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 fulfillment, 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.
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 anymore 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 flipside 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 behavior 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 behaviors 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.
FURTHER READING: How to Ensure Digital Wellbeing When Working Remotely
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.
FURTHER READING: What are the common effects of poor digital wellbeing?
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.
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:
- Position screens at, or slightly below, eye level
- Adopt correct posture without hunching, twisting, slumping, or arching your spine - which should instead be straight and in a neutral position
- Use of equipment, such as desk or monitor risers, sit/stand desks, back cushions and wrist supports can be very beneficial
- Further align spine through correct chair height and positioning, so that feet rest flat on the floor - use a foot stool if necessary
- Do some regular physiotherapeutic exercises - paying special attention to the neck - to limit the bad effects of overusing technology
- Ensure that you have good technique with all the devices you use, protecting yourself from painful issues such as text neck, trigger thumb, and carpal tunnel damage
Consider Your Wider Health
Regardless of how often you use your devices, you need to stay mindful about your physical health to ensure that your future self doesn’t suffer.
As such, it’s best to invest in technology or furniture, such as a separate monitor, orthopedic chair, or standing desk, which will enable you to use your devices safely.
It’s also crucial to take a break from your devices if you are feeling pain in your hands, wrists, or eyes, or experiencing “computer vision syndrome” - the symptoms of which include strained and dry eyes, blurred vision, and headaches.
Any potential damage to your body can also be limited by integrating some form of physical activity into your daily routine. Given this, take a walk at lunchtime and after work, or play some sports to unwind and keep fit.
FURTHER READING: How Does the Internet Affect Your Health
Recommendations for Digital Wellbeing at Work
The working world is more digitized than ever before, with computers central to the professional lives of many. Given this, it’s important to take the personal digital wellbeing recommendations outlined above, and apply them to your 9 to 5.
However, the workplace - physical, remote, or hybrid - is a different environment, and requires further thought if true digital wellbeing is to be realized. As such, we’ve created a guide for companies, and have compiled our top tips for digital wellbeing at work below:
- Stick to contracted working hours, keeping evenings and weekends as device-free as possible
- Get away from your devices during breaks
- Switch off as many notifications as possible, turning down the volume on digital signals
- Set a notification schedule on any platforms used for work, so that you are not disturbed during downtime
- Take advantage of “do not disturb” and out-of-office features, and remind coworkers to respect your status
- Limit meeting fatigue by taking breaks, hiding your own video from the screen, and refraining from multitasking while on the call
- Take time to learn how to use any work technologies properly - this will reduce frustration and improve productivity
How Big Tech is Addressing Digital Wellbeing
Given that the vast majority of the internet is controlled by a tiny number of Silicon Valley companies - think Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple - then they are in a powerful position to guide our relationship with our devices, and improve our wellbeing - if they wanted to (more on that later).
This section will run through the work that these companies are doing to improve the digital wellbeing of their users.
Given that “don’t be evil” was Google’s unofficial motto for most of their existence, it makes sense that - of all the big tech companies - they have been taking a lead role in digital wellbeing. They even claim to have invented the term back in 2018.
Their approach is all the more vital when you consider that they hold a 92% share of the online search market (Statista), and their operating system underpins 46% of all smartphones in North America (Statista).
Type “Digital Wellbeing” into Google, and their Digital Wellbeing tools dominate the search results. These provide users with a daily report of how frequently they use different apps; they can set usage limits, and unplug at night with features like bedtime mode.
Google has also created a digital wellbeing hub, while Experiments with Google showcases ideas that help people find a better balance with technology. It has also launched the “paper phone”, which is just what it sounds like, and which aims to help people take a break from technology.
The company has also taken some steps to protect user privacy - a key element of digital wellbeing, with Android 12, for instance, giving them control over which apps can access their devices’s camera and microphone.
Big tech competitors were quick to follow Google’s lead, with Apple launching a range of digital wellbeing features of its own in 2018.
Apple has a 54% share of the mobile OS market (Statista). And when combined with Android’s share, this means that the vast majority of smartphone users now have devices that come out of the box with digital wellbeing tools pre-installed.
From iOS 12 onwards, users can now take advantage of a range of features that include reports on screen time, optional restrictions on app usage, alert management, and parental controls for children.
These have since been developed further; more recently, Apple introduced new features in iOS 15. Most prominent of these is its focus feature, which enables users to turn off different notifications, and to create their own personalized focus modes.
Facebook never did get around to building a smartphone, meaning that its responsibility to digital wellbeing ultimately rests on limiting the addictive tendencies of some of its users, blocking fake news, misinformation, and adult content, and controlling its impact on users’ body image and other mental health issues.
No pressure then Zuckerberg….
Facebook did have a team dedicated to addressing digital wellness issues until it was disbanded in 2020, and some of their ideas were implemented. These include features that encourage breaks from social media, and that dial back the notifications that pull idle users back in.
The company has introduced a time-management tool to both Facebook and Instagram, its sister platform. These include a dashboard where users can see how much time they spend on the sites each day, and they can set a daily reminder to give themselves an alert when they have reached the amount of time they want to spend on it.
Digital Wellness as a Conflict of Interest
Despite the various initiatives outlined above, it’s difficult to be completely convinced that big tech companies care deeply about the digital wellbeing of their users since their revenue is tied directly to the amount of attention that their platforms or devices can capture.
What’s more, some of what we know about the relationship between the digital world and mental health issues comes from studies done by these very companies. This sounds noble, but this research was leaked against their wishes, and they’d have been happier if it had never seen the light of day.
Take Facebook’s own research, for instance, that found that one in 8 of its users - or 360 million people around the world - were using their platform compulsively, and were suffering the consequences in their quality of sleep, work, parenting, relationships (WSJ).
Given this, it is doubtful that these companies really want to help us with digital wellbeing, and this reality is reflected in the design of their digital wellbeing apps.
One influential voice on digital wellbeing that thinks this way is Tristan Harris, a former Google employee who left Silicon Valley due to ethical concerns and is now the director of the Center for Humane Technology.
