What actually *is* digital wellbeing?

Hi all - first contribution here, please be kind! :wink:

I am currently writing an MA dissertation - working title: ‘From pathology to autonomy.
Establishing the meaning of digital wellbeing in the post-digital age’. I am exploring themes around agency, autonomy, intentionality etc and drawing from a range of sources both academic and ‘popular’.

Much of the literature (and the solutions) concentrate on the problems…addiction, dependency, loss of concentration, attention, memory etc and the consequences of all that. ‘Solutions’ are out there - apps, websites, books, programmes etc (even Google, FB, Apple et al are in on it…though we might be cynical about their purposes).

There is much less around about what ‘digital wellbeing’ itself actually looks and feels like? We are good at articulating the absence of it…but it’s harder to express what healthiness itself is? Is it simply an absence of the problems, dependencies etc? Or is it something else? (Of course, you can detox completely, throw away the phone, go to a camp etc, but for the vast majority that’s neither possible, advisable nor should be even necessary - why should we isolate ourselves from the digital world to ‘feel ok’?).

I have been a member here for a while, reading some valuable views…I’d be really interested in hearing some opinions on what digital wellbeing is? Is it even possible to create some kind of working definition?


A digital wellbeing is condition in which your mood, health, personality, relationships, opportunities and aspirations are improved and enhanced - or at least not harmed - by the digital means you have access to.

To reach this condition you have first of all to reach wellbeing. This is the hardest part and has little to do with digital means. Once you feel well for enough time in a row, you can allow digital activities to come into your life, as long as they help you to increase your wellbeing.
You have to periodically make an internal check to see how your level of wellbeing is, whether it increased or decreased with the amount of digital activities you had in the last days/weeks.

Even if there’s hardly a time 0 when you are out of the digital world and time 1 when you let digital means come into your life, you have always to perform this mental abstraction in order to shape yourself apart from the digital means and only after that allow some flowing going on between your world and the digital world.


It’s certainly an intriguing and complex topic.

My gut reaction is to say that human health is so well-understood already through biology, chemistry, medicine, psychology, etc. that it’s hard to imagine anything technology-related contributing very much to that, and the best we can do is try to identify the hidden harms of tech usage so people can avoid them.

On the other hand, society has given so little attention to this topic, maybe it’s worth exploring. Just look at it from one aspect: ergonomics. Ergonomics is sort of like what you’re describing - finding a healthy pattern - but from a physical, skeleto-muscular angle. Sadly it seems completely lost with these new devices. I mean you look up “ergonomics for ipads” and you find stuff like people laying down with the iPad.

I think that this kind of research is worth doing, but you would really have to be willing to start from first principles and consider that there might not be ANY healthy use case for some devices/apps, or that the optimally healthy implementation of a certain idea has not been found yet. You can’t do it from the angle of “how do we work with the devices/apps we have,” or “how do we let the tech companies keep making money without hurting people,” because that’s a form of damage control and already done by the companies themselves.


Super interesting, thanks :slightly_smiling_face: There’s a real absence of research in the area. Plenty of work done on the ‘pathologies’ of digital life - addiction, dependency etc, but much less on what health actually looks like.

James Williams writes about this stuff really well, he suggests that we really do need some sort of uncontested definition of what wellbeing actually means (though as its always personal, can it even happen?)

This is important - time 0 and time 1 are slipping from us? We are entering the post-digital era (just like we entered the ‘post-television’ era and before that the ‘post-electricity’ era) in which it becomes increasingly difficult even to isolate our digital lives from our previous non-digital lives? They become entirely blended. So, yes - intentionality, consciousness (while we still can) - but it’s going to get harder all the time? One reason I am writing this paper because I feel that it may become impossible even to reflect on it in the not too distant future unless we get to grips with it!

Sure, there’s an irony here - we have somehow let ourselves be seduced by a world where the things we make are doing us actual harm (so other people can make huge sums), and there’s nothing we can do? Other than stop, go off-grid, all that (and why should we do that - deny ourselves the huge upside of the online world?) Maybe we do need to reinvent the whole thing, from the ground up rather than retro-fit ‘controls’ over what’s out there!?

1 Like

My simplest definition would be a state in which technology additively enhances everyday life without distracting from it. Add utility and enjoyment without adding stress, obligation, and distraction.

