It was pitched as the Davos of digital wellbeing, and the Ithra Digital Wellbeing summit last week offered a lineup of 40+ global experts and activists in the field of digital wellbeing.
Although some notable names were missing, particularly from the field of positive technology and researchers measuring the impact of digital technology on our wellbeing, the event provided a good overview of current debates and issues in digital wellbeing.
Addiction, algorithms and AI featured prominently over the two days, as speakers discussed addictive-like digital behaviours and how ceding of control to algorithms and artificial intelligence may negatively influence our wellbeing – our ability to experience and evaluate life positively.
You can access the archived Summit content here (registration needed), but here are ten top takeouts from the event.
- Digital amplifies human nature (and human states and traits). This idea, proposed by Prof Paul Dolan and echoed by others, was a recurrent theme. Digital technology can amplify our strengths, talents, positive traits and positive life experiences, just as it can amplify our biases, weaknesses and negative experiences. The idea of digital as an amplifier – making us more of what we already are – is an interesting hypothesis to test
- Beyond good and evil. With a few exceptions, the debate about how our relationship with digital technology influences, and is influenced by, our wellbeing has moved beyond polarised tech alarmism vs tech utopianism. Digital is like any other technology (e.g. the wheel or the book) – it can be used to help or harm our wellbeing. It’s who’s doing what to whom with the technology that matters more than the technology itself
- The digital addiction business is alive and well: Activists and vendors still pushing the idea that digital technology is literally addictive (often selling a cure), even though the idea of digital behaviour as an addictive disorder is at best highly controversial, and certainly not accepted as a clinical diagnosis (apart perhaps from compulsive gaming and gambling on digital platforms). The threshold for persistent and repetitive behaviours to be classified as addictive is high – including withdrawal symptoms and increasing tolerance – with need to increase ‘dose’ (time spent), loss of interest in other activities, use to escape or relieve negative mood, jeopardising relationships, and deceiving others about behaviour. Nevertheless, as the Ithra report shows, there is a widespread public opinion that social media and digital devices are indeed addictive, and this represents a business opportunity
- The rise of the algorithm. The other big ‘A’ word (other than addiction) at the event was ‘algorithm’. Lots of talk about the potential of digital algorithms (and AI) to undermine (or enhance) human autonomy, relatedness and competence, and in doing so influencing wellbeing. My prediction is that ‘algorithm’ will become the new metaphor for how we understand our world, ourselves, our minds and our technology.
- Negativity bias. Many of the discussions centred around problematic use of digital technology that have been (more or less) linked to mental and physical health problems, such as depression, anxiety, sleep problems, attention-deficit, self-harm and eating disorders, obesity, and physical injury (due to digital distraction). Whilst there was some focus on the health benefits of digital technology, the overall focus was on digital as a health hazard.
- We need a Digital Hippocratic Oath: Companies should have an ethical code of conduct, and perhaps certification, that they can sign up to, in order to signal that they put citizen wellbeing first, and subscibe the principals of ethical design. I like this idea.
- Digital Proficiency Pass: Age-gating and licences are necessary to engage in some risky behaviours e.g. driving, so should there be a licence or proficiency pass for navigating digital technology? In addition to promoting digital literacy (awareness and understanding) should schools focus on teaching practical digital skills, and developing digital competencies to help young people master their increasingly digitalised world. Digital access matters too.
- Do we need digital nutrition labels or health warnings? Should digital products and services include ‘ingredient lists/labels’ like food, with honest transparent listing of the algorithms, persuasion and sales techniques they use? And/or should digital products include a health warnings if/when evidence warrants it?
- Keep it simple: Favourite practical tip of the event was from James Clear. Leave your mobile phone in another room – away from you – until lunch time. And watch your sense of focus and productivity rise.
- We need clear definitions: Digital wellbeing still means very different things to different people – including bizarrely ‘digital illbeing’ to some. Unless we agree on working definitions and evidence-based frameworks – we will continue to talk past each other, and the field will not evolve.