Digital wellbeing is not well understood.

When I think about how I would explain the idea, I'm reminded of addiction, managing screen time, and incessant notifications.

Mariek Vanden Abeele offers the following definition in her paper Digital Wellbeing as a Dynamic Construct:

Digital wellbeing is a subjective individual experience of optimal balance between the benefits and drawbacks obtained from mobile connectivity. This experiential state is comprised of affective and cognitive appraisals of the integration of digital connectivity into ordinary life. People achieve digital wellbeing when experiencing maximal controlled pleasure and functional support, together with minimal loss of control and functional impairment.

Abeele steers the reader away from thinking about wellbeing as a lack of addiction. Or in simple linear terms. Rather, she recommends thinking about wellbeing as part of a broad constellation of factors.

These include: context-, person-, and device-specific factors that each influence digital wellbeing. For example, is the person in question impulsive? Do they maintain social contact through messaging and video apps? How would their employer react if they weren't online? Does the smartphone OS tell them to put down the device? Or are the notifications compelling them to pick it up over and over again?

I also appreciated her discussion around the limitations of self-reported data, which is described as "notoriously inaccurate." When you're asking study participants to recall their smart device usage, it's easy to see how one might not get the full picture. Instead, she argues for device logging among other techniques to understand behaviors in the moment — not hours or days later.

Ultimately, what Abeele makes clear is that wellbeing is about striking a balance. Since there are clear benefits to connectivity, we need not reject frequent tech usage outright. Being mindful of the control that one is exerting on a given experience is critical. As is recognizing the factors that are outside of ones control.

Especially in our increasingly connected world.  

P.S. Listen to my conversation with Mariek here where we discuss media, digital wellbeing, and mobile connectivity.

(Photo by Vlada Karpovich.)