Digital Well-Being: Definition, Apps, and Strategies
What is digital well-being? What can you do to help ensure your technology helps rather than harms your well-being? Here are some science-based strategies to optimize your digital well-being.
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What Is Digital Well-Being?
Well-being is defined as the ability to handle life’s stresses, adapt to difficult circumstances, and thrive (take the well-being quiz here to learn more about yours). Digital well-being is the extent to which we can do these things in our digital lives. So digital well-being may be defined as having the ability to handle online stress, engage in healthy digital behaviors, and use our technologies in ways that help us thrive.
What Is the Digital Well-Being App?
Google's Digital Wellness App was designed to help you better understand your digital habits and disconnect when you want to.
The app enables you to:
The Digital Well-Being App can help you get a better sense of how your phone may be affecting your well-being and put in place some systems to prevent your phone from harming your well-being. But digital well-being apps like this one are just one way to improve your digital well-being.
Video: Learn about even more digital well-being apps
How Do You Improve Your Digital Well-Being?
Of course, stopping your smartphone from hurting your well-being is important. But spending less time on your phone is not going to make a difference if the things you are doing on your phone are still hurting your well-being. That's just like saying, I'm not going to eat junk food 5 days per week but on weekends I'm going to to binge on cookies, ice cream, potato chips and pizza. If we do things that only harm our health some of the time, we're still going to have difficulty optimizing our well-being.
But don't worry. There are lots of ways to boost well-being on your phone. In fact, to my mind, a more complete definition of digital well-being includes more than just self-restraint (using your phone less), but also "positive digital behaviors", or using your phone in ways that promote your well-being. How do we do this? Well, we just have to look to the research on well-being and we can quickly see there are lots of ways to boost our digital well-being.
Outsmart Your Smartphone
After several years of research and writing, I finally published my book, Outsmart Your Smartphone, on how to improve your digital well-being. It focuses on how to cut back on screen time but also how to make the most of the time you do spend on your phone or computer. Here are some of my favorite tips from the book that can help you grow your digital well-being.
1. Be More Mindful Online to Boost Digital Well-Being
If we're going to spend time online, let's make the most of that time by being mindfully present.
When we're more mindful, we are just paying attention, non-judgmentally, to our experiences and also to what’s going on with other people, communities, and society at large.
When we start paying attention—I mean really paying attention—we start to see and experience all sorts of things we’ve been ignoring, either intentionally or unintentionally. For some of us, this can mean we discover our unconditional love for our romantic partner, that our hobby gives us true joy, or that eating fruits and veggies makes us feel more energetic. Or, we might uncover crushing guilt from having been betrayed someone we love, deep rage about a culture that looked the other way when we were assaulted, or overwhelming sadness about the suffering of those in our community or country.
Regardless of what we discover, discovering our true experiences can help us feel, well…more alive. The tiny delights of simply being human become clear. At the same time, buried negative emotions bubble to the surface where they can finally be dealt with, perhaps for the very first time. That's why being more mindful in our digital lives can contribute to greater well-being.
2. Take Mindful Photos to Boost Digital Well-Being
One way to be more mindful when using technology is to take mindful photos on your smartphone. We sometimes walk through life like zombies. To better pay attention to what's happening around us, we can snap photos while truly paying attention to what we see (don't share these photos; these are just to help you observe the present moment)(Diehl, Zauberman, and Barasch 2016).
To try it out, spend one week taking photographs of all the things that you never noticed before. Wow, I didn't know there were flowers on that bush, that Marie wears pink bows, or that the carpet had a zigzag design. Pay attention to your surroundings and then snap a photo to continue observing. At the end of the week, spend a few minutes looking at all your photos and reflecting on how this activity made you feel.
3. Give People Your Full Attention to Boost Digital Well-Being
Our tech toys have taken our attention away from the people we care about. Even having a smartphone present on a table while chatting can have negative effects on our well-being. It results in our interactions not being as meaningful or satisfying (Brown, Manago, and Trimble 2016; Przybylski and Weinstein 2013).
You probably know that pulling out your phone when others are talking isn't good, but you may not realize just how bad it is. Pulling out our phones not only makes others feel bad, it hurts our own experience too—we enjoy these experiences less and get bored more easily (Dwyer, Kushlev, and Dunn 2017). So if we don't want our digital tools to hurt our well-being, we need to put them away when we're with others.
4. Focus on Others to Boost Digital Well-Being
Another way smartphones can hurt your well-being is through social media and its tendency to focus our attention on how you feel, think, and behave. Self-awareness is helpful for self-understanding and gaining insights to improve well-being. But self-focus has a downside.
When you focus on yourself, you might notice any dissatisfaction, worries, or anxiety that you might not have otherwise noticed. And by bringing your attention to these negative emotions amplifies them (Ingram 1990). So despite everything you may have heard in the self-help space, spending tons of time focusing on yourself and your happiness tends to backfire.
However, there is compelling research that focusing on other people's happiness can increase our own positive emotions (Boehm and Lyubomirsky 2009). So when you're online, try to focus on others and how to make them happy.