He is deeply skeptical that big tech companies have the will to implement any meaningful measures to reduce the addictiveness of digital technologies because this would not be congruent with their business model.
By this logic, their introduction of wellbeing features is motivated more by increasing public awareness on the subject, and as a way to restore their own plummeting reputations.
The evidence points that way; for instance, the intentions behind Apple’s Screen Time app look more dubious when you consider that, since its launch, the company has been working to increase money from targeted advertising since iPhone sales have started to slump (WSJ).
Or take Facebook, who introduced a quiet mode feature that enabled users to mute most push notifications, but which they buried deep in the app’s settings - knowing that this would make it hard for users to find.
And if Google was really concerned about digital wellbeing, it would be working to comply with the European Union’s GDPR regulations, rather than leaving the personal information of EU citizens vulnerable to misuse or abuse.
But regardless, the fact that there is public pressure on these companies to prioritize the digital wellbeing of their users is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, and this pressure will continue to grow alongside public awareness of wellbeing in the digital age.
Your Digital Wellbeing Technology Options
Despite the lack of substantial big tech company support for digital wellbeing, there exists today a range of hardware and software that has been designed to help to improve your digital wellbeing.
These range from minimalist smartphones to feature-restricting apps, as well as physical aids and meditative apps. We’ve had a good look at what’s out there, and listed some of our favorites below:
Digital Wellbeing Phones and Smartphones
The Light Phone II is a premium, minimal 4G-enabled phone with a bluelight-free screen; its features are limited to phone calls, texts, bluetooth, and a personal hotspot function - and without social media, email, an internet browser, or any other anxiety-inducing apps
- The Punkt MP02 Pigeon is a next generation minimalist 4G-enabled phone for calling and texting, with internet access available when paired with a secondary device via wifi, bluetooth, and USB
- The Nokia 8110 4G - otherwise known as the Banana Phone - is the modernized version of a classic device first seen in The Matrix, with updated features that include a personal hotspot, camera and, as its name suggests, 4G connectivity
- The Mudita Pure is a modern, minimalist 4G smartphone with an eye-friendly E Ink display, good quality components, and a bespoke operating system created with digital wellbeing and privacy in mind
Digital Wellbeing Apps
- Freedom is a distraction-blocking app that, once enabled, will work simultaneously across all your devices, and has a lockdown mode that stops you editing anything on your blocklists while a session is active
- RescueTime is one of the best time tracking apps on the market, while also including a distraction blocker feature
- Forest offers a novel way to stop you picking up your phone, allowing you to grow a tree by not picking up your phone for 25 minutes (with the premium version meaning that physical trees will be planted in the real world)
- Headspace is a mindfulness app that takes the self-importance out of meditation
- Cold Turkey Blocker enables you to block websites, games, and applications to boost productivity, and is almost impossible to deactivate once sessions are set up
- Serene is a productivity tool that enables you to plan your day, and is designed to enable periods of deep focus, and you can choose which platforms to block and which to keep activity
Other Digital Wellbeing Alternatives
- A phone lock box or “phone jail” is a cell for your cell phone that physically stops you from accessing your device for predetermined periods (but can still be forced open in an emergency)
- The paper phone is just what it sounds like - it’s an app that enables you to print the information that you need for the day from your phone onto a piece of paper, with the goal being to help you take a break from the digital world
Concerns about Digital Wellbeing Technology
Overall, the last few years have seen real advancements in the digital wellbeing technology landscape, even though relying on technology to conquer technology still feels a bit like relying on the Marlboro man to help you to quit the smokes.
And as yet, the available options are far from perfect; beyond the underregulation of Silicon Valley and the lack of a standardized legal framework to protect people’s digital wellbeing, there remain real concerns about the direction that digital wellbeing technology is taking, which will be addressed here:
Screen Time Apps
The prevailing approach of the technology sector to digital wellbeing so far has been through the development of apps that gather statistics about screen time, improve user awareness about their usage, and enable them to monitor their behavior.
Given that people spend more time on their phones than they realize - it all adds up after all - then screen time apps may well be useful for some.
However, it’s still a poor route towards real digital wellness, since the numbers themselves are fairly inconclusive when it comes to your relationship between your screen time and your mental health (and vice versa).
Critics of these apps argue that there’s no right or wrong way to spend time on a smartphone - it’s what you do that counts. And they’re right, the numbers don’t don’t include the details that matter - they don’t show whether you’re mindlessly scrolling, or mindfully engaging with people in positive ways, for instance.
The research backs this up, with studies finding that these apps have not been thoroughly tested from a user digital wellbeing standpoint, and are poorly aligned with their needs - making it likely that many people will eventually just give up trying.
However, this innate weakness of screen time apps in improving digital wellness can be improved through supplementary thought, awareness, and planning by the user.
This is far from ideal, though it may well ultimately also be true that we have to look after ourselves because no one else can or will, and that we are expecting too much from technology if we think we’ll never have to rely on our own strategies of self control to improve our digital habits.
Still, by setting us up to fail, these apps actually serve to sap our motivation, and increase the chance that we won’t stay the course.
Another common strategy with digital wellbeing technology is to automatically block access to specific apps, alongside self-monitoring features - something that is packaged within the most popular screen time apps.
However, while this can be effective at reducing some addictive behaviors in the short term like accessing social media, it does not go to the root part of the problem.
And besides, it’s frankly too easy to get around self-imposed screen time restrictions - particularly given how many people are desperately searching for a nuclear option in the face of their own digital addictions.
These general concerns about the shape that the digital wellbeing technology sector is taking could well disappear in the future, as advancements continue, screen time apps have more data to work with, and people get access to tools that are more effective at enabling them to regain control over their digital devices in the long run.
In many ways, China leads the way on what can be achieved, with state ownership of the internet enabling them to integrate social policies into internet usage.
For instance, Tik Tok in the country has strict rules for under 18s - they can only use the app for 40 minutes at a time, and younger users have a 10pm-6am curfew. Also, online game providers can only allow young gamers to play for a set hour each evening on weekends and holidays.
But away from such blunt measures and to achieve true digital wellbeing, we need new tools that have been designed around the findings of habit-forming research, and which facilitate the creation and maintenance of good habits.
