New Pew Research Report: The Future of Digital Life and Well-Being | Beth's Blog

New Pew Research Report: The Future of Digital Life and Well-Being

Digital Strategy, Research Studies

The Pew Research Center has released a research report called “The Future of Digital Life and Well-Being.”  Pew interviewed technology experts and scholars (including me) about the benefits and drawbacks of our digital lives.  The expert predictions  about the impact of the internet over the next 10 years came in response to questions asked by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center in an online canvassing conducted between Dec. 11, 2017, and Jan. 15, 2018. This is the ninth Future of the Internet study the two organizations have conducted together.

The report, The Future of Well-Being in a Tech-Saturated World, was designed to answer the question: Over the next decade, how will changes in digital life impact people’s overall well-being physically and mentally? Pew surveyed 1,150 experts in a non-scientific canvassing. About 47% of these respondents predict that individuals’ well-being will be more helped than harmed by digital life in the next decade, while 32% say people’s well-being will be more harmed than helped. The remaining 21% predict there will not be much change in people’s well-being compared to now.

Pew Research Center recently released the full collection of anecdotes and stories shared by experts about their personal experiences with digital life.   The following positive and negative themes about the impact of digital life surfaced:

Positives

  • Glorious connectedness
  • Invent, reinvent, innovate
  • Life-saving advice and assistance
  • Efficient transactions

Negatives

  • Connectedness overload
  • Trust tensions
  • Personal identity issues
  • Focus failures

The report elaborates on these themes and is organized into three sections:  1) anecdotes and comments about the positives of digital life; 2) anecdotes and comments about potentially harmful aspects of that life; and 3) responses in which people’s statements or anecdotes were fairly evenly split with both pros and cons of digital life.

Positive Personal Impact of Digital

While there are concerns, many experts pointed to the positive impact of a digital life in many areas including:

  • Family enrichment and enhancement
  • Work creation enabler and enhancer
  • Health and wellness aid
  • Community lifeline
  • Knowledge storehouse
  • Wonder creator and problem solver
  • Education tool
  • Travel companion
  • Safety Enabler

Digital technology has a positive impact on aspects of life – family, work, and play.  One way is as a health and wellness aid because patients and their caretakers can easily share information and support one another. As Gina Neff, an associate professor and senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, said in the report, “Digital technology has been a godsend for care-givers, allowing people to coordinate their efforts to help during cancer treatment, when a newborn arrives, or during a health crisis. Apps and websites cannot replace the communities that have always connected and supported us, but they can help diverse and dispersed groups coordinate care in unprecedented ways.”

Another positive is the “community lifeline” to other people that connectivity offers. Anne Collier, consultant and executive at The Net Safety Collaborative, said, “I ‘talk’ with people all over the world on a daily basis on Twitter – seeing, learning from, supporting and spreading what’s meaningful to them in their work and lives. It’s a tremendous source of inspiration for me. Together, we grow intelligence, connect up one another’s work and support positive social change just by doing our work, following one another and sharing what’s meaningful more widely.”

Negatives

While the study showed that the negatives were not as many as the positives, the stories shared by respondents point to how internet has challenged personal well-being and relationships.  One respondent noted, “The ritual of a weekly phone call with friends where there seemed like enough ‘space’ to talk about things in a meaningful way has eroded to texting to ‘keep up.’ On the one hand, several of my friends feel more in touch because they are sharing memes, feel they are sharing witty things ‘on the spot,’ but there is less going into depth. We don’t seem to be able to maintain both. That is what is so curious.”

Other negative themes:

  • Alone together
  • Distractions and addiction
  • Family and societal challenges
  • Toxic social media
  • Never ending work with new demands and expectations
  • Changing norms about speedy response and engagement
  • Attention economy and surveillance society
  • Sleep problems and stirred up woes

Future Predictions

Some respondents stressed that both kinds of futures are possible and can be affected by the choices that are made now.   Amy Webb, futurist, professor of strategic foresight at New York University and founder of the Future Today Institute, said,

“If our current habits continue unchanged, it’s easiest to map pessimistic and catastrophic scenarios. People will be surrounded by more misleading or false information, not less. We’ll see more YouTube and Twitch stars testing the thresholds of what their audiences are willing to watch, which means ever more salacious, incendiary content, disturbing images and dangerous behaviors. Government officials and political leaders at all levels will add to the vitriol online, posting quick hits that don’t advance democracy in any meaningful way. Eventually regulators, hoping to safeguard our well-being, will introduce laws and standards that differ from country to country, effectively creating a splintered internet. Regional splinternets will likely cause more harm than good, as the big tech companies will find it impossible to comply with every legal permutation, while our existing filter bubbles will expand to fit our geographic borders.

Our well-being is directly tied to our sense of safety and security, which would be upended in these scenarios. But the good news is that these scenarios haven’t happened yet. We can decide that we want a different outcome, but that requires making serious changes in how we use and manage information today. … We can choose to improve the quality of our digital experiences by forcing ourselves to be more critical of the information we consume. … The world we see looking only through the lens of a single post never reveals all of the circumstances, context and detail. Schools must teach digital street smarts … from an early age, kids should learn about bots and automatically-generated content. They should have provocative ethics conversations – with their peers, not just their parents – about online content and about technology in general. Content distributors must stop asserting that they are merely platforms. … As we enter the Artificial Intelligence era we must examine and make transparent how platforms make decisions on our behalf.”

The report also asked experts about what interventions were needed during the next decade to ease problems.  This is a robust section of report with many ideas. The themes included:

  • Reimagine systems: Societies can revise both tech arrangements and the structure of human institutions – including their composition, design, goals and processes
  • Reinvent tech: Things can change by reconfiguring hardware and software to improve their human-centered performance and by exploiting tools like artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR)
  • Regulate: Governments and/or industries should create reforms through agreement on standards, guidelines, codes of conduct, and passage of laws and rules
  • Redesign media literacy: Formally educate people of all ages about the impacts of digital life on well-being and the way tech systems function, as well as encourage appropriate, healthy uses
  • Recalibrate expectations: Human-technology coevolution comes at a price; digital life in the 2000s is no different. People must gradually evolve and adjust to these changes
  • Fated to fail: A share of respondents say interventions may help somewhat, but – mostly due to human nature – it is unlikely that these responses will be effective enough

What you think?  Over the next decade, how will changes in digital life impact people’s overall well-being physically and mentally?

One Response

  1. JAN SCHARNWEBER says:

    I’m surprised that the frustrations and stress of not being able to make digital things work properly wasn’t mentioned. I’m not a big techie, but I can learn and use software fairly well. Even so, I spend way too much time “fighting” to make my systems do what I think I understand they are supposed to do.
    This article suggests I can look forward to lots more of that going forward.

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