Panel discussion: Digital Well-Being

Year of production: 2023

Whilst the digital transformation has brought with it huge opportunities, there is no doubt that it entails risks. One of these is the potential negative impact on young people’s health and wellbeing, in particular their mental health. Research has found a decrease in mental health in the last 10 years across the EU, the UK and the US. Whilst at the same time we’ve witnessed an increase in digitalisation, but it is not yet clear if and how these are interlinked. There is a lot of media attention on the detriment to young people’s mental health of increased time spent online and, naturally, rising concern amongst parents, educators and those working with children and young people. But the picture, showed by academic research, is not clear-cut on this nuanced debate. 

There are several key “ingredients” of digital wellbeing, four important ones are: healthy use of devices, digital literacy, access to proper technology, security and privacy. It is important that policy makers as well as those working with young people focus on these elements when designing policy and services around digitalisation and young people. 


There’s no turning back the clock on digitalisation. 

This is a change that must be embraced.  Whilst bearing in mind that youth workers/researchers etc (as they are often not young people), having not grown up online and with these technologies, may not be best placed to criticise the way young people are using online tools and spaces. For example, there has been a lot of criticism of “clicktivism” versus its “in real life” alternative of “real” activism. But this is the reality today for young people and it is not reversible. The youth field should ensure that – whilst seeking to innovate and create activities and spaces for young people online – such spaces are safe ones. 


There’s a balance to be struck

Whilst embracing new tools and the opportunities that they bring; they must not be detrimental to mental and physical health. For example, are young people spending less time outdoors or playing sports because they are online? It should not be about stopping time spent online, but about ensuring that a healthy balance is found. 


Risks for the marginalized in online spaces

Those who are marginalized due to, for example, their race, gender or sexuality, face more risks online than others. This could be down to shaming, “hating” or lack of safe spaces to express themselves. And whilst the youth field, in general, is seen as good at creating safe spaces, more substantive measures need to be established to build resilience and protect those from marginalized groups. It is common responsibility to join the fight to make the digital space safer and more inclusive.


There’s no “one size fits all” approach to digital wellbeing

Technology is really complicated, and its impact depends on how it is used and who uses it.  Too often people want to use quite blunt measures and impose limits on, for example, time spent online. But this may be too simplistic a way to look at the issue, as any negative effect of that time spent online depends on the type of use and type of user. How social media impacts users is too broad – each experience is different (bearing in mind also that algorithms vary between platforms and everyone’s experience on each platform can be different). The challenge, therefore, is how to measure harm?


Mind the (generation) gap

It can be quite easy for those from older generations to try to be prescriptive about what works and what doesn’t work online. But we should all bear in mind that young people are (what has become known as) “digital natives” and they are often the experts on digital spaces. So, to ensure their safety online and their wellbeing, open dialogue is vital, to establish what young people want and need to be in a safe environment online. But there is a fine balance to be struck to not interfere. For example, youth workers should not invade the online environment of young people without being invited. But should find ways of going where young people are and providing support.


Top tips for inclusive, safe spaces

Bearing in mind that is not possible to create a perfectly inclusive and participatory experience, those working with young people online can show that they are open to listen and think about how to make online experiences better. 

Here are some top tips: 

  • Ask participants by which pronouns they would like to be referred;
  • Don’t repeat societal stereotypes when planning activities
  • Create a support system. This might include identifying a “safe person” in digital spaces. 
  • Make group agreements on, for example, participation and communication
  • If you work with marginalized groups, have a reflection to identify things that you can offer for wider inclusion.
  • For online activities/working: be sure to build in some time/meetings/activities offline too, even if infrequently. This can help build relationships and help overcome intercultural differences, for example.
  • Take care of yourself (and others) if organising an online activity/meeting. Often the small ways that you do this can help: make sure everyone is comfortable, has a drink, has regular breaks, moves around etc.  
  • More is less. If you use a 90 min session “in real life”, then this should not be more than 40/60 minutes online. Scale it down and focus on the core elements.


Panel: “Digital Wellbeing”

This was the fourth of six panel sessions hosted by SALTO Participation & Information Resource Centre (SALTO PI) and SALTO Inclusion and Diversity Resource Centre (SALTO I&D) on Inclusive & Participatory Digital Transformation.


The event featured:

  • Dragan Atanasov, a trainer, researcher, evaluator and author, specialising in youth work recognition, youth policy, cultural diversity and community development. 
  • Dr Amy Orben, Programme Leader Track Scientist at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, and a College Research Fellow at Emmanuel College. She leads a research group investigating the links between digital technology use, mental health and cognition in adolescence. 
  • Simona Muršec, a freelance trainer in Human Rights Education and Global Education. She is president of the Ljubljana Pride Association and manages a team of 10 staff and full-time volunteers, all coming from the LGBTIQ+ community


Photo of Sarah Farndale
Sarah Farndale

Sarah is a communications specialist with 15 years' experience working in-house for a wide range of organisations and institutions, from international NGOs to EU associations and institutions. More recently, she has been advising clients as a freelance communications consultant - based in Brussels - working with organisations on enhancing their communications.