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Tech Shock: VoiceBox’s digital wellbeing report with Jonathan Baggaley

To mark Digital Parenting Week, this week’s episode of the Tech Shock podcast was a special live video session featuring Lottie Gimlette and Natalie Foos from VoiceBox and Jonathan Baggaley from the PSHE Association. 

With Vicki and Geraldine, they discussed VoiceBox’s new report on digital wellbeing, the pressures on young people online – particularly when it comes to pornographic content – and whether new guidance such as the Online Safety Bill goes far enough.

The latest report from VoiceBox, an international content platform curated by and for young people, explores attitudes to tech and effects of tech and the Covid-19 pandemic on wellbeing.

What is digital wellbeing?

VoiceBox’s research showed that young people know they can’t eliminate risk online and have to balance the risks with the “social, educational and personal benefits”.

On the whole, they are aware of how to manage their lives online, Natalie Foos said, whether by “taking breaks, using educational tools, having positive conversations with friends and family and using the online world to enrich their interests and knowledge”.

Where does responsibility for wellbeing lie?

Jonathan Baggaley argued that digital wellbeing is inextricably linked to wider social issues, because the online and offline worlds are now so bound together. “Wellbeing is affected by inequality, but the concept of wellbeing doesn’t fully capture those fundamentals.” 

The design of tech is not neutral, he added, with algorithms designed for engagement rather than users’ benefit.

Mental health 

Mental health concerns are at an all-time high among young people. “Some of the ways in which tech encourages us to compare ourselves” are unhelpful, Jonathan Baggaley said. “Tech leads us to think other people are much more selfish than they actually are, and that we should be more selfish than we actually are.”

VoiceBox found young people were aware of the unrealistic expectations raised by social media. There is “huge demand for unfiltered content,” said Lottie Gimlette. 

How does pornography affect young people?

The VoiceBox research found that many young people were uncomfortable with the amount of explicit sexual content online. 

Jonathan Baggaley argued that pornography is a commercial operation, driven by engagement algorithm. “This is technology aimed at the most intimate parts of ourselves in pursuit of profit,” he said. “Rather than talking about sex, we need to be talking about money.”

The more that young people learn about sex through pornography – rather than through effective sex education – the more likely they are to see sex in terms of pure gratification, male arousal and female objectification. 

There was agreement that the government’s failure to bring in age verification for pornography platforms – or to include porn in the Online Safety Bill – was dismaying. “It’s a failure of politics. We’re not trying hard enough,” Baggaley said.

Importance of sex education

VoiceBox’s research showed that young people want good sex education that’s open and honest. Baggaley said that PSHE aims to give young people autonomy and enable them to make informed decisions. 

Natalie Foos talked about her own abstinence-based sex education in the US and said: “Young people want the truth about what healthy sex and healthy relationships look like.” 

What can parents do?

VoiceBox's report asked young people how they would approach their children’s digital wellbeing, should they become parents in the future.

While young people understood the need for restrictions, they also expressed the importance of allowing children some control. Boundaries between parents and children were important.

“Young people aren’t naive and they want to have conversations,” Lottie Gimlette said. “Parents don’t have to be expert, just open, honest, frank.”

Watch the episode of Tech Shock here:

Listen to episode 4 of Tech Shock, season 2: "Jonathan Baggaley and VoiceBox"

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