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#Liveyourbestlife? A guide to flourishing in the digital age

Professor Vicki Nash who spoke at the Digital Families 2019 conference, discusses how we might encourage children to flourish in the digital age through understanding how technology creates value in their lives.

If you believe the hype, it has never been so easy to achieve health and wellbeing. Online apps promise us ‘breathing exercises to help you relax’ and ‘life-changing skills of meditation’. Fitness trackers monitor our steps, our heart-rate, our sleep patterns, whilst social media hashtags remind us to ‘#liveyourbestlife’, ‘#staypositive’ and ‘#findyourhappiness’. Apps are even available specifically for young children and teens, purporting to support healthy sleep routines, emotional coping strategies and positive mental health. Whilst research suggests that not all self-tracking tools will deliver lasting change, the focus on technology’s potential to increase rather than undermine wellbeing is surely a good thing. At a time where an increasing focus on online harms risks heightening our fears of technology, it's worth acknowledging all the ways in which use of the Internet can contribute to a happy, healthy and fulfilling life, particularly for children and young people. Can our children not only stay safe, but truly flourish in the digital age?  

Answering this question requires us to abandon anachronistic assumptions of ‘digital dualism’ which draws a distinction between life online and life ‘in the real world’. To flourish in the digital age means flourishing with digital technologies, accepting that they play an increasingly central role in our relationships with family, friends and the institutions that support us; accepting that the ways we curate our identity through social media is part of who we are. The online activities we engage in and the content we consume are no less fulfilling for their disconnection from any particular physical space. For children and young people who spend many hours a week connected to the Internet, we must acknowledge that their subjective experiences of living a rich life are not confined to rare moments of disconnection, even if in return, they may need to understand that wellbeing requires some time spent without access to technology. 

Accepting that life online is real life, is a necessary first step to understanding how a life lived with technology can be meaningful, but we also need to increase children’s positive uses of technology. This means abandoning simplistic concerns about screen-time, accepting that there is no clear association between the amount of device use and children’s wellbeing. Rather we should focus our attention on what children are doing with their devices and better understand how these uses create value in their lives. Interviews with children around the world remind us that despite radically different living conditions, the Internet brings joy and delight in surprisingly common ways: keeping up with friends, playing games, learning a new skill, creating content or finding a voice. But few activities are intrinsically and always positive.

As OfCom’s Media Use survey reveals, for example, almost all children (91%) agree that social media helps them feel closer to their friends at least some of the time, but the same proportion (90%) also agree that people are mean to each other on social media some of the time. To this extent, policy focus on improving online safety, investing in media literacy and building digital resilience is clearly essential in order to maximise opportunity and reduce risk. But policy change must be proportionate, and vitally should not undermine positive uses in the name of reducing harms. For example, it would be a great shame if well-meaning initiatives such as the ICO’s Age-Appropriate Design Code resulted in companies rescinding children’s access to activities they value and content they have created.

Ultimately, flourishing requires more than just the absence of harm, or subjective experiences of pleasure. Can the Internet contribute value to an objectively good life? Studies in the philosophy of technology have devoted many pages to answering this question. There is no single answer, but the most compelling arguments suggest that in addition to contributing to the enjoyment of the activities we find most meaningful, digital technologies should support rather than undermine our autonomy, expand access to information and enhance rather than weaken our self-respect. What would this mean in practice? 

First, we need more tools that encourage reflective technology use, which allow users to exercise genuine control in their choice of settings. As the excellent 5Rights campaign has suggested, this might mean retiring the infinite scroll/refresh option in favour of prompts or nudges that encourage more thoughtful use. Promoting autonomy also entails giving young users much more control over how their data and content is stored or used, with privacy options greatly expanded. Second, expanding access to information means ensuring that in the rush to deliver a safer Internet we don’t inadvertently limit access to resources that offer vital material for children and young people working out who they are and what they value in life.

Information about difficult subjects like sexuality, relationships, substance abuse and even politics can fall foul of heavy-handed filters, whilst space for risky speech should not be completely shut down. Third, promoting greater self-respect entails that technology designers take more account of difference and value diversity. Apps and services that privilege particular personal characteristics should be unacceptable to users, whether this be social media tools promoting narrow views of beauty or platforms presenting binary gender options.  

Finally (and most idealistically), for children and young people to truly flourish in the digital age we need more tools and services which genuinely serve their best interests rather than seeking to mould those interests to further commercial gain. It’s a lot to ask, but in the digital age #livingyourbestlife means making the most of the Internet, not fearing it. For the sake of the children, we need to up our game.