5. Create Prosocial Posts to Boost Digital Well-Being
So many social media posts have become “humble bragging.” For example, I might “share” a cool thing I did, a pretty meal I ate, or a fun party I went to—I did something; you didn't. This can lead to feelings of envy and resentment in the very people we are trying to connect with and harm our relationships (Verduyn et al. 2017).
To strengthen social connections, we can instead try creating #ProsocialPosts. Prosocial behavior is any behavior intended to promote friendship, connection, or helpfulness. So we might post something helpful, kind, supportive, or generous—anything that supports and strengthens the relationships we have online.
For example, you could leave a kind note on a blog post you liked or compliment someone’s photo, article, or video just about anywhere on the Internet. If a friend is struggling with something, you could share advice or words of support. Or, if a friend is about to start a new job, you could wish them luck. By doing so, you’re telling that person, “Hey, I care about you.” In the longer term, these positive relationships that are strengthened though online interactions can promote your well-being.
6. Practice Random Acts of Online Kindness
When you read a nasty comment online, instead of appeasing your desire to be right, to change others, or to shame others for their comments, try to think of your comments in terms of what they can do for the person receiving them. When your goal is to give the other person a gift that helps them, your comments become acts of kindness instead of retaliations designed to make you feel something (like righteous indignation). Here are some tips to help you build this skill:
Question your assumptions. It’s natural for us to think we understand why someone is acting a certain way. We assume we know about who they are and how they think based only this tiny bit of information. This can lead us to be the ones who treat people unfairly and unkindly because we don’t actually understand their experience and motivations.
Lead with questions and curiosity. Before jumping to conclusions, ask questions to learn about the situation better. Yelling at people is certainly not going to make them change their mind or be any less of a bully. Instead, ask them questions like: It sounds like you see this situation differently. Can you share your perspective with me so I can better understand where you’re coming from?
7. Find Silver Linings to Boost Digital Well-Being
How do you find silver linings (also sometimes referred to as cognitive reappraisal)? Well, you might find that the silver lining of working a really difficult job is that you learn new skills and build character. And you might find that the silver lining of working a really easy job is that you feel relaxed and have more time to devote to other things you enjoy. Of course, this does not mean that all experiences are equally good. A crappy job is still a crappy job. All I’m saying is that we can buffer ourselves from stress and boost our digital well-being by recognizing that there is usually some good, even in objectively horrible situations.
If you find a silver lining, consider sharing your challenging situation and at least one benefit on social media with #SilverLinings. Practicing this skill can help you improve your well-being. And when others see your #SilverLinings post, it may even help them too. You could even post a message asking your friends or family to share some of their #SilverLinings.
Build Your Reappraisal Skills Online:
8. Communicate Kindly in Text to Boost Digital Well-Being
It's easier to tell when we make people angry or sad or excited in person. We see their faces and body language. Now, we frequently communicate with text. Emails are short; text messages are even shorter. A smiley face or series of exclamation points can help assure us that the text is meant to express positivity, but texts do not always include these extra emotion indicators.
We also don't see emotions in the same way. We have different points of view that lead us to draw different conclusions based on the same information. So we are really bad at figuring out how other people feel. And the less we have to go off of, the harder it is. Keeping this in mind can help you respond to challenging texts in more effective ways. Rather than firing back to a text with anger, try asking questions to explore how the other person really feels.
9. Challenge Messages that Harm Self-Esteem
Media (and social media) can make us feel bad about ourselves. Models and actors are attractive, of course, but now even our friends on social media have Photoshopped their pictures to perfection, often making us feel unattractive by comparison (Barlett, Vowels, and Saucier 2008). We also hear messages that we have to be fit, and funny, and nice, and well…perfect. These messages are such an integral part of our culture (at least in America) that are part of nearly every interaction we have with media—our TVs, or social media, and magazines.
To maintain our self-worth in the face of increased media exposure on our digital devices, we need to start challenging these messages. To try it, over the next week, pay attention to the messages you hear from media, social media, others, or just in your head that hurt your self-worth. Whenever you notice something has made you feel badly about yourself, ask yourself:
Video: A guy tries out some digital well-being apps
10. Write Self-Compassion Notes to Boost Digital Well-Being
We can actually use our phones to build self-compassion. To start, write a bunch of notes that say nice things to yourself. For example, you could write positive affirmations like, “You rock,” or “You can succeed in whatever you put your mind to.” Put these notes up your lock screen on your phone, your computer’s screen saver, or in your digital wallpaper so you see them regularly. This can help you spend more time thinking about these positive messages.
If you’d like to get even more benefit from these notes, enter them in your digital calendar and set a daily or weekly notification so it automatically sends you these supportive messages. If you use this trick, your tech can start helping you build your well-being.
11. Practice Gratitude When You’re Online
Gratitude clearly helps us improve our well-being. But it’s not always clear when and how to show our gratitude. In particular, it can feel uncomfortable to share gratitude in person, especially when we’re new to gratitude. Luckily, we can use technology to practice gratitude more easily. And by doing so, we make our online time more beneficial to our happiness.
One way to get started with practicing gratitude is with a gratitude journal, text, or social media message. If you'd like to try it, take a moment now to write down the names of three people you're close to. Next to each name, write down at least one thing about each person that you are grateful for. It could be something they did for you. Or it could be something about them.