1 Like

Hi, I came across an article written by social futurist Dirk Knemeyer back in 2006 called “Applied Empathy: A Design Framework for Meeting Human Needs and Desires”. He has proposed five states of being, from the first easiest to achieve and the last the hardest to achieve:

  1. Participation
  2. Engagement
  3. Productivity
  4. Happiness
  5. Wellbeing

I think he gave a good definition of wellbeing. I will quote his definition here:

When you focus on well-being instead of happiness, you make an explicit trade-off between an in-the-moment preference and your longer-term health, deciding to pursue things that are more sustainably and holistically good. Well-being demands a very broad and actively informed look at what will contribute to things like your life expectancy, every possible kind of health—physical, psychological, and intellectual—and deeper, essentially human conceptions such as meaning and fulfillment. These are all things that transcend happiness—even though they often include it. In a world that is becoming increasingly more scientifically advanced, where we can understand both the literal and functional DNA of people better and better, we will both personally and culturally strive for and value well-being.

In this regard, digital wellbeing contributes to a person’s long-term physical, psychological and intellectual health positively through satisfying deep analytical, emotional and physical needs so that one feels a general sense of fulfilment and purpose in life through the use of information technology.

If you are interested, you can dig deeper into this article. He talked mainly about experience design with more empathy applied in the process, but I find it useful to the general discussion of product development, and it’s still highly relevant today.


Many thanks for that - will certainly take a look at the article :smile:

One topic that could be interesting to discuss would be anti-tech vs mindful-tech!


I personally think that the answer has to be mindful tech. I find a Canute-like denialism in the anti-tech narrative. I also think it’s actually how Google/FB/The Rest want their critics to frame their position (because they know they will win that argument). Mindful tech is about ethics, about humanity and about values that may be at total variance to neoliberalism. This is much more threatening to the major players (and we see them trying to get into the space with tokenistic initiatives to try and sanitise/control (and even earn money) from it?).

Ultimately it’s about the tech industry’s goals. Money or Humans? I know which is (still) winning right now.


I have a simple answer. It’s about quantity and quality. Just like the body only needs so much food or we gain weight, and that food should be healthy to promote our physical health, so should technology use also be limited in quantity and higher in quality to promote our mental health. Regarding limits, it’s a bit like having a job where a 40 hour grueling workweek with few holidays is devestating on our health, but a 25 hour intense and highly productive workweek with many holidays is much better for our health. The same goes for technology use.


Which fits with the idea of ‘digital nutrition’…

1 Like

Hi @countrygirljo!

This is a great question. If you get the opportunity, I recommend checking out my podcast SHIPS: The Vessels For A Meaningful Life. We have had some top experts in digital well-being/digital wellness on the show who give some great insight into their meaning of what it is. Feel free to check in out here or wherever you listen to podcasts! It’s still new, so we have many other great guests down the road coming on.

All the best,


Hi CGJ… I don’t have an answer, but I do have an anecdote. I recently traveled from Los Angeles to NYC, flying Burbank to Newark. This is important because of the juxtaposition of hubs. The Burbank flight flew through San Francisco and on that leg I went from a tiny, small city airport to a much larger hub. Well, it was uneventful, and essentially tech free. I noticed people on their phones and tablets and wondered how many of them were reading rather than texting or doing work rather than playing games. Of course it was impossible to know, but did quantify my tech existence as I was nose deep in a book. The red eye from SF to Newark was dark and cozy and surprisingly screen free. People slept. Landing in Newark was a different story altogether. A redesigned terminal presented travelers with endless opportunities to pour themselves into screens. At every single station where a traveler could sit there was an iPad or some retrofitted tablet that seduced distraction and sold connectivity… to people who were already connected. Riffing off your idea of “Digital Nutrition”, this was the equivalent of pouring hot fudge over a Big Mac and then sprinkling it with gold flakes and Adderall. The sheer shirking of digital responsibility was striking and shocking that an airport, an International Hub, would so willingly contribute to the mind flogging of society and be so unapologetic, well it struck me that the movement toward well being needs to come from multiple angles. Like I said, this was an anecdote without answers, however the answer my come in our complicity.

Keep on keeping on. DC


Nice story. Airports like other public places have moved from well being public places to being heartless businesses. You’re talking about the type of dishonourable people who will sell you a bottle of water for 5 Euros. These moments in life are about ignoring all the noise, bearing it, and looking out the window or even catching a nap and waking up when you reach your real destination.