However, the apps that do exist bring hope that future digital wellbeing app developers will choose to integrate the most effective features rather than the most popular, and that platforms will arrive that provide users guidance on which available options are the most effective for them.
People need platforms that open them up to helpful information resources, community support, and motivate them to contemplate their bad digital habits. It would also be useful if they could compare their personal data with other users - a feature that is conspicuous by its absence in digital wellbeing apps today, beyond a few exceptions.
But this all means more personal data collection, and more privacy concerns, at a time when some people already worry that Google’s Digital Wellbeing app is glorified spyware. And, while this idea may be nothing more than a fringe view, it nevertheless turns up regularly near the top of google search results.
It’s easy to see why people think this, given the wealth of information it collects. However, Google already collected data on user behavior, and it’s only with their Digital Wellbeing app that they started sharing - some of this information - with us - it’s just a shame they’re not at least GDPR compliant.
Given the effect of poor digital wellbeing, it's no surprise that the business world has cottoned on to what is a key area for staff development. Crucially, investment here brings real advantages to company culture, as well as employee productivity and performance.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a key driver here, since the importance of digital wellbeing to business success obviously increases when more employees rely on the internet as a portal into their working worlds.
Beforehand, 20% of Americans were working remotely at least once a week, and this has increased to 71% (PEW Research Center). And while teleworking may be less pronounced elsewhere, it's a global phenomenon that is here to stay.
Many employees welcome this new arrangement, though the increase in workloads, a culture of longer hours, and wider job insecurities have together created a “presenteeism” mentality.
An “always on” culture is a key reason behind employee ill health, to the extent that the World Health Organization has added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases list (WHO).
This forces companies to ask whether they have managed their digital transition in a way that minimizes risks and maximizes staff wellness.
Such thinking also needs to be done within the context of working practices that are now saturated with technology, creating a distracting and frustrating environment for employees if the right policies and procedures are not in place.
Advantages of Promoting Digital Wellbeing at Work
Digital technologies are a permanent fixture of modern workplaces, but employees can easily be overwhelmed when using too many platforms and apps simultaneously.
Their normal day could well start checking Google Calendar, before internal meetings on Slack, and client meetings across Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and LinkedIn Video. Emails need answering and project management tools need updating.
This is just the tip of the digital iceberg; companies today are using far too many of these tools - nearly half of employees worry that constantly moving between platforms stops them doing what they’re paid to do, and they lose an hour every day jumping from tool to tool to find the information they are looking for (Qatalog).
The endless stream of notifications from these platforms is another blow to productivity, and prevents workers from focusing properly on complicated tasks. Add to this the 200+ emails the average worker receives daily - most of these are unimportant and prevent due attention being given to the more important things (Forbes).
Nor do they get any respite from digital technologies during their breaks, since it's normal for employees to use their devices during downtime.
And while this is their choice, it's another key influencer of digital wellbeing at work, and development here would improve their wider relationship with technology.
Taken together, and if left unchecked, this state of affairs increases the likelihood of stress, burnout, and low morale. It can result in poor performance and absenteeism, as well as an unhealthy company culture and high staff turnover.
In this context, promoting digital wellbeing at work enables companies to address the ramifications of these technologies on the physical, mental, and emotional health of employees.
It’s also highly effective, with research showing that organizations that do invest in wellbeing and mental health issues see a 400% return on investment (Deloitte).
How to Establish a Positive Digital Wellbeing Culture
This section will run through what companies can do to improve the digital wellness of employees, before laying out a roadmap for creating the policies that will improve the company culture - whatever the industry.
The advice is particularly relevant for remote and hybrid workers, but will help all employees develop the habits that will optimize their relationship with digital technologies.
Ultimately, it's about introducing policies and procedures that improve the digital wellbeing of employees and ensure a healthy work-life balance.
However, it’s important to remember that each employee is different, and an individual’s overall wellbeing will be affected by a range of personal factors. As such, it’s good practice to balance general company policies with one-to-one coaching if real digital wellbeing is to be achieved.
Ensure Employees Can “Switch Off”
- Instruct staff to only work set hours, and to only send work emails during this time unless absolutely necessary
- Direct them to turn off notifications during downtime, or to set up a suitable notification schedule
- Encourage them to abandon devices during breaks
- Ensure all remote workers create a designated workstation at home
Enable Employees to Concentrate
- Direct staff to pause distracting apps, to use notification statuses, and to respect when others have set theirs to “busy”, “do not disturb”, and so forth
- Get them to utilize their calendar to reserve deep focus periods of the day for themselves
- Ensure that colleagues are all available at predetermined times, so that teams can still communicate
Limit Non-Essential Communication
- Direct employees to only message others when absolutely necessary and to use channels that don’t disturb coworkers
- Establish company policy on the use of certain emojis - like the clock when someone will action the message when available - to streamline communication
- Encourage employees to use voice notes to speed up the process of replying to emails
Minimize Meeting Fatigue
- Limit meetings as much as possible, restrict back-to-back meetings, and only invite employees that are essential to the conversation
- Suggest that employees disable self-view to reduce fatigue
- Allow employees to prioritize a heavy workload over silent participation in a meeting
- Restrict meetings to a maximum of 50 minutes, so that attendees can take a break from screens
Introduce Digital Wellbeing Sessions
- Organize fun group activities, where staff talk about things other than work
- Bring in experts to talk about digital wellness
- Participate in national digital wellness awareness events
- Get staff to think about their desk posture, and to do physical activity on breaks
Share Digital Wellbeing Content
- Create an information portal for wellness policies and other content, or publish advice online
- Designate an internal digital wellbeing ambassador
- Promote wellbeing training sessions and other resources
- Ensure that digital wellbeing is an ongoing conversation
Incentivize Digital Wellness
- Encourage commitment by integrating digital wellbeing elements into performance management
- Dedicate 50% of staff appraisals to digital wellbeing behavior - making it as important as other targets
- Identify areas for individual growth and improvement
FURTHER READING: How to Facilitate Customers' Digital Wellbeing
Roadmap to Your Company’s Digital Wellbeing Initiative
While it can be effective to follow the advice outlined above, another avenue available is to implement an initiative that identifies and rectifies specific digital wellness issues.