Once you have your list, message these people to share your gratitude. You could say something as simple as, Hey, you rock! I’m so glad to have you as a friend. Or it could be more specific: Remember that time when I spilled my coffee all over myself and you gave me your shirt? I just wanted to say thanks! Try to get in the habit of sending these messages regularly to grow your digital well-being.
Video Trailer: The Social Dilemma (on tech and well-being)
Video: Discussion of the movie, The Social Dilemma
12. Savor While You’re Surfing to Boost Digital Well-Being
When we savor the good moments, we pause and attempt to fully experience the positive emotions that have arisen in that moment, and as a result, we create longer-lasting positive emotions (Quoidbach et al. 2010). We can do this online just as we can do it real life.
One easy way to practice savoring online is to reflect on and bring up positive memories from the past. Look at old photos or experiences. Focus on a story your friend shares that inspires you. Or maybe you watch cat videos or look at awe-inducing landscapes that make you feel happy or relaxed.
Spend a few moments thinking deeply about them. As you are thinking on the pleasant event, think about the people, smells, sounds, physical sensations, and sights that are involved. Then, just mentally hold on to your positive emotions, trying to make them last as long as possible.
If you want here's an online activity to help you keep practicing savoring.
13. Extend Positive Moments to Boost Digital Well-Being
To extend a positive moment even longer, show it, tell it, or share it with others. Keep in mind that the positive moment doesn’t have to be big.
Start by sending a personal message to someone. You might call or text a friend or talk to the people around you about why you’re feeling good. Just be sure when that you’re sharing your emotions and not bragging. Doing so can make you feel ever better.
For example, you could send the message: Hey, I’m feeling great today. I’d love to get together with you for coffee and make my day even better. If you don’t have the time to connect with others in person, don’t let it stop you from sharing your positive feelings. For example, you might say, I was so glad to see so many people getting out to vote in last night’s election. Rather than talking about what happened to you, share your positive emotions with someone whom you want to connect with.
14. Take Online Courses to Boost Digital Well-Being
If we want to learn skills to increase our well-being, we can now do so online. Here are few online courses that you can check out:
The Berkeley Happiness Program: Discover how to build positivity, resilience, and mindfulness
The Stress Detox Program: Undo the effects stress and stop the stress cycle.
Communication in Relationships: Learn How To Create Lasting Passion In Your Relationship
The Longevity Blueprint: Rapidly Elevate Your Fitness, Health, Longevity & Beauty
The Elimination Diet: A 60-Day Protocol To Uncover Food Intolerances, Heal The Gut, & Regain Your Health
Be Extraordinary: Get The Right Tools To Instantly Amplify Your Performance, Impact & Self Mastery.
Purpose-Driven Business Program: Build a business that balances profit with purpose
The Japanese Art of Healing Your Money Wounds: Rise Above Your Negative Beliefs, Build The Wealth You Desire And Finally Make Peace With Your Money.
15. Do Online Activities to Boost Digital Well-Being
We (and other websites) also have lots of online activities you can use to boost well-being. That way you can just hop on your phone at any time and improve your well-being with digital tools. Here are some activities:
1. Diehl, K., G. Zauberman, and A. Barasch. 2016. “How Taking Photos Increases Enjoyment of Experiences.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 111 (2): 119.
2. Brown, G., A. M. Manago, and J. E. Trimble. 2016. “Tempted to Text: College Students’ Mobile Phone Use During a Face-to-Face Interaction with a Close Friend.” Emerging Adulthood 4 (6): 440–443.
3. Przybylski, A. K., and N. Weinstein. 2013. “Can You Connect with Me Now? How the Presence of Mobile Communication Technology Influences Face-to-Face Conversation Quality.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 30 (3): 237–246.
4. Dwyer, R. J., K. Kushlev, and E. W. Dunn. 2017. “Smartphone Use Undermines Enjoyment of Face-to-Face Social Interactions.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 78 223–239.
5. Ingram, R. E. 1990. “Self-Focused Attention in Clinical Disorders: Review and a Conceptual Model.” Psychological Bulletin 107 (2): 156–176.
6. Boehm, J. K., and S. Lyubomirsky. 2009. “The Promise of Sustainable Happiness.” In The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2nd ed. Edited by S. L. Lopez and C. R. Snyder. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
7. Verduyn, P., O. Ybarra, M. Résibois, J. Jonides, and E. Kross. 2017. “Do Social Network Sites Enhance or Undermine Subjective Well‐Being? A Critical Review.” Social Issues and Policy Review 11 (1): 274–302.
8. Barlett, C. P., C. L Vowels, and D. A. Saucier. 2008. “Meta-Analyses of the Effects of Media Images on Men’s Body-Image Concerns.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 27 (3): 279–310.
9. Quoidbach, J., E. V. Berry, M. Hansenne, and M. Mikolajczak. 2010. “Positive Emotion Regulation and Well-Being: Comparing the Impact of Eight Savoring and Dampening Strategies.” Personality and Individual Differences 49 (5): 368–373.