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Digital Wellbeing: A Balancing Act - a report from VoiceBox

The internet has played a greater role in our lives than ever before over the last 18 months – especially for younger generations. During periods of lockdown, young people all over the world used the internet to stay connected with family and friends and continue their schooling from home. But ever-greater reliance on the online world can mean it takes more and more effort to support our digital wellbeing accordingly. 

With this in mind, Parent Zone commissioned youth content platform VoiceBox to look into what digital wellbeing means for young people: how they define it, how they maintain it, and how they might tackle the issue with their own children in the future. To mark Digital Parenting Week, they have published a report, “Digital Wellbeing: A Balancing Act”.

This report explores issues ranging from screen time and digital access to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the digital wellbeing of young people aged 16 to 23 in the UK, USA, Colombia, India, Australia and Singapore. 

What does digital wellbeing mean to young people?

When asked to define what digital wellbeing meant to them, one thing was clear: young people are very much aware of the impacts, positive and negative, that technology has on their lives. To young people, digital wellbeing is all about balancing the risks and the rewards that the online world can offer. 

“Digital Wellbeing is a tightrope we all walk in the online domain. It isn’t the total avoidance of risk and harm through a removal of access to any technology. Nor is it the unmediated welcoming of technology into every aspect of our lives.”

Engagement is empowering 

When asked about what worried them about time spent online, the most common response was harm to their mental or physical health. This could be directly, through cyberbullying or harassment, or indirectly, through excessive screen use. 

However, young people also referred to the steps they take to self-manage these potential harms, for example: “I make sure I’m taking a break from social media especially when I am feeling stressed or drained.”

This sense of agency is empowering. “Young people strongly believe that you cannot achieve Digital Wellbeing simply through the avoidance of all risks and harms; you also have to engage in the online world in a beneficial and healthy way.” They also see themselves as having an active role in maintaining their wellbeing online: “Digital Wellbeing cannot be measured in likes, followers or videogame achievements”. 

Opening up opportunities

Awareness of potential harms was balanced with the wealth of opportunities the online world can offer them – especially when it comes to education. Access to technology is seen as vital in order to “keep up” and engage adequately with school and university: “access to online education and learning tools is crucial to maximising the benefit of technology, and therefore to maximising Digital Wellbeing.”

This was most clearly seen during the Covid-19 pandemic. Technology didn’t just enable young people to participate in homeschooling, it also helped them develop new skills and interests: “During the pandemic... they learnt to use the internet in a way that they had never done before… This will no doubt help them in the future and likely open up many opportunities.” Many also felt more aware of their screen use and better able to monitor their use of technology as a result. 

Learning, exploring and entertaining

Access to online education was “the tip of the iceberg” when it came to the potential value technology can bring to young people’s lives. They spoke passionately about the many ways in which technology can help them engage with everything from culture to cooking. They can explore hobbies and interests, learn new skills, or simply enjoy something entertaining – all of which boost their wellbeing. 

Young people are especially keen to change older generations’ view of YouTube, described in the report as “one of the largest libraries on the internet”: “While parents might find it tempting to disregard watching YouTube videos as a waste of time, young people point to many benefits, whether it’s simply a way to relax from a long day, or a tool for learning, fostering interests and personal growth.”

Stepping into parents’ shoes

Perhaps the most illuminating and impactful part of the report comes where young people were asked to put themselves into parents’ shoes, and share the advice on managing life online they would give their own children, if they were to have them in the future.

While generally in favour of parental involvement, they highlighted that children need freedom to explore for themselves: ​​“It’s like having your own room - even if you’re not doing anything bad in your room it is still important to have that privacy”.

The next generation of parents plan to give their children “breathing space”, while emphasising the importance of “two-way communication between parents and children about their tech use” – something that, encouragingly, many said they already had with their own parents. 

While many said they would set restrictions on where children could use devices, and how long for, most emphasised the importance of advice and guidance, “to help children navigate the online environment on their own”. Advice included treating others with respect, using tech to further their own interests and passions and creating healthy boundaries and knowing when to step away. 

Balance is crucial

Simply avoiding risk online doesn’t achieve digital wellbeing. Young people need to play an active role in their digital experiences and engagements – and parents need to provide guidance that toes the line between involvement and intervention. 

Overall, this report shows young people have a keen understanding of what helps – and hinders – their digital wellbeing. They are informed about risks, empowered to manage them, and excited to embrace opportunity.

Read the full report here. 

What is VoiceBox?

VoiceBox was launched in 2020 by our sister organisation, Youth Zone, as a platform for young people aged 14 to 25 to talk about the issues that matter to them.  

This is important: far too often, conversations are had about issues affecting young people, without offering them a say. VoiceBox aims to change this – to let young voices set the agenda and speak for themselves. The team’s articles, features and reports – compiled by contributors from around the globe – raise awareness and understanding of the issues important to young people right now.