APU Business Everyday Scholar Podcast

Improve Your Life by Improving Your Digital Wellbeing

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, DMA, Department Chair, Communication and World Languages and
Nicole RothenayFaculty Member, Communication

What is digital wellbeing and why is it so important in today’s world? In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU communications professor Nicole Rothenay about how to manage a healthy technology relationship. Learn how to monitor and moderate use of digital devices, apps and tools to help bring awareness about usage, and how digital wellbeing is directly tied to overall health and wellbeing.  

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to Nicole Rothenay, faculty in the school of Arts, Humanities and Education. And today, our conversation is about digital wellbeing. Welcome, Nicole.

[Podcast: The Future of Social Media: What’s Normal Anyway?]

Nicole Rothenay: Thank you, Bjorn. I am glad to be here.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m excited about this conversation. Digital wellbeing is something that has really come about obviously within the last decade, decade and a half, and it’s become extraordinary important because besides our own wellbeing, our digital lives are so important that it has to be addressed. And so my first question is: What is digital wellbeing?

Nicole Rothenay: That is a great question. And I think the easiest answer is that digital wellbeing, which is also known as digital wellness or digital health, depending on who you are talking to, is the relationship we have with technology and hopefully the healthy relationship.

I actually looked up several definitions and I found a great compilation of definitions from around the scope of scholarship on a site easily called digitalwellbeing.org. And they had some really interesting definitions I wanted to share before we kind of dig into how communication sees digital wellbeing.

But a simple one that comes from Google, who is a major player in talking about digital wellbeing right now, is “a state of satisfaction that people achieve when digital technology supports their intentions,” which much like Google, is nice and clear and to the point.

I have a much more difficult one I thought was interesting: “a state where subjective wellbeing is maintained in an environment characterized by digital communication overabundance.” That really resonated with me because I know that probably like many of us, the notifications and emails and text messages and social media messages that we receive on a daily basis can be overwhelming. So, I thought that was an interesting one that plays into my interest in this topic.

And then another one that I had pulled that I thought was interesting is “the conscious use of technology, which enables individuals and communities to realize their potential.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I really like the three, and the first one, to me, really comes from a more of a corporate perspective, and maybe that’s because I’m just reading into it. But when I think of wellbeing, I don’t think of satisfaction, per se. And so, like you said with the Google definition, satisfaction to me is separate from wellbeing. And so, if you’re satisfied with a product equals wellbeing, I don’t really view that as connected. What do you think?

Nicole Rothenay: I am very glad that you bring this up because it’s exactly the area that I’m attempting to research. And so, I’ll say quickly, I’m looking at the design of digital wellbeing by major tech companies, and that’s what I’m looking at, so that’s where I pulled a lot of my definitions, because I’m interested in how companies can research a topic and how they shape the way that we have conversations about this.

So, there are many conversations about digital wellbeing from physical and mental health professionals that are very different from those that come from researchers interested in technical communication, human-computer interaction, and user experience.

And so, the digital wellbeing that is being researched and proactively addressed by large tech companies like Google, Apple and Facebook, who is not Meta, is a very different tech that claims to not be interested in the bottom line. I think that we know that there are interests, and so having a research area that potentially conflicts with your own business interests I think is a really interesting way to think about digital wellbeing.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And I like that you said that, because it’s easy to say that we’re not interested in the bottom line when we’re already making billions of dollars and our structure is already set in place to continue to make billions of dollars. And the one thing that they want to do is to ensure that their customers, all of us, continue to use their products so they continue to make billions of dollars and there is a vested interest in their wellbeing.

And so, I’m always hesitant, and I guess it’s because of my positive skeptical nature, of anything that corporations put out about wellbeing or about ethics because they still need to sell their products. And the second and third definitions, I really do like. Can you go into more detail about how you view those, or one or the other?

Nicole Rothenay: Yes. The second definition is “a state where subjective wellbeing is maintained in an environment characterized by digital communication overabundance.” This is probably my favorite definition, not because it doesn’t focus on healthy communication and technology relationships, but because it acknowledges that there is a digital communication overabundance.

And I think many of us feel this, but the major conversation is trying to downplay that. And so, for me, I think the importance of digital wellbeing is absolutely about managing how we interact with all of our incoming messages.

And so, in communication, we talk about the communication theory, there are several, and there are different ways of looking at it, but at the very basic level of communication, you have a sender and a receiver. And your sender is sending a message, and your receiver is receiving the message.

If you’ve taken a basic communication course, you’ve probably seen that noise comes into that in different levels, but digital technology really kind of changes that communication process. And so, when you send a message, you can send it in a variety of ways. When you receive a message, you can receive it in a variety of ways. And you now are responsible for monitoring all of those ways, as well as managing how the response goes in and goes out.