This is useful for any company - regardless of its size or industry. And, when done effectively, it will improve team morale, productivity, and overall business performance.
Step 1 - Assess Your Company’s State of Digital Health
Create a report of your company’s digital wellbeing culture, and what tools and policies are already in place.
Speak to staff members - both individually and in informal groups - to see what they would like to see in a digital wellbeing strategy.
Are they having to work outside of office hours to meet deadlines, not taking enough breaks throughout the day, or spending too much time on emails?
Learn about their digital habits, while ensuring they understand that any sensitive information disclosed will not be held against them.
This information can be complemented with other data taken from Human Resources and IT, such as absenteeism, device usage, and so forth.
Step 2 - Establish Your Digital Wellbeing Goals
Decide exactly what you want to achieve in your company’s digital wellbeing programme.
This will be different from company to company. It could be decreasing absenteeism or staff turnover, or smaller but still tangible targets like restricting communication during predetermined times of the day.
Step 3 - Promote Your Wellbeing Programme
To increase the likelihood of success, communicate with staff so that they understand the objectives, how they can achieve them, and why the programme is important.
Nurture the initiative by regularly sharing wellness content and integrating the subject into meetings and other communications.
Step 4 - Encourage a Healthy Digital Wellbeing Culture
Ensure that company management is onside and that they lead by example, and appoint an in-house digital wellbeing ambassador.
Encourage employees to actively participate in the programme, and to understand their role in developing the company’s wider wellbeing culture.
Step 5 - Regularly Assess Effectiveness
Digital wellbeing is an ongoing initiative; get feedback from staff at every opportunity, and integrate digital wellbeing into everything from interviews and staff appraisals to monthly meetings and employee exit interviews.
This will enable you to better understand the effectiveness of your initiative, as well as to identify problem areas that can be worked on.
Our resource hub has run through the negative effects of digital technologies on people’s emotional, physical, and mental health, from a personal and professional perspective.
The wider societal implications of poor digital wellbeing will be covered here, and specifically how a small number of largely unregulated Silicon Valley megacorporations are tearing apart the very fabric of societies around the world.
This chapter will largely focus on Facebook, because of its power as the leading global social media platform - and because, for much of the developing world, it is the internet.
Ultimately, Facebook causes a lot of real harm in the modern world because, from the beginning, it was designed to encourage the type of behavior that makes it so harmful.
But, it’s not clear which big tech company is worse, and an important question underlying this chapter is - how many real world problems would disappear if they didn’t exist?
For all intents and purposes, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet control the internet, and their prioritization of profit over the digital wellbeing of users is the basis for many of the issues that shape our world today.
Social Media as a Threat to Democracy
Though people have long worried about the negative influence of Facebook on their lives, it was the US presidential election in 2016 that crystallized concerns about the platform’s impact on the democratic process in the public eye.
After this campaign, US intelligence agencies identified Facebook as a battleground for information warfare and foreign manipulation of voter choices, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal after the UK’s Brexit referendum was evidence - if needed - that this wasn’t restricted to one side of the Atlantic.
Suddenly, people understood all too well that they were being manipulated - though it's perhaps away from the West where Facebook’s activities have had the most obvious impact.
Across the developing world, many societies rely completely on the platform for online connectivity - the app comes preloaded on mobile phones and some languages only exist electronically on Facebook.
This gives them huge power, but the platform has proved incapable of preventing its use by drug cartels and human traffickers, as well as bad faith actors who have weaponized its algorithm to coordinate highly effective misinformation campaigns.
The consequences are damning; Facebook is under fire for undermining elections in fragile democracies across South East Asia and Africa, including Nigeria and Kenya, while the spread of fake news was a key driver behind civil unrest and ethnic genocide in Myanmar and Ethiopia.
Facebook is now characterized more by the divisions it creates through fake news, misinformation and harmful content, than by any naive notion that it simply connects people. In this context, its motto “Move fast and break things” is more telling than it should be.
It's certainly largely staffed by good, well intentioned people, and does fantastic things like reconnecting friends and family members, and locating organ donors, But take a step back and the bad outweighs the good.
Ineffective Moderation of Extreme Content
Facebook has claimed that it has worked to tackle issues, and has a team of 15,000 or so employees who now moderate content that was previously left almost completely in the hands of the company’s algorithm.
But this is a drop in the ocean given the task at hand, since they can’t work enough hours and don’t speak enough languages to stem the horrible content that flows through its news feeds. They’re overworked and it shows - moderators make 300,000 mistakes every day (Forbes).
Perhaps the scale of the issue is best shown by the $52 million in compensation Facebook paid to moderators for mental health issues developed from staring at violent content.
But the content they do have time to moderate is just the tip of the iceberg; most gets through, and the mental health of the wider population will be affected in a similar way.
Videos of rapes, beheadings, and so forth are objectively disgusting and have no place on the social media platform that your mother uses. But it’s much harder to moderate fake news and misinformation, and Facebook has failed to stop the spread of extremism, hate speech, propaganda, and conspiracy theories.
Harmful to Our National Identities
But they’re not alone; for wider reading, try Twitter’s Nazis, YouTube’s conspiracy theories, and Google’s racist search results. There are also more extreme, anything-awful-goes platforms with direct links to racist massacres, but they won’t get any advertising space here.
Taken together, these issues are having a real bearing on the collective consciousness of societies around the world; trust in news sources is at an all time low, people are more divided than ever, and democracies in the West are suffering much like those in Africa and Asia.
Indeed, many commentators see a real risk of civil war in the US. Any notion of a national identity is fast disappearing, with the majority of both Republican and Democrat supporters believing their opponents to be an existential threat to the country.
Opinions on the COVID pandemic quickly fragmented along party lines, with the distinction between scientific fact and conspiracy theory becoming impossible for many people to discern - thanks largely to the pernicious algorithms of Facebook and Twitter.
So too with the issues of sex and race which - depending on who you ask - have either improved markedly since the 1970s or are worse than ever. Ultimately, whenever debate oozes out of the echo chambers on social media, it quickly becomes heated and ugly.
