Social Innovation

How can we achieve digital happiness?

Sarah Murray
Journalist, Financial Times/Economist Group
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By offering technology-free retreats, a company called Digital Detox is tapping into a growing desire to unplug. But while busy executives are hungry for a break from constant connectivity, social media and other technologies are not necessarily detrimental to our well-being and happiness.

In many ways, the connectivity age has been hugely beneficial. Across the world, web services and mobile phones are giving people access to everything from banking to education. US-based Omada is tapping into connectivity and access to promote preventive care. It has found that giving those at risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes remote access to coaches and social support networks is effective in helping them change their health habits.

Online and mobile connectivity also drives the prosperity underpinning well-being. According to Deloitte, a doubling of mobile data can generate a 0.5 percentage point increase in the growth of GDP per capita, while McKinsey puts the potential value created by social technologies at $1trn a year—with enterprise-wide social media raising knowledge workers productivity by up to 25%.

Of course, constant e-mail interruptions at work can cause workplace stress, as suggested by a 2014 study by researchers at the University of British Columbia, which found that participants limited to checking e-mails three times a day experienced far lower stress than those who could check it anytime.

Other concerns focus on the blurring lines between office and home life. “If you stop checking e-mail after 8 pm, it feels negligent or risky for your career rather than something where you’re investing in your health,” says Anna Akbari, sociologist and former professor in New York University’s department of media, culture and communication.

To address this risk, French unions and companies in the high-tech and consulting industries signed a labour agreement last year requiring workers with contracts based on days, not hours (excluding them from the 35-hour working week limit), to disconnect from communications tools after a 13-hour day.

Digital connectivity does not in itself cause unhappiness or worsen well-being, however. A 2015 survey of 1,800 adults by the Pew Research Center, for example, found no overall link between frequent use of Internet or social media and higher levels of stress. In fact, women using Twitter, e-mail and phones to share photos actually reported lower stress levels.

In studying the effect of digital technologies on teenagers’ well-being, Bristol University’s Paul Howard-Jones found that the impact of technology on a teenager’s well-being largely depended on other factors such as whether she used social media to support existing face-to-face friendship (positive effect) or the time of day when he used the technology (late-in-day use resulted in less sleep less and poorer sleep quality).

He argues that human behaviour, rather than technology, is the problem and calls for the introduction of “digital hygiene”, which he compares to habits such as washing hands before a meal. “Connectivity is not good or bad,” he says. “It’s how we choose to use it.”

This article is published in collaboration with GE Look Ahead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Sarah Murray is a specialist writer on business, society and the environment. A longtime Financial Times contributor and former FT staff journalist, she is also a regular contributing author for the Economist Group.

Image: A boy touches a 45-metre long wall lighted by colour rays. REUTERS/China Daily.

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Related topics:
Social InnovationFourth Industrial Revolution
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