For example, if you’re a sender, you are going to send an email. And rather than waiting for in-person immediate feedback, you will be waiting potentially for minutes, or hours, or days. In the past, it used to be you talked in person, you would get immediate feedback. Or you sent a letter and you would get feedback within a matter of days or weeks.

But now, we have a variety of communication platforms that have different response times, and those are hard to predict. And so, if you send out an email for instance, you could get a response in a matter of minutes, or you could get a response in a matter of weeks.

And this actually creates anxiety, both for the sender, who has to worry about waiting for a response. If you don’t receive a response quickly, you worry that maybe your email did not go out, or that perhaps the person did not receive it, or that they are mad at you because they’ve taken too long to answer.

But you also have to worry about the receiver and the pressure to respond. So was it more important to stop and address all of my incoming information? Or is it more important to do what I was already doing? Which I think really speaks to that idea of digital communication overabundance because you’re not just worrying about this at the email level, but email, text message, instant message, and everywhere you can be contacted.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I really like that second one because, yeah, it talks about the overabundance. And I’d be curious to know, on average, how many social media apps do people have on their phone? Because somebody whom just interacts with the culture at large might have too many if they don’t turn off their notifications, then there truly is an overabundance. And if they don’t watch out, they could be bombarded with so many conflicting messages, and what I’ll describe as negative messages.

Nicole Rothenay: So, I was looking up the average number of social media accounts, and sketchy sources say anywhere from seven to eight is the number that the average person has installed on their phone, which I think is amazing, before I answer your question. But, Pew Research Center also says that at least 72% of Americans have at least one platform that they use on a regular basis.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Because there’s so many people consuming information, there’s also so many people creating information. And as a creator, I should say you usually get more attention by not being reasonable, if that makes sense, by putting out salacious titles, or making bombastic claims. That’s how you get clicks. That’s how you get people’s attention, versus if somebody says a very rational argument with a very boring title, nobody will click it. And so, how does just the sheer overabundance of both creators and consumers complicate just wellbeing in general?

Nicole Rothenay: Yes. So, I think that is an excellent point. And information overload and information, so the sharing of even misinformation is a huge, huge topic that is very closely related to digital wellbeing. And I think that comes into play if we want to create healthy relationships with technology, then we, as users, are really in control of the way that we use our own technology.

One of my interests is in social media, where it’s not the media outlets who are controlling who we listen to, so much as it is user interests. And I think that media is now attempting to follow what people are finding interesting.

For example, Reddit is one of my favorite social media platforms. And user comments, both the original post, as well as comments in the comment section can be up-voted or down-voted by the community that is involved in looking at that piece. And, I think it’s a really interesting way that conversations that are the most relevant to people that are up-voted are what are seen more. It’s not really in the individual’s control.

So, if digital wellbeing is the management of my technology and my environment, how can I account for the technology and the news that I do not control? And I think that’s kind of the heart at what you’re getting. And you’re right, the answer is that we really can’t control that.

We can, and there are apps and tools that have really attempted to change the way that you interact with different apps and websites, so that you do not have to see as much of that, or that you’re only receiving certain notifications that are related to your interests, that I think are worth mentioning. But just like with digital wellbeing in general, it’s a digital literacy skill that if you don’t know how to use the tool, then you’re still going to be bombarded by either misinformation or information you don’t want to see in the first place, without learning that digital literacy skill of how to manage your environment in the first place.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m glad you brought up digital literacy because information literacy is really one of the most important skills out there. And it’s been around, but I think especially with the maturity of social media and the internet, information literacy as a skill is one of the things that everybody needs to really double down on.

And digital information literacy is wrapped up in that, and just like you said, there’s so much information out there. It’s hard to know what to wade through. And this leads to the second question. Why are digital wellbeing tools on people’s phones and on social media platforms? What is the intention of doing that for these companies?

Nicole Rothenay: So, we talked about this a little bit already, so we’ve noticed that companies like Google are researching in the digital wellbeing space, and this seems to go against their best business interests. So, I commend companies who are doing this anyway, and they’re facing and sharing that they are having those hard conversations and using it to try to make proactive changes for their users in the user experience space.

But I’ll just do a quick general recap. If you have Android or Apple, you have digital wellbeing tools already on your phone, pre-installed for you. If you use Facebook, or YouTube, or TikTok, or Instagram, all of these platforms also have built-in digital wellbeing tools. Those tools may be a little less known than Apple’s screen time reports, for instance, or Android’s digital wellbeing dashboard.