FURTHER READING: How the Internet Affects Societies
Impact of Digital Technologies in Key Areas
The destructive shock waves that ripple out from Silicon Valley and across the world do not just emanate from the offices of Facebook, Twitter, and Google.
Tech companies - from household names to unknowns - are upending industries and creating products that are damaging to society and digital wellbeing, and this section will run through some of the most telling examples:
It’s easy to forget that Amazon was once a humble online bookstore, given that it’s now a one-stop-shop for everyone’s consumer and entertainment needs, and accounts for a staggering 50% of all eCommerce in the US (Statista).
Beyond the terrible quality of many of the products sold on the site, its detractors point to the slave-like conditions of workers, as well as the way that Amazon’s success is killing off competition across industries.
Ultimately, the blame for this must fall on consumers and their spending habits; but, by opting for the convenience of Amazon over local businesses, they have turned many town centers into urban wastelands - and with it the sense of community that is vital to our wellbeing.
While it remains a really useful platform for booking accommodation and planning holidays, landlords have cottoned on to the far better returns they can make as Airbnb hosts.
Barcelona represents a sobering example of what this does, with large numbers of properties disappearing from the long-term rental market and rental levels soaring astronomically - a state of affairs that seriously impacts the wellbeing of people living in the city.
For the average man on the street, Uber is just another app that, by enabling people to easily order food or book a ride, takes many inconveniences out of everyday life.
But it’s what is happening behind the scenes that makes it so noxious, and not just because it avoids paying tax. Uber’s success is killing off taxi companies around the world and has caused the wages of these workers to bomb.
Its own drivers face real risks - including the confiscation of their own vehicles - in places where the company is banned, and the payment structure means they have to work at least 12 hours a day to make a decent wage. Again, this is hardly the digital wellness we should aspire to.
This app enables users to monitor another person’s phone activity. It’s less well known than the other companies on this list, and probably doesn’t deserve the prestige this brings, but it still has over a million global users.
And while this platform is marketed to parents, mSpy’s own research shows that 50% of users are adults spying on their wife or partner - what magic of modernity.
This company is probably better known to its one billion - mostly teenage - users as TikTok. It's a superficially innocuous social media platform, where people express themselves through song, dance, and comedy - all fun and games from this angle.
However, this app is built on an algorithm that can be used by engineers to distribute content that manipulates public option, activity that has a proven societal impact, and there are also real concerns that the Chinese government uses this tool to spy on its users - Western or otherwise.
It also includes code that would enable users to make videos built on deepfakes - a controversial technology that has the potential to create misinformation or fake news on a whole new level, and which can also be used to create revenge porn, for instance.
Digital Wellbeing and Privacy Concerns
User privacy and online security are issues that define how people see the internet today, with a striking 79% of Americans worried about what companies do with their personal information (Pew Research Center).
These concerns have been stimulated by regular news reports that hammer home just how insecure our personal information is online, and the impact on those affected can be life shattering.
In June 2013, for instance, the whistleblower Edward Snowdon revealed that the US and UK governments were collecting vast quantities of their populations’ digital communications - including social media posts, private messages, and internet histories.
There was also the hacking of Ashley Madison in 2015 - a dating site that targeted married people looking to discreetly cheat on their partners. Usernames and credit card details were posted online, and at least two users of the platform committed suicide as a result.
Then in 2018, Cambridge Analytica hit the news with the report that it had been harvesting the data of millions of Facebook users to facilitate a range of unethical services. These included bribery and honey traps, as well as the manipulation of election results around the world.
And, soon after Facebook suffered a data breach in April 2021, the personal - and private - information of over 500 million of its users was found floating freely online.
The list is endless, and is a damning indictment of the state of online privacy in the modern world. But, even without such scandals, the fact that all our online activities are constantly being recorded affects us in ways that we may not even be aware of.
Ultimately, our own sense of privacy is an important psychological comfort blanket that has been pulled away from us by the business model of social media companies - and their like - which is built on endlessly mining and selling our personal data.
How Governments are Regulating Digital Wellness
Governments are now increasingly aware of digital wellness. New regulations have been introduced around the world in recent years, in policy areas that include online harm, teleworker protection, and data privacy.
And while there are too many to cover here, there is a global trend towards legislating digital wellness as a means to improving the mental health of citizens, and this section will run through the key examples.
Online Harm Protection
Social media companies have responded to public concerns in recent years as their reputations have tanked, and have introduced procedures that include using artificial intelligence to identify and block fake accounts, content moderation, and providing users with online safety tools.
However, these measures are mere window dressing for the moment, given the scale of the issues at hand, and raise questions about the desire of monopolistic megacorporations to self-regulate.
Governments are stepping in, and have been drafting proposals that mitigate the negative effects of social media and other internet elements without sacrificing the many benefits they bring for global connectivity and communication.
The UK introduced its Online Harm Bill to Parliament in 2021, meaning that it will come into force over the next few months. The first of its kind globally, it obliges social media companies and tech firms to protect their users, and will also create a new independent regulator.
Other countries will follow suit, as governments look for ways to wrestle back control over the internet, empower citizens, protect children, and curb the spread of fake news and misinformation.
Remote Worker Protection
Most countries around the world have labor laws that require companies to look after the health, safety, and general welfare of employees.
Traditionally, this duty of care has been limited to the physical workplace, but governments are making labor reforms that mean employers now have to take more responsibility for protecting employees from technology overload - even when they’re off-site.
From France, Portugal, and Belgium to Slovakia, Spain, and Ireland, “right to disconnect” laws are sweeping across Europe. And while these regulations differ in substance from country to country, they are all designed to ensure that workers are able to “switch off” outside of work hours.
These laws have teeth - back in 2018, the French Supreme Court ordered UK firm Rentokil to pay a former worker €60,000 for violating his “right to disconnect”.
Signs are that the UK will be next, while, further afield, New York City has introduced laws to protect its citizens from digital burnout.
Data Privacy and Security
Online privacy and security are crucial components of digital wellness, and this area has seen substantial regulatory developments in recent years.
