives, but we need to take digital wellbeing seriously if the good is not to be outweighed by the bad.
The internet is a dangerous place and it opens us up to a multitude of bad experiences - these can really hit home and make us feel worse about ourselves and the wider world. On a long enough timeline, anything from being trolled to arguing online can affect our mental health.
Poor digital wellbeing can even hit our wallets, since if we don’t secure our personal and banking information - for instance - we are at a higher risk of identity theft and fraud, with obvious implications for financial health and credit ratings.
More generally, living excessively online can be seriously harmful to health, particularly if other aspects of a healthy lifestyle are overlooked.
It can result in problems like obesity, insomnia, vision problems, and weight loss, as well as text neck, trigger thumb, and carpal tunnel damage.
Nor should emotional consequences be overlooked, with device overuse linked to depression, low self esteem, anxiety, dishonesty, social isolation, aggression, and mood swings.
What’s more, productivity should be seen as a superpower in a world of distractions, with our digital devices proven to limit our capacity to concentrate.
As such, developing a healthy relationship with digital technology will have a substantial bearing on your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing - not to mention allowing you to dedicate time to the things that matter most in life.
2: How to Improve Your Digital Wellbeing
The nature of the modern world means that, between the working day and our private lives, we can easily find ourselves spending most of our waking hours staring at screens.
Such habits and behavior can have a real impact on our energy levels, mood, and social engagement.
As such, being mindful about how you use digital technologies can actually help you to improve and maintain your overall wellbeing.
This chapter will look at the things you can do to improve your own digital wellbeing, before moving on to introducing some of the technology that is available to help you with this process.
Recommendations for Personal Digital Wellbeing
Digital wellbeing in itself is not a difficult thing to achieve, with a good start being to balance screen time with what you’re doing in the real world, and to be mindful of your online habits and behavior.
With this in mind, this section will run through some tips that will help you to fine-tune your tech habits - both during your downtime and at work:
Assess and Monitor Your Habits
Being mindful of your digital wellbeing means thinking about your relationship with your devices, how they make you feel, and what you can do to improve these issues.
To this end, it's worthwhile to assess your level of tech usage, particularly since we actually use our smartphones much more - by two whole hours a day - than we think (Solitaired).
This can be done by taking advantage of the inbuilt monitoring function on your smartphone - if this doesn't exist, there are many good third-party alternatives available for download.
Ultimately, your goal should be to restrict your device usage when not at work, and to this end it’s useful to create some ground rules that you (and your family) can follow.
This could be anything from designating device-free zones around the house, to deciding on periods when you won’t look at your phone, or to not check your phone during the first 30 minutes of the day - and to ensure that you stick to these rules once they’ve been established.
The goal here is to prioritize real world relationships, which is why it’s a good idea to put your phone away when eating, or to simply activate the “do not disturb”, or similar features on your smartphone.
You could do something similar when socializing, and you might already know about friendship groups that follow a “phone free” policy.
Oftentimes, one person in the group will take everyone’s phone at the beginning of the evening, and return them at the end. Other groups will place their devices in the middle of the table, and whoever touches their phone first has to pay the bill for everyone.
But probably the most important habit to adopt revolves around bedtime. Since screen time before bed stops you from sleeping properly, it's best to not use your phone in the hour before you go to sleep, or - even better - to place it in another room before you turn in.
Failing that, you can use features, such as bedtime and night time mode, which trigger grayscale so as to minimize blue light. Also, when activated, you will find that some functions on your phone do not show so well without color - reducing your desire to interact with them.
Given that our devices are designed to distract us, it’s wise to keep your devices out of sight and out of mind as much as possible, or simply turn it to focus or airplane mode.
This will restrict the number of notifications you receive, which stop you from concentrating properly. However, the vast majority of these are non-essential, and can be turned off in the settings app.
For many, email is the biggest distraction, but this again can be controlled - unsubscribe from unwanted marketing emails, turn off non-essential notifications, and use features like priority inboxes and email scheduling to streamline this tool further.
Upgrade to ad-free subscriptions where possible. This not only removes the annoyance and distraction of the ads, but usually gives you access to premium features that make your digital life easier.
More broadly, it’s wise to simplify, declutter, and organize your Home Screen. There are many apps that can help you do this if required, but it can also be done manually - by deleting unneeded apps and activating grayscale.
Utilize Self-Control Tools
Our devices play on our self control and if you have trouble separating yourself from your phone, then you’re not alone - 40% of people check their phones on the toilet, 12% in the shower, and 20% during sex (Tiger Mobiles).
Smartphone usage is also responsible for a staggering 26% of all car accidents (Tiger Mobiles).
Ultimately, controlling our impulse to look at our devices is key to digital wellbeing - for those that can’t, there are many apps and tools that can help you. Screen time apps are some of the most well known, enabling you to set daily limits on app and website usage.
There are other apps like Freedom and Forest, which have been designed to help you break bad digital habits. Or time management tools like RescueTime, which can enable you to control how long you spend on a given task, and can also block social media and other distractions.
And if you’re really serious about digital wellbeing, why not leave your phone at home when you leave the house?
Many of us may have payment and travel apps on our phones and feel that we cannot leave the house without them. But, to have the occasional day off from your phone, keep a small wallet with your cards and travel pass by the front door so it’s always ready.
Strengthen Your Privacy and Security
Your online privacy and data security are key components of digital wellbeing, since poor digital practices opens you up to the bad experiences that can lead to anxiety and other mental health issues.
This is an important issue, but there are thankfully a range of measures that you can take to strengthen your online privacy and security:
Use a privacy-first browser
Block online advertisements
Use messaging apps with end-to-end encryption
Review the data access permissions of the apps on your devices
Modify privacy settings on social media to limit who can see your account and/or personal information
Keep your email address and phone number private to limit spam and robocalls, and consider getting secondary contact details when shopping online
Use review sites to identify trustworthy software, and choose options that respect data privacy regulations
Be Mindful of Social Media
Dedicating too much time to social media can impact wellbeing, quality of life, and physical health (Helion), and it’s wise to limit usage as much as possible.
Beyond this, it’s important to think about how you interact with these platforms, and to follow the rules that will help you build healthy long-term habits.
Firstly, be kind online - refrain from cyberbullying, trolling, and other forms of behavior that can negatively impact other people.
Avoid getting into negative discussions online, or things that are an unproductive drain on your time, and leave groups or unfollow friends who are a negative influence on your feed.
Ultimately, it comes down to portraying yourself on social media in a way that is representative of how you are in real life. And, when spending a lengthy period on social media or debating a specific topic, monitor how you feel as this can be very emotive and draining.
Take Care of your Eyesight
Our digital devices would be much less useful without our eyesight, but studies show that blue light can damage cells in the retina, causing degeneration and potentially blindness. However, good habits can substantially reduce the probability of this.
Firstly, you’ll want to sit a sensible distance away from televisions, computer screens, and other devices wherever possible.
Next, it’s prudent to decrease screen brightness so that it matches the room’s lighting, or consider using apps like f.lux and Eye Pro that automatically calibrate a device’s screen brightness to the local time of day.
Take regular breaks away from your devices to let your eyes relax, and adopt the 20-20-20 rule - after 20 minutes of screen time, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
More broadly, it’s also wise to have regular eye tests to ensure any prescriptions are up to date - thereby preventing any unnecessary strain.
Improve Your Posture
The way that you use your devices can have a real impact on your physical health, with a staggering 60% of Americans having experienced health problems from using technology or sitting at a desk (Harris Interactive).
Given this, it’s important that you have the right posture when using your devices: