Digital Wellbeing is the next Environmentalism

What Digital Wellbeing means to each one of you will be very different. 

It relates to a number of areas of our lives - sleep, safety, relationships, communication, productivity, parenting, mental health...  

In each area, research is ongoing to provide robust evidence or ‘rules for the road’ with respect to how to manage our technology use.  But in most cases we are still a long way from clear cut conclusions.  

This is in part due to the fact that Digital Wellbeing is personal.  But it is also because each of these research areas are highly multidisciplinary.  For example, take the impact of technology on productivity. This is something of interest to psychologists, neuroscientists, social scientists, economists, HR Directors, team leaders, individuals...the list goes on.

In each case, researchers will be taking their data, cutting and proofing it in the best way they see fit, and publishing their results, adding to the pea soup of conclusions.  This research abundance is certainly helpful in the long term, but in the short term it makes it hard to find a single point of consensus. 

This research abundance is certainly helpful in the long term, but in the short term it makes it hard to find a single point of consensus. 

Additionally, the technology landscape is changing at an unprecedented rate.  For instance:  

  • Ten years ago, iPhones had only existed for a year, and the app store had only just launched.   

  • Five years ago, when most current scientific research might have been started, there were 800,000 apps in the Google Play Store, and around the same number in the App Store

  • One year ago, there were almost three million apps available for Android and over two million on iOS.  

These apps help us to do more online than ever before.  And given the competition they have to be better than ever at keeping our attention.  We can do more online today that five years ago, and we can do it better.  

Given that it takes around five years to complete a Doctorate, it is no wonder that the most substantive pieces of research struggle to find relevance.   The tech landscape five years ago was very different to what it is today.  

These factors - the personal nature of Digital Wellbeing, the multidisciplinary approach and the changing technology environment are why there are no consistent recommendations. 

These factors - the personal nature of Digital Wellbeing, the multidisciplinary approach and the changing technology environment are why there are no consistent recommendations.  Take, for example, how much screen time children should have: 

  • Earlier this year, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in the UK, said that no limits should be set on screen time for children, given that there was insufficient evidence linking screentime to harms. Their only recommendation is that children don’t use screens within an hour of bedtime.  

  • In April, the WHO issued guidelines that children under two should not have any screen time and that kids aged two to four should be limited to a maximum of one hour a day, with less being preferable.  Their focus was on reducing the prevalence of obesity in children, but none-the-less their recommendations were clear.  

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics has broadly followed these recommendations. 

  • However, in Australia, the rules are softer again, with current recommendation for no more than two hours of screen time per day for children, with screen time not recommended for children under two.

There is not yet a global consensus on how much screen time is good for us.

I believe our current understanding of Digital Wellbeing, as akin to the start of environmentalism almost 50 years ago. 

I believe our current understanding of Digital Wellbeing, as akin to the start of environmentalism almost 50 years ago.  Back then, data was patchy, the issues ranged widely (think sea level rise, global warming, air pollution, plastics) or focused on specific environmental events. In addition research was taking place in a changing climatic system. It is only now that we are starting to see a more mainstream movement with sufficient ‘hard’ evidence for politicians and society to rally behind.  

I’m not the only person to link Digital Wellbeing to Environmentalism, as it is not just the research landscape that bears similarities.  Tristan Harris, in his recent Humane Agenda, talks about the scale of the damage of the attention economy, and why tactical efforts (take banning straws to save the environment, which he compares to ‘going greyscale’) are not enough.  In his view, human downgrading is of a magnitude comparable with the downgrading of the environment.  

Jonathan Garner, from Mind Over Tech refers to it too with respect to the need to motivate large parts of society in order to achieve social change.  Changing our approaches to technology will be a challenge at an individual level. Instead, we need co-ordinated change at the society, policy and company level. 

So what does this mean for us now?

Well, in my opinion, certainly from a research perspective, it means that we will struggle to rely on science for an ‘objective truth’ to what constitutes a healthy relationship with technology.  The evidence simply doesn’t exist. And whilst the research that is ongoing is critical and will be fundamental in the future, if we wait for the answers now, chances are, we will be too late. 

Rather, we need to look around us for the evidence needed to change our approach to technology.  We need to recognise that we are the masters of our own destiny. Let’s work hard to create change at the society, policy and company level, on the information and instincts that we already have available to us. 

Let’s work hard to create change at the society, policy and company level, on the information and instincts that we already have available to us. 

Georgie is the UK Country Manager for Qustodio, a leading safety and digital wellbeing app for families.  She is the CEO of Phone/Life Balance, a research company offering support to researchers interested in Digital Wellbeing. She is available on a public speaking and consultancy basis.