The General Data Protection regulation (EU GDPR) is probably the most well known of these laws, and was designed to protect EU residents against the misuse of their personal data by companies - something that we’ve written about at length in our GDPR & Data Privacy Resource Hub.
It was the strictest law of its kind when introduced in 2018, and has been used as a model for policymakers around the world as they draft online privacy laws of their own. Today, over 120 countries have either enacted similar regulations or are working towards this goal.
We’re now living in an age of regulated online privacy, with implications for private and public companies alike. And while enforcement levels are underwhelming for the moment, government policy is still moving in the right direction on what is a key issue for digital wellbeing.
FURTHER READING: Top 10 Smartphone Apps for Integrating Tech and Wellbeing
Look back at the development of digital technologies - which you can read about in our Digital Futures Hub - and a few things jump out.
MySpace had more daily visitors than Google from 2006, before being overtaken by Facebook as the most popular social media platform two years later. The iPhone was launched in 2007, and revolutionized how we use the internet.
Anyone born the day of the first smartphone’s launch is now pushing 15 years old, and this means that no child - in the West at least - can remember a world without the internet or advanced mobile devices.
They’re digital natives, meaning that online interaction comes as naturally to them as face-to-face conversations.
Today, 95% of teens have access to a smartphone and 45% say they are online on a near-constant basis (PEW Research Center). These are staggering numbers at an age when children’s bodies are developing fast, bringing challenges for parents that they are unprepared for.
The effects are stark; child wellbeing sits at a ten-year low (The Children’s Society), with one in seven struggling with mental health issues (WHO). And while it’s difficult to say exactly how much of this is caused by the internet, these figures would undoubtedly go down if children develop a healthier relationship with it.
Digital wellbeing is therefore a pressing parental issue today; this chapter will run through how the internet affects children, before providing guidance on how to best protect them from harm.
How Does the Internet Affect Children?
The average child gets their first smartphone at the age of 10, and half of them open their first social media account within the subsequent two years (Influence Central).
These platforms provide children with much needed interaction, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when other avenues were unavailable to them. But their 24/7 digital lifestyles raise real questions about their development and education.
The impact of excessive screen time, internet addiction, and other issues related to digital wellbeing have been covered earlier in this hub. It’s sufficient to say that overreliance on devices - as well as an exposure to bad online influences and potential dangers - has obvious ramifications for overall wellbeing.
But children are hit harder; excessive screen time among children increases anxiety and depression, while lowering life satisfaction and optimism. Much like TV, the act of watching online videos encourages sedentary and passive behavior, and without the human interaction required to develop language and social skills.
A child’s brain is more responsive and malleable to experiences than that of an adult. From the age of 10, children become attuned to seeking social rewards, like attention and approval from their peers. This can result in dangerous behavior, particularly with regard to peer pressure on social media.
They can be easily persuaded to compete in viral online dares; well known examples include the bird box challenge, which encouraged users to upload videos of themselves doing dangerous things while blindfolded, and the tide pod challenge, which coaxed people to eat laundry detergent.
Ultimately, teenagers do not have the experience or maturity to deal with the many risks and dangers that exist online, which range from predatory strangers and cyberbullying to pornography and violent content.
But even away from these issues, there remains a psychological cost to being active online - particularly on social media, where kids are presented with digital representations of peers and celebrities that are far removed from reality.
The exact psychological consequences of this is not completely clear, though there is a consensus that it affects the mental health of girls more than boys.
Suicide rates among teenagers have jumped strikingly since social media arrived, spiking further after the launch of smartphones, and Facebook has been pushing to attract more preteens to the platform despite internal evidence that using Instagram can have a significant impact on their mental health.
Taken together, this shows just how harmful the internet can be to the development of children, and highlights the importance of developing their digital wellbeing from a young age.
FURTHER READING: 10 Top Apps for Your Child’s Digital Wellbeing
How to Ensure Your Child's Digital Wellbeing
As a parent, your goal is ultimately to help your child develop a positive relationship with the internet and their devices, as well as critical thinking skills, self control, and good coping mechanisms in the face of the bad online experiences they will inevitably suffer at some point.
This can be hard given that it’s difficult to know exactly what they’re doing on their phones or what platforms they’re using, and even young children have learnt how to get around age restrictions on the internet, and to hack parental controls (Wall Street Journal).
In some circumstances, it might seem wise to confiscate their devices, although removing a teenager’s lifeline to friends can cause a powerful emotional backlash that damages the parent-child relationship.
But there is some middle ground, and children whose parents take an interest in their online lives have a more positive experience with digital technology (Internet Matters).
It’s ultimately about parents finding the right balance between using technology to occupy and educate children, while also limiting screen time.
The section that follows was written with this end in mind, and runs through some of the best ways to optimize your child’s digital wellbeing:
Educate Children on the Risks
Ultimately, it’s a parent’s responsibility to ensure that children use their digital devices safely - they can electrocute themselves, hurt their eyes, wrists, and neck without the correct technique, or be hit by cars or other objects as they move distracted around the world.
They need to understand when they’ve been online for too long, and be able to recognize physical symptoms like dizziness, blurred vision or joint pain for what they are. They also need to know when it’s inappropriate or dangerous to be glued to their screens.
Their devices also open children up to an adult whack-a-mole game of fraudsters, swindlers, and predatory strangers. The potential for harm will only increase as your child grows and is given more digital independence over time, making it essential that you arm them with the skills they need to safely navigate this realm.
To this end, you should make conversation about digital wellbeing part of daily life. Teach them that they can talk to you about anything without fear of judgment, that they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to, and that how people present themselves online is not necessarily true to reality.
Set Boundaries for Digital Access
Many parents impose restrictions on the use of devices, particularly close to bed time when the effect of screenlight on the melatonin production that children need to sleep properly is well documented.
Away from this issue, professional guidance is unclear on how much screen time is too much. The American Psychological Association advises that toddlers have no digital access whatsoever, while the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health makes no similar recommendations for them.
But whatever boundaries you set, it’s important that your child develops the ability to stick to them as their digital independence increases. They also need to learn how to interact with the digital world and develop good judgment, self control and anger management skills.
