Three questions with Keegan McBride on the future of digital well-being

The postdoctoral researcher co-authored a chapter in this year’s Global Happiness and Well-Being Policy Report

Keegan McBride, a postdoctoral researcher at the Hertie School’s Centre for Digital Governance, answers three questions about his recently co-authored chapter “The Information Society and the Future of Digital Well-being” in the Global Happiness and Well-being Policy Report 2022. Fellow authors included Stefano QuintarelliLuca De Biase, and Gianluca Misuraca. The Global Happiness and Well-being Policy Report is compiled by the Global Happiness Council (GHC), a global network of academic specialists and practitioners in psychology, economics, education, public health, civil society, business and government. This is the first year the report included a chapter on digital well-being.

What are the risks and opportunities of digital technologies for happiness and wellbeing?

Some of the most important risks we identify are: threats for data privacy and surveillance posed by increased reliance on digital technologies; an overreliance on digital relationships and interactions to physical ones, which has strong negative impacts on physical, emotional and mental well-being; the exacerbation of existing inequalities and further deepening of the digital divide; misuse of data; and major breakdowns in digital systems that are built to prioritise efficiency and profits, rather than resilience and stability.

We also discuss some of the future building blocks for a happier digital future. These include: proper transparency and accountability provisions; the understanding that digital technologies may provide new tools for well-being, but only as part of a broader, systemic response; the need for a holistic approach to technological developments, taking into account the speed and scale of the effects of possible adverse events; and ensuring workers have the right to disconnect, be treated equally, and have their privacy respected in a hybrid environment are upheld.

Digital technology affects the whole of society, so decisions must be made more broadly, inclusively and in full acknowledgment of the social nature of its development. Gone are the days when digital technology only concerned engineers and technologists.

What did we learn from the use of digital technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic and what impact did they have on well-being and happiness?

The COVID-19 pandemic saw society move rapidly towards digital methods of communications across sectors. Children went to school online. Employees worked from home. Access to healthcare slowed, with some governments and businesses making investments into telemedicine alternatives. Governments also needed to become more digital, both in terms of how they operated and how they interacted with their citizens. This was possible because our digital society is inseparable from technology. This rapid reconfiguration of our world based around our digital networks had a large number of benefits and did enable society to continue at least in some semblance of its former self.

However, various threats and dangers also emerged. As people spent more time on video calls, interest in plastic surgery skyrocketed. Students in school experienced higher levels of bullying and cyber bullying. Data privacy and security were not always prioritised, allowing for leaks. While many children in wealthier countries could attend school remotely, the move to online classes further widened the education gap, disproportionately effecting at-risk youth. Lack of physical connections led to missed opportunities for socialisation and a decrease in quality of life. Health and mental health, especially in children, worsened due to the amount of time spent in front of screens. Workers worked more, women were disproportionately disadvantaged by the move to digital and at-home work, and employers began to surveil their employees digitally. All of these issues negatively impact our happiness and well-being and are directly associated with the increased reliance on and use of digital technologies.

How can policymakers and others develop better, more resilient digital systems?  

In our chapter, we discuss four necessary components for building resilient, future-oriented and well-being-focused digital systems that form the technical foundation for our digital society:

  1. Data and digital archives help to improve resilience by ensuring the long-term availability of our digital lives.

  2. Digital identities are necessary for increased levels of security and privacy.
  3. Interoperability allows for numerous systems to communicate with each other and rapidly reconfigure if needed.
  4. Flexibility enables digital systems to be developed and fixed quickly.

Governments can help by supporting investments and developments into the above. Technological developments must also be supported by policy and legal changes that promote digital privacy, enable transparency, mandate the use of open standards and provide incentives and support for developing modular and open source systems.

Policymakers must also note and counteract the potential risks and threats of digital technologies to happiness and well-being by enacting supportive legislation, regulation and strategic governance mechanisms to drive digitalisation so that it enhances and fosters a person’s ability to grow, thrive and be happy.

Find the full report here.


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