And so, these tools exist to help users attempt to develop those digital literacy skills and start managing their own digital wellbeing. So, I think a big reason that these tools exist is because user experience teams, especially with Google, have noticed users are complaining about their phone usage. As they complain about their phone usage, we are going to see impacts to the bottom line.

So, in the social media space, where I do a lot of my research, there has been a big push to delete social media or turn off notifications as the major response to how to manage your digital wellbeing. And I believe that for tech companies, it is in their best interest that they help their users better manage their digital wellbeing by creating tools, so that users do not need to go outside of their own sphere to help manage their own digital wellbeing itself. Right?

So we want you to use our app. Here’s how you can use our app better. And so even within Android and Apple, there are ways to set app timers, or to shut down sleep notifications, or to set focuses, so that you’re using the right apps and the right tools at the right time.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I like all that. And it reminds me, and I don’t know if this makes sense, but back in the day when they started adding calories to fast food menus, so when somebody goes and eats a Big Mac or a double Big Mac, one of those hamburgers with three patties and an extra-large fry and an extra-large calorie drink, they can see exactly how many calories. And so that’s been around for years.

But people still make poor choices, but then the fast-food industry is like, “Well, don’t eat this every day, of course. Please don’t.” But then people still don’t make healthy choices when it comes to food and fast food. And it reminds me of the wellbeing tools on social media, where the social media companies will be like, “Don’t be on your phone for eight hours a day, please. We’ve given you the tools to monitor and to take it off.” And so, what is it about individuals when they are given tools, that they still can’t quite turn it off, or they still can’t quite eat that double Big Mac with an extra fry?

Nicole Rothenay: I feel like you have absolutely hit the major question I keep coming back to myself. I think the easy answer that’s out there broadly is dopamine. We say that using a social media app is like going to a slot machine, and that when you check for your notifications, that dopamine spike that you receive from anticipating a notification from a social media app is addicting. And so there has been research into how and why social media apps themselves, or other digital tools, are addicting and why we keep going back to those. And I think that is very interesting.

But, I think it’s very interesting in prompting a conversation on digital wellbeing, but we can’t just say, “Social media is addicting. Delete it from your phone. You can’t use the internet. You can’t get on email because it’s all addicting, and it’s dopamine,” because we are required to use it as an online student, or as a remote employee, or as a communications professional, or a military student perhaps that wants to stay connected to their family, or stay involved in popular culture.

We are still required to use those things, so I think it is a little bit of both. I think if you wanted to go to the extreme and say, “Why are we so addicted to technology?” We could absolutely talk about the dopamine effect, I suppose is what it’s called.

But I also think that there are real societal pressures to stay involved with technology. There are also, Google noted essential functions that bind people to their phones. And I thought this was a really interesting way that they described this. They talk about how many users are tired of being tethered to their mobile devices and technology, generally. But they note that we require our phones, that they are required and essential in our daily lives as society has evolved. We use them for communication, so on the go, if I’m leaving, I need to send an email, or a text message, or call 911, perhaps, I need to have my phone with me.

We use them for navigation. If I’m going from point A to point B, we’re required to have our cell phone to help kind of map the way instead of using a traditional paper map. We use them for transportation. So, in some places, especially in bigger cities, you might need to use your phone to connect with Uber, or maybe you want to get food, pick it up somewhere. Your groceries now is something that you can order, especially in the middle of a pandemic there has been a big increase in the survival functions that you can connect to using your phone, which is actually a reason other than I’m addicted to technology, that we are using our phones.

And then, they also noted that we’ve replaced a large variety of other items, such as alarm clocks, your camera, your cash in some cases. You can now tie your credit card into your phone and you no longer need to carry out a wallet.

Information seeking, your library is on your phone, your phone a friend is on your phone, different ways to get reference material is all there at your fingertips. And they even said pay phones. And I’m like, “I very rarely remember payphones.” But if you needed to call somebody from a payphone, I suppose, yes, it’s replaced that as well.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, and I completely agree. And I chuckled when you said payphone because I remember using payphones back in college, and then since college, for me. They still exist, but I rarely see them because most people have a cell phone. When I say most people, I’m of course talking about the United States.

And so, the last question is: How do you achieve digital wellness, especially as an online student or communications professional? And you’ve talked about we are tethered essentially to our phones because of our professions or different things like that. So it’s very hard to just live without a phone these days. But how do you manage that? How do you moderate your phone usage? And when I say phone usage, I really mean the computer in your phone usage?

Nicole Rothenay: So yes, this is hopefully the goal of today’s conversation. And I wish I had some really big insightful answers for you, of course. There is a little that I can share about what I have found so far, and about tools and research that has been done that we can use to help manage our own digital wellbeing.