Ensure Healthy Online Expression
Digital anonymity and the low probability of real-world consequences makes many people act badly, and children need ground rules that will limit the harm they suffer online.
This includes never giving out sensitive personal information, pictures or videos - particularly to strangers; they also need to understand how damaging cyberbullying can be to others, and the importance of being the most respectful version of themselves when online.
Children also need to know that information online is far from reliable. As such, they should verify information from multiple sources and speak to someone they trust if something they’ve seen doesn’t feel right.
Integrate the Digital Into a Healthy Lifestyle
The digital wellbeing of children is inextricably linked to wider health issues, and the physiological impact of bad online experiences can be limited if they lead a healthy lifestyle.
Sleep, regular exercise, and real world experiences are all vital for a child’s development, and they need to understand that screen time should not take precedence over real-world commitments they have to their family and school.
Device overuse is a particularly pressing issue during school holidays when they often want to spend more time online. As such, it's all the more important during these times that you motivate them to find real-world activities that they enjoy, and which will help keep them healthy and happy.
A healthy diet is also important, and children who minimize screen time are less prone to weight issues, and choose to eat more nutritious food. What’s more, getting your child to put away their phone during meal times will stop them from being distracted - they’ll eat a healthier amount, and even chew better.
FURTHER READING: Digital Wellbeing and Children – everything you need to know
What Role do Schools Play in Digital Wellness?
Children spend more waking hours at school than they do at home, and this means that parents look to these institutions for help with digital wellbeing on their behalf.
In many countries, schools have a legal responsibility for student welfare even when they are outside of school grounds but even where these laws don’t exist, educators understand the importance of developing the digital wellbeing of students in the modern world.
This importance has only increased since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite school closures meaning that classes migrated from classrooms to bedrooms for over a billion students worldwide (UNICEF).
The lockdown also saw changes in how schools use digital technologies, from participating in class to socializing with friends, and communicating with teaching staff - meaning that students were using their digital devices far more than in the past.
With children spending more time online, it’s all the more vital that they fully understand the many dangers posed by the internet, and develop a healthy relationship with their devices.
Remote learning is less common now that national lockdowns have eased, but signs are that education bodies around the world will continue to mandate its use to some degree.
But with many students now back at school, the consequences of poor digital wellbeing can easily ooze into the classroom if schools do not take responsibility for it.
As such, schools need to establish policies and strategies that promote digital wellbeing. They should include it in the curriculum, respond effectively to cyberbullying, and work to educate parents about the mental health issues caused by excessive digital usage.
The most clear focus that we have, here at Visitor Analytics, when it comes to digital wellbeing is in relation to our product.
Firstly, this can be seen with regards to privacy - since, by protecting the data of our users from misuse or abuse, we are reducing risks that can be harmful to their long-term wellbeing (be they legal or emotional).
And secondly, we’ve designed the interface around our core commitments to user experience and feature centralization, which acts to limit the distractions that they have when using our platform, and enables professionals to concentrate better on whatever they’re doing.
This chapter will run through these issues, before looking at what we have done internally to improve the digital wellbeing of our team.
The Role of Privacy Within Martech
Privacy, as mentioned multiple times throughout this hub, is a core component of digital wellbeing.
Though, perhaps screen time, cyberbullying, and addiction are more common topics within the public conversation, data privacy is also occupying the minds of more and more internet users - if you’ve ever been part of a data breach or experienced online theft or fraud, then you’ll know how terrible it is to mental health.
And when you break down the core concerns around data privacy in simplistic terms, it’s easy to understand why it very much forms a key component of digital wellbeing.
Fundamentally, data privacy concerns revolve around the fear that, as individuals, we are no longer in control of what people know about us. Nor do we fully understand how they can manipulate this information to their advantage, or what privacy risks will exist in the future as the internet becomes ever-more advanced.
Though much of the digital wellbeing debate revolves around social media, we shouldn’t forget that websites are still very much the place where we tend to part with most of our personal information - and this means giving our personal information to a great many more companies.
And, regardless of this, one of the key fears is how, and where, all of this information that we deposit online will be collated - and, of course, how this holistic view of us, as individuals, will then be used.
Within this context, it’s important to remember that, though it seems like we have been in the digital age forever, it is still relatively new. And thus, things that we accept as the norm today, may - and, in many cases, should - be far from acceptable in the future.
Data privacy is, right now, at this exact junction - whereby it still feels normal for companies to be capturing, storing, and leveraging our personal data, while at the same time we find it increasingly creepy and invasive.
The statistics provide clear evidence of this shift in consensus too, with, for example, more than three-quarters of UK citizens claiming that they are concerned about their safety online and 71% of Germans having already taken measures to protect their data privacy (Surf Shark).
And, of course, it was growing concerns around this issue that led to the development of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in 2016. And, while this was perhaps a little labored in having a substantial impact, the last couple of years especially have seen it taken more seriously - with fines to prove it.
In a survey that we conducted of our own platform users, three-quarters of respondents claimed that GDPR was now a consideration when selecting new martech, while more than two-thirds (70%) felt that the impact of GDPR on their jobs would increase in the future.
So, when it comes to SaaS companies like ourselves within the martech space, it is clear that data privacy should be a priority - and, fortunately for us, we have had this at our core even before it was imposed and are thus in a unique position of strength here.
What is “Privacy by Design”, and Why is it Crucial?
To take up the more formal terminology, by having privacy at the very core of our product, we are developing within the philosophy of privacy by design.
This quite simply means that we have engineered unique privacy-centered technology and processes within our product from day one.
The reasons behind this are really twofold:
- As a German-owned company, our founders carry a firm philosophy of data privacy. It is absolutely crucial that this philosophy is present in everything that we do - from marketing and sales to product development.
We practice what we preach, track zero personal data from our website ourselves, and work tirelessly to ensure that our clients can do the same - while still gaining the insights that benefit themselves and their users.
- We already predicted the impact that GDPR and data privacy would have on our sector years before it became a reality.
By understanding our users and listening to their feedback, we wanted to future-proof our product by creating a technological fundament that we believed would fit into our future vision of the sector.