I would think digital well-being needs to be defined by the problem its name implicates.

The entire conversation is spawned from the business model of the internet where publishers are incentivised to acquire and maintain your attention. The mechanics of this begin with hi-jacking one’s self awareness, maintaining trust and regulating their emotional state in order to encourage or stimulate the publishers’/advertisers’ preferred actions.

If that is the problem then “well-being” would need to be a function of the users Emotional Intelligence… primarily that one maintains enough self awareness to maintain self-regulation.

Personally I prefer that my technology doesn’t make me feel a certain way but instead, if I am using any form of technology, it is in a purposeful way in order that I can use it to make me feel a certain way.

If you feel a certain way because of the technology, I’m not sure if that is “being” at all…

Haven’t they just. For some one with attentional difference it’s a bizarre kind of torture tbh. I rely heavily on visual cues so visual noise - particularly animated visual noise - makes it close to impossible for me to think. There are now animated billboards everywhere that are bigger and brighter than the important navigational signs. The most visually prominent places seem to have been either drowned or usurped. It is a shameless embrace of short term single bottom line rationalism at the expense of functionality.

That’s a succinct but apt piece. The description of the states of being made a lot of sense. I’m finding a bit out about codesign at the moment. I’m neurodivergent in the attention rebel sense…so I either notice everything around me or nothing… I’m in the zone in real life or I’m in the zone with where my head is (mediation, reading, on a device)… and that means that UX has a much more profound effect on me (and other people who also have a rebellious executive in the brain box). For that reason

“The threshold at which customers achieve the level of productivity is highly personal and specific to each customer. However, that doesn’t prevent us from intentionally designing to enhance productivity. It simply makes it clear that customers are the final arbiters of what does or does not make them productive.”

That’s a succinct but apt piece. The description of the states of being made a lot of sense to me.

I’m finding a bit out about codesign at the moment. I’m neurodivergent in the attention rebel sense…so I either notice everything around me or nothing… I’m in the zone in real life or I’m in the zone with where my head is (mediation, reading, on a device). and that means that UX has a much more profound effect on me (and other people who also have a rebellious executive in the brain box).
On productivity the article says: “The threshold at which customers achieve the level of productivity is highly personal and specific to each customer. However, that doesn’t prevent us from intentionally designing to enhance productivity. It simply makes it clear that customers are the final arbiters of what does or does not make them productive.”

Considering that is a 15 year old article it has aged incredibly well. I’ve had this conversations with UX designers about how the process of just waiting until you have something to test is a bit like lip service. I have talked to one UX designer who was really resistant to codesign in any iterative sense and didn’t believe that it was necessary to ensure diversity on the team because “I don’t have to be deaf to imagine being deaf” etc… so I doubt he is ever going to be the person that designs the vacuum cleaner I want because he has never asked me or someone even vaguely like me what I want in a vacuum cleaner. When you find a retailer that does listen to customer feedback it’s usually obvious in the product. But as you rightly point out the article has a broader utility. It easily applies to how we design and modify not just goods but also services and then on to relationships.

The relationship version of this is probably plan B from Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) which is now being used in a level 4 facility instead of a point and level system - that is pretty huge. I wonder if maybe they both have roots in something like Rock’s SCARF model? Oops no it is 2 years after this… well no doubt there is a zeitgeist thing happening.

I did a bit of acting when I was younger. Nothing formal but I did do a weekend workshop with a film director once who taught ‘playing the action’. For someone moving from stage to film it can be a real shock to find it’s a completely different skill. Stage is about projecting - louder and bigger in a literal sense but also as an intention so that even in a quite moment the body language is clearly felt. On film stage actors can take a whole to get it. They have to rein all of that back in and do something much more internal. To play the action you read through the script not to identify emotion but to identify objective. What is the character trying to do at that point? When does that objective change? Sometimes you have to work out what the other characters are doing. If you do it well then you aren’t acting you’re doing. It’s somehow similar to this state of engagement I think - because you’re doing your mind doesn’t wander as much… you’re in tune with the flow of the character moving from intention to intention.

When I come across articles like the one you’ve shared my faith in humans is restored quite a bit. It’s great to see how much people are trying to nut this stuff out. Thanks. Much Appreciated.