Free Digital Wellbeing University Course – Online: Top Takeaways

The University of York in the UK is running a free online course on digital wellbeing over at Future Learn (nine hours total learning time). It’s designed for anyone interested in understanding health and wellbeing in the digital age.

I believe it’s one of the first courses on digital wellbeing to appear, and I’ve just completed it, including the optional test at the end, which gets you a certificate.

Overall, the course does a rather decent job at providing an introductory overview of the fluid and fast evolving concept of digital wellbeing.

What’s good about the course is that it doesn’t demonise digital, but provides a balanced view of how to reap potential benefits whilst avoiding potential hazards. Where it’s perhaps a little light is in evaluating the emerging scientific evidence base around digital wellbeing, preferring instead to build practical skills and digital literacy.

Overall, as a pioneer in the emerging field of digital wellbeing, the course is worth recommending.

Here are my top takeaways

  • Digital wellbeing is defined in the course as “The capacity to look after personal health, safety, relationships and work-life balance in digital settings
  • Digital wellbeing involves mastering six digital skills
    • to use digital tools in pursuit of personal goals (eg health and fitness)
    • to participate in social and community activities;
    • to act safely and responsibly in digital environments;
    • to negotiate and resolve conflict;
    • to manage digital workload, overload and distraction;
    • to act with concern for the human and natural environment when using digital tools
  • Managing digital wellbeing mean managing the impact of digital technology on five outcomes (the PERMA model of wellbeing)
    • Positive Emotion
    • Engagement
    • Relationships
    • Meaning
    • Achievement
  • Digital Wellbeing involves knowing how screen time and digital technology influences your emotions
    • Which of the activities resulted in positive emotion (e.g. happiness, joy, gratitude etc.)? (and were there any activities that caused negative emotions (e.g. anger, stress, anxiety)? If yes, is this an activity you can reduce?
    • When you were spending time online, were you actively engaging, or were the tasks just passive?
    • Were there activities that you feel help you build relationships and feel connected with others?
    • Did any of the activities give you a sense of purpose or meaning?
    • Did you get a sense of accomplishment from any of the activities that you engaged in?
  • Digital wellbeing involves understanding how to enjoy the benefits of digital technology whilst avoiding the hazards
    • Digital technology can broaden our horizons. We now carry access to a whole planet full of people, knowledge and experiences in our pocket
    • Digital technology can promote physical activity and physical health (fitness trackers, Pokemon Go)
    • Digital technology is creating a revolution in education (e.g. MOOC courses), bring skills and knowledge to the world at scale
    • Digital technology can offer important me-time
    • Digital technologies have opened up new ways of helping others, giving money towards new ventures and products, and spreading awareness of causes (e.g. KickStarter, GoFundMe)
    • Digital technology can help us connect.  A 2018 UK YouGov survey of 16-34-year-olds in the UK found that 45% of respondents had used a dating app
  • Digital wellbeing means being not succumbing uncritically to media hysteria and moral panic over digital technology
    • If we look back as early as the 17th Century we can draw parallels with ‘reading mania’. As literacy became more widespread, in the 18th and 19th century, markets became stocked with books on a range of genres, including horror, romance, and adventure. Fiction books offered the reader an escape from their everyday lives, and with this came fears that books would have a detrimental impact on health and society. We can attribute some of these fears to the solitary nature of reading. Individualism, and engagement in solitary endeavours, which satisfy only our own desires, are seen as a threat to society as they feed our imagination and take us away from our roles in the home, our work and our community
    • Gaming, along with screen violence, has also been the subject of a media and political witch hunt. A bill “seeking to control ‘space invaders’… and other electronic games” on the basis of “young people becoming…addicted” was only just defeated in the UK parliament in 1981 by 114 votes to 94. A review of research into moderate videogaming and flourishing mental health suggests that computer game play has the potential to enhance life satisfaction and improve individual players’ mental wellbeing. The researchers found that video games have the capacity to promote and facilitate all aspects of PERMA model of wellbeing in positive psychology
  • Digital wellbeing also means becoming more digitally aware – of the various ways digital technology can influence us
    • becoming more critical users of digital information (including awareness of fake news, defined as “false often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news”)
    • being aware of the potential impact of gamification of digital technology. This year the World Health Organization (WHO)’s diagnostic manual, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), identified “gaming disorder” as a mental health disorder. A WHO Q&A describes the condition as “a pattern of gaming behavior (‘digital-gaming’ or ‘video-gaming’) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence…, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.” Google Books’ Ngram Viewer shows a steady increase in references to video game addiction throughout most of the ‘90s, with a drop-off at the millennium, and further increase thereafter
    • being aware of digital surveillance and our “data self” made up of cookies and clicks used to target and shape our behaviour. We’ve little control over much of this ‘digital footprint’, but we can control the information we publish ourselves. (Hitachi staff now wear sensors to gather data on individual behavioral traits, and measure how those traits correlate with work productivity)
    • being aware of the potential hazards of social comparison (Mental health organization Sanctus reports 62% of people feel inadequate when comparing their lives to others online)
    • being aware of the potential impact of self comparison – comparing our highly curated virtual self to our more messy physical self – ‘snapchat dysmorphia’ refers to how selfie editing can warp perception of self-image, whilst a 2017 survey by The American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found that 55% of facial plastic surgeons had met patients motivated to improve their appearance in selfies)
    • being aware of “technoference” – the everyday intrusions and interruptions that technology such as smartphones have on our personal relationships. Photographer Eric Pickersgill’s Removed project captured portraits of everyday life but with the smartphones removed to show how technology disrupts our interactions with others and our physical environment
    • being aware of the impact of digital technology on how we interact with physical spaces. Look at the smombie (smartphone zombie) hordes we see (or participate in) as we make our way through town: shuffling along, eyes glued downwards to the smartphones in their hands
    • being aware of the problem, risks and scale of cyberbullying (50% of adolescents report having been bullied online). (Research suggests four motivations lie behind cyberbullying
      • Fun – Comedy so often relies on a fall-guy; a victim. Great amusement can be extracted at the expense of others
      • Interest – It’s fascinating to explore what you can and can’t get away with: the bullying verges upon scientific study
      • Pain – Some people just really enjoy the ability they have to cause distress to another person
      • Moral revenge – The bully is acting in retribution for something the victim has done. In other words, the bullying was deserved. As the vigilante of “Cyberbully” puts it: “You think you’re the victim? You’re not the victim you’re the cyber bully!”
  • Digital wellbeing means promoting universal digital access for all
    • Accessibility: designing materials that are accessible to people with a disability. This approach looks at removing any barriers that may prevent someone with a disability either engaging in a particular activity or accessing information.
    • Usability: considers the ease of use to a product or service to achieve a particular task or goal efficiently and effectively. Usable design requires lots of user-testing to ensure that the design of either a service or platform is intuitive to the user
    • Inclusion (or universal design): is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation of specialised design” (Center for Universal Design, 2008). Universal design is the broadest concept and aims to ensure products and services are accessible to, and usable by, people with a wide range of characteristics

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
Join the discussion

Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.