Therefore, while others must now try to integrate more privacy-centered technology into existing systems, we are able to simply evolve and improve our product. This enables us to ensure the very highest standards of data privacy, while also freeing up resources to work on both new and existing features.
The easiest way to understand why this is important is to consider an approach to anything that is based on prevention over reaction.
With privacy by design, you are seeking to prevent data privacy issues arising in the first place, rather than scrambling around to recover once they do.
There is a reason why your DPO is so keen to place privacy at the center of your tech procurement process - it saves a lot of hassle in the long term and makes their, and your, work easier.
How Visitor Analytics Ensures the Highest Data Privacy Standards
We always place transparency at the center of everything, but especially with regards to data processing, and we constantly strive to be the most trustworthy platform in this respect.
There are also strict processes and regular audits in place to protect customer data from unauthorized access, with comprehensive controls in this regard.
We are ISO 27001 certified, which provides international recognition regarding our approach and best practices towards information security management.
When it comes to the technology used to gather and process the data of our customers’ website visitors, we use an innovative “fingerprinting” approach which removes the requirement of cookies - and this comes with the added bonus of removing the requirement for related cookie consent banners.
We take a flexible approach in this respect, however, with a variety of different data privacy settings managed within our four-mode Privacy Center.
This enables companies to operate based on the privacy laws in their own country or region, and will soon enable different settings to be selected based on where a specific visitor is from.
The four privacy settings are:
- Default privacy
- Basic privacy
- Cookieless tracking, and
- Complete protection
To highlight further the impact of our cookieless approach, however, one important thing to iterate is that not only does it ensure 100% ethical data collection, but it also removes opt outs. This means that you can draw insights and make decisions from 100% of your visitor data and not the circa 5% that is currently the norm with consent banners.
How Does Feature Centralization Improve Digital Wellbeing?
The other element of product-based digital wellbeing that we can discuss related to the Visitor Analytics’ platform stems from the centralization of multiple features and use cases in one place.
One of the major pain points of our users over the years has been that they require multiple tools to understand different components of their website.
This also creates data silos and tech-fatigue, and can result in excessive expense, sub-optimal benefit, and intra-departmental angst.
Over the years, we have worked tirelessly on strategizing around these fragmented features and use cases, and worked to centralize them into an overarching umbrella platform.
This has resulted in a tri-pillared approach to comprehensive website intelligence:
- Performance Statistics,
- User Behavior, and
- Visitor Communication
These three pillars in collaboration provide a holistic view of a website’s performance and remove the detrimental impact of the aforementioned issues.
One of the core components of digital wellbeing within a digital workplace is the prevention of digital overwhelm.
By enabling employees to use less technology, to have less struggle in garnering real insights, and to be able to get accustomed to just a singular platform, you can take giant strides towards reducing the risk of digital overwhelm.
This has a direct impact on productivity, job satisfaction, and yes, wellbeing. By removing frustration and fatigue triggers, you are paving the way to more insight and greater impact.
Our Own Internal Approach to Digital Wellbeing
Of course, we are also a digital workplace and thus also have to be very considered in the way we support our own employees.
In this respect, we are fortunate to have founders that recognize the importance of employee wellbeing and have thus prioritized the hiring of a Head of HR, Talent Acquisition, and Feelgood.
It’s this last point of the job title that is important in this respect, of course, and this sets a clear precedent that people and wellbeing are being prioritized.
“A happy workforce is a productive workforce,” says Anca Suciu, Head of HR, Talent Acquisition, and Feelgood, at Visitor Analytics. “It may sound clichéd, but really what we are trying to build here is a family. We want people to feel comfortable, cared for, and empowered, and we hope that this will result in greater satisfaction, low churn, and ultimately the positive evolution of our workforce.”
There are multiple actions and activities, of course, that need to be taken into consideration to achieve the above mentioned results. To outline a few:
1. Transparency with regards goals and expectations - not a particularly new or trendy strategy, but one that can be too often overlooked. By providing 100% clarity on what is expected within a certain role and how we can measure success in this respect, we remove a lot of confusion and anxiety that can occur in the absence of this.
2. Encouraging digital blackout and individual working time - “Planning is one of the most important aspects of digital wellbeing and, within the marketing department for example, we encourage the team to prioritize this over any thirst for quick results,” explains Matt Sarson, Chief Marketing Officer, Visitor Analytics. “This involves assigning concrete periods of time where members of the team can switch off their Slack notifications, set their status to “away”, and have dedicated time to focus on their tasks.”
“Though this relates to both creativity and productivity, it’s the planning component which is the most crucial,” he continues. “It’s no secret that routine and structure are key components of wellbeing, both in and out of work, so it’s incredibly important to encourage and reward good practices in this area.”
3. Company events and teambuilding - “We have monthly company-wide get togethers, where the entire global workforce connect and take part in a variety of activities - from quizzes, to online escape rooms,” explains Anca Suciu. “This is absolutely key in keeping people connected, especially within a semi-remote, global structure.”
“On top of this, we also have a more formal monthly meeting, where each department summarizes their previous month’s activities,” Anca continues. “This acts as a great platform to celebrate achievements and also ensures that people are understanding of the efforts of other departments.”
4. An open environment for feedback - “Regular 1-2-1 meetings provide the foundation for a culture of open communication,” Matt explains. “It’s vital for growth to encourage people to be honest and open at such times, and to highlight how much of a positive impact this can have on their position and the team as a whole.”
“The team set their own agendas for such meetings and are actively encouraged to consider career growth, learning opportunities, and other progessive elements of their work,” he continues.
On top of these four points, there are other such considerations that are taken, such as sports and leisure cards, a pleasant office environment (with breakdown areas), flexibility in terms of working hours and location, appropriate sick and annual leave etc.
“People are truly the core of any company,” Anca concludes. “I have complete support and encouragement to do the best I can to ensure the happiness, health, and satisfaction of all our employees.”
Let us Help with Digital Wellbeing
Together, they provide a concise overview of each key aspect of digital wellbeing and a list of the key steps to get your own digital wellbeing improvements rolling.