How does digital media really affect us?

Digital media has a mainly positive effect in the work sphere, according to a recent survey

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We now spend more time online each day than we do sleeping. But how does that affect our everyday lives? What effect does it have on how we communicate and interact, how we work and engage with the rest of the world?

A new project, titled Shaping the Future Implications of Digital Media, a partnership between Willis Towers Watson and the World Economic Forum, has some answers. But they’re not black and white.

What we’ve found is that there are as many positive implications and improvements to our everyday lives as there are potentially negative consequences. The key is to use them in ways that are beneficial. Seize the many opportunities digital media offers and avoid the risks that arise from overuse or maleficent use.

A survey of 5,000 digital media users across five countries paints a positive picture: half of the respondents agreed that their digital media use had improved their overall quality of life – both socially and professionally. Only one in seven respondents disagreed.

Best and worst aspects of digital media

The most positive effects of digital media were found in the work sphere.

Roughly two-thirds of survey respondents said that digital media use had improved their ability to learn and develop professionally. This included their ability to carry out their work, collaborate with colleagues and build relationships.

New digital technologies offer the opportunity to work across boundaries of location and time, opening up job opportunities for remotely located workers and ensuring access to the best talent, no matter where it is located around the globe.

Then there’s online education: programmes such as coursera offer online courses from different universities. Professional social networks such as LinkedIn allow for networking, while talent platforms like Upwork help to source the best contingent talent.

However, digital media usage has to be managed well, especially when it comes to the extent of usage, the type of social interaction and the nature of the content accessed.

According to the survey, the least positive effects were reported in the personal sphere. While roughly four out of 10 respondents reported positive effects on long-term memory, attention span, the ability to find a partner, stress and health, about one in 10 respondents found those same areas to be negatively affected.

Doubts in the developed world

The survey didn’t just throw up differences between people: countries, too, returned varied results. While perceptions in emerging markets such as China and Brazil were largely positive (in China, two-thirds agree that digital media use has improved their quality of life), opinions in Germany and the United States were less enthusiastic. In Germany, for instance, only 30% agree (and 24% disagree) that digital media use has improved their quality of life. The differences are astonishing.

The results could point to two hypotheses. First, that the opportunities digital media offers developing countries are more significant than in established markets. Second, it could also mean that people who have had a longer experience of using digital media also see some of the potential downsides. Less physical connection, blurring boundaries between work and private lives, and an increase in hate speech and defamation.

While the underlying reasons should be researched in more detail, we can already conclude that digital media brings both benefits and risks, all depending on how it is used.

This article is part of a series of posts from the Shaping the Future Implications of Digital Media for Society project. Explore the project content and findings in the report Digital Media and Society: Implications in a Hyperconnected Era. For more insights also see the Whitepaper The impact of digital content: Opportunities and risks of creating and sharing information online.

Authors: Ravin Jesuthasan is the Global Practice Leader and Managing Director at Willis Towers Watson’s Talent Management practice. Anne-Marie Jentsch is a Senior Consultant at Willis Towers Watson.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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