Digital Wellbeing in 2019 - And why we have been asking the wrong questions

In 2018 digital wellbeing’ hit like a tidal wave. Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube all announced tools to track screen time and improve user control. The backdrop to these announcements? A widespread chorus of the negative impacts that screens are having on society; on social, mental, physical and psychological health, and a need to take action.

These tools are the latest in a movement that has been on the rise for the past decade. A widespread, multi-disciplinary and nuanced conversation about the evolving relationship between humans and technology. There is a risk that the simplicity of these new tools — and their emphasis on screen time — will dilute the message to purely focus on ‘time spent’ and ‘content-viewed’.

But digital wellbeing is so much more than how much we use screens. It’s about how technology relates to us in every moment of our lives. It’s how we think, move, sleep and love. It’s how we communicate, form communities, grow families and deepen relationships. It’s how we learn, how we build wisdom and how we protect our species.

“Digital wellbeing is the conscious use of technology to defend, support and empower humans.”

So with growing awareness of the ability of technology to shape society, what will define digital wellbeing in 2019? Here are my predictions:

  1. “Digital Wellbeing”: mainstream but misunderstood

Ask most people what ‘Digital Wellbeing’ means and they will either have no idea, or they will presume that it relates to how digital can improve overall wellbeing (think Fitness or Meditation Apps). ‘Screen Time’ is more commonly understood. In 2019, expect the term ‘Digital Wellbeing’, fuelled largely by Google’s PR efforts, to become well known, although an understanding of what it entails will still be up for debate.

Like the early stages of Environmentalism, Digital Wellbeing will struggle to drive widespread behaviour change because it’s collective harms (a selection of them summarised by Humane Tech), vary wildly both by research discipline and relevance to the user: some will focus on safety, others on relationships, on parenting, on data ownership, on the impacts to democracy etc. In addition, early-stage research will increasingly be commissioned by technology companies, the results inconclusive or contradictory (see there is no ‘objective view on the impact of tech).

As such, whilst “Digital Wellbeing” will become more mainstream, it will take time for a single theme to emerge which is strong enough for the world to rally behind. For that, Digital Wellbeing needs what Climate Change is to Environmentalism.

2. Social media’s impact on mental health

The tragic case of Molly Russell and the reactions to it have already evidenced this trend, but in 2019 watch out for further evidence linking social media use to a rise in depression, sense of low self worth and loneliness, particularly amongst teenagers. My number one bet, this theme could be the most damaging for Facebook (including Instagram), Snapchat and YouTube.

3. Wider scrutiny on data ownership, privacy and its impact on democracy

Following on from the scandals of 2018 exposing election hacking and data leaks, more people will start to question what data companies have on us, how they keep it private, how they use it and who really owns it. This will bring new questions to the mainstream on data collection and commercialisation rights. With important political moments scheduled for 2019, expect a frontline conversation on the role of technology in shaping democracy. People will come to be understood based on their ‘hackability’ — the degree to which machines know more about them than they do about themselves (see Harris and Harari for this).

These questions will form part of a separate movement targeting the power and profitability of the ‘Big Four’. This overlap risks muddying the water for Digital Wellbeing which has actually gained exposure from the publicity drawn to it by Apple and Google (even if their message is simplistic).

4. Investment in productivity, ‘Deep Work’ and the rise of ‘Digital Minimalism’

More people will start to understand the negative impacts of distraction and the fading arts of concentration, creativity and concentration. Corporates with their fingers on the pulse will invest more in finding the right solutions for managing 24/7 connectivity, combined with opportunities for deep work and true connections between their staff (watch out for Cal Newport’s upcoming book ‘Digital Minimalism’ and Microsoft’s ongoing investments in ‘Good Digital Culture’).

5. A growing ‘Digital Divide’ exacerbated by Policy (or lack thereof)

But this investment in productivity will not be for everyone. Expect to see a further division of society between those who recognise the power and importance of attention (and the need therefore to control tech use) versus those who don’t. Ironically, people who work with technology are most likely to become more conscious of their own mastery over it, whilst others (less educated, time poor, less wealthy), will increase their unconscious use, unaware of the impacts of the tech and their ability to control it.

Policies meanwhile will focus on making sure that societies have ubiquitous and equitable access to connectivity and technology, particularly in schools, and from an early age. In response, leading primary schools will either remove screens from the classrooms or will set strict policies around its use, favouring internal policies such as: positive citizenship, control over tech, creativity, and new experiences that could only be delivered by that technology.

Whilst the Canadian and US governments have started to take steps to prescribe healthy limits of screen time for children, most guidance remains vague, child- specific, and inconclusive for a wavering parent. Given the challenges with research in a rapidly changing tech landscape, this is unlikely to change. However, parents will continue to feel increasingly concerned that the risks of the web outweigh the benefits (see Ofcom’s latest research).

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, are likely to be exposed to increasing volumes of screen time and unrestricted content, to the detriment of their long term social and mental development.

6. A blurring of Digital Wellbeing and ethics for AI

Pioneers in the field will start to push the conversation on digital wellbeing closer to the overall question of ethics and technology, particularly as it relates to AI, biotech, frontier technology and the evolution of humanity. Whilst the business models for humane tech and digital wellbeing will remain unproven, it is my (perhaps naive) hope that this humane tech design processes will start to be integrated into product development.

Regardless of product design changes, expect tech companies to start building ethics teams (outside of their existing AI roles), with roles like ‘Director of Technology Ethics’ — a clear step in the direction of responsibility.

7. Growth and Consolidation in the Digital Wellbeing Industry

Leading tech companies will continue to develop early stage solutions and tools for digital wellbeing, alongside a flourishing start up industry. They will do this, without making substantial changes to their major products and business models — YouTube needs autoplay which hooks, Facebook needs data tentacles to fuel its booming targeted ads policy, Apple needs phones that attract and Instagram needs you to feel just a little bit worst about yourself so that you keep searching for something to make you feel better.

These companies, along with a number of brilliant people in our industry, may also start to consider how digital wellbeing relates to voice, VR, AI, haptics, connected homes and cars.

As the industry gathers momentum and with it, investment, we will start to see consolidation (2018 saw acquisitions for Moment and Offtime). Major conferences like the Digital Wellness Festival, as well as industry forums heralded by organisations such dot.everyone, the Digital Wellness Collective and transtech will place increasing emphasis on #techforgood, #digitalwellbeing, #ethicaltech, #timewellspent.

8. Digital Wellbeing for the Next Billion Users

To date, digital wellbeing has been a discussion for the privileged, mainly in silicon valley. It will remain so. Because things get tricky in developing countries where coming online provides access to money, healthcare, jobs — for the first time. Who wants to dampen that party? Whilst there are important questions to be asked about what we have learned so far, and what the best onboarding route really is for someone picking up a smartphone for the first time, it will be sometime before they are asked widely enough.

If you have made it this far, I applaud you and welcome your feedback. To finish though, I have an important point to make.

All this summarises to me that we are looking at everything in the wrong way. These trends all focus on how to shape technology in order to mitigate its negative externalities on humanity.

Instead, surely we should be stepping back and asking a very different question. That question?

“What do we want humanity to look like, and how will technology help us get there?”