We talked about how we have those essential functions that bind us to our phone, so I think for me, first step is always awareness, is recognizing why we feel tethered to our phones, as we already mentioned. So we’re using it for communication, navigation, transportation, and as replacement for a large variety of other tech.

We also want to recognize that there are different types of behavior cycles that tie us to our mobile phones. So, the first is that conversation about dopamine we’ve been talking about, so habit and excessive use over time. If you have been used to using your phone for an excessive use of time, perhaps lots of mindless scrolling on social media, for instance, that becomes a behavior that you’re cued to, so you get used to looking for and expecting notifications, and you continue to look for them. And then your behaviors start to model towards creating those behavior cues.

So, for instance, if you’re not receiving notifications on social media, you’ll start posting content in order to get more likes and comments and shares. I think recognizing that behavior is, like I said, the first step, recognizing that we are perhaps using social media more than we want to.

And then the second behavior cycle is the one that I mentioned a little bit earlier in our talk, but is that obligation that we failed to respond when we are in a communication process. So if somebody is sending us messages, we feel pressure to respond to those messages. And I think that recognizing those three things, that habit of mindless use of any technology, whether it’s social media or a specific website or app that we love, those essential functions that we need our phones for in today’s modern society, and then also, the obligations that we face maybe to our workplace, or our friends, or our school perhaps.

Once we recognize those things as that’s the map of where our relationship struggles are, we can next do what I would think about as practical tools and make a plan for how we’re going to use our digital tools, and then use the existing tools to make that happen. So, I think the tools that you have access to depend on the technology that you use, so if you have an Android phone, you have Android apps. And if you have an Apple phone, you have Apple apps. And those tools are optional, but they’re not required, and so if you want to use existing tools, research has already been done to help you manage your time.

But if you want to use your own tools, you are looking at setting goals for your usage upfront. And I am a big advocate for doing things on pen and paper because it really kind of forces you to disconnect from everything and it makes you think about what you really care about.

And so, I sit down and I think about: What are all the reasons that I need to use my mobile phone today? What are my plans for today? And then one thing I’ve been trying to do is: What is the one most important thing that I could accomplish today, so that I feel like I have done what I need to do? And then I go and look at all of the ways that I can use my existing technology to support that.

And digital wellbeing looks very different for everybody, so depending on your own technology use, there are different ways that you can set app timers, or mindless scroll prompt reminders, or shut down this app, or lock down this app. There are lots of different tools out there based on your own goals.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And those are all great suggestions. And for digital wellbeing, I would also throw in just regular wellbeing. If you find yourself, and I’ll say one of my experiences is, on my phone, I have this silly game where big robots fight each other and they blow each other up. It’s totally fun and silly. And I found that I was playing that a little too much, so I limit myself to certain amount of time per day. And then when I’m not doing that, I’m like, “You know what, I’m going to go practice my guitar.” And by practicing your guitar, you’re doing something creative. You’re really activating your mind and your artistry.

And also, and this is just me, when you’re practicing guitar or whatever you’re doing, say exercising or something, you’re in a head space where you’re not thinking, but you’re thinking. And it’s almost like meditation. And so, digital wellbeing is wellbeing, and so sometimes you just put down your phone consciously and do something else, and that’s okay.

And I would also say really being careful about which apps you have. A long time ago, I just deleted Facebook. I didn’t need it. I deleted Twitter. I didn’t need it. Because those platforms to me don’t offer what I need. I have LinkedIn because of my professional needs, and then Instagram because typically, Instagram is somewhat political neutral. It’s just a bunch of images. And so, I have two social media apps, and that’s it. And then, at the end of the day, just put it down. And if you have struggles, just like we’ve been talking, use all the tools, use all the wellbeing tools that are available for you. And so, absolutely wonderful conversation, Nicole. Any final words?

Nicole Rothenay: I do love your suggestions. So I think very similarly, if you feel that you are using technology too much, that there are many ways out there to kind of get that, I say help, but we want to make it about managing a healthy technology relationship. If you feel overwhelmed, you probably are, and there are ways to manage that. And there’s wellbeing.org, or you can look up Google’s wellbeing site to see their apps. But you don’t need tools, you just need pen and paper to help manage your own time by setting goals and thinking about what’s really important to you and your values.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. Pen and paper, pick up a guitar made of wood, the old-fashioned things that have been around for hundreds of years, and really use your digital tools to help your life, to help your life be more productive, be simpler, so you can spend more time doing the things that bring you joy, such as pen and paper or a guitar. And so, today, we’re speaking with Nicole Rothenay about digital wellbeing. And of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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