These days everyone talks about personal wellness — those steps that people need to take to remain physically and mentally healthy and strong. But what about digital wellness? Poor digital health affects not only our connected lives but also our physical and mental well-being.
Digital wellness is about fine-tuning the 21st Century skills that we use to work and play in a connected world, and it also involves understanding a number of common myths about the nature of online life. Helping family members take steps to develop digital wellness habits can challenge parents, mainly because many children, pre-adolescents, and teens appear to be far more advanced online consumers than their parents. Underneath the veneer of digital native expertise, however, are a fair number of information gaps.
Howard Rheingold wrote a book that every parent and educator should read, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. He describes seven literacies that a person must develop to succeed online. Rheingold outlines the specific skills that an individual, no matter what age, must fine tune in order to flourish in the midst of so much information and connectedness. While Rheingold’s seven big-picture literacies are critical aspects of the digital wellness puzzle, we also need to address specific misunderstanding with digital kids — misunderstandings that can, in an instant, threaten a young person’s (or even an older person’s) digital health.
10 Digital Wellness Recommendations
1. Know and honor values, the values of your family and of the institutions and communities that are a part of your life. Each member of the family needs to understand how to uphold and strengthen those values online and offline. Think about how much time you are spending on digital activities, on your cell phone for instance, and consider how you might better use the time.
2. Think about privacy — how much you want to maintain and how much you are willing to give up. It’s important for family members to talk, and then talk some more, about comments made, likes and dislikes expressed, and personal missives that may unexpectedly find their way into a more public arena.
2a. Learn more about trackers, those tiny pieces of software that collect information about everything you do online. Every person who goes online with a device needs to know that these trackers collect information about our browsing habits, our purchases, and our movements from place to place. If you want to see how many trackers are used when you go about your daily digital activities, check out Ghostery, a browser extension that tells you how many trackers are collecting information at each site. United States Representative Jackie Speier, wrote in a 2011 Politico opinion piece:
The most personal information about your online habits is collected, bought and sold, often instantaneously and invisibly. Data collection is a business driven by profits at consumers’ expense.
3. Understand that there is very little anonymity in digital life. Sometimes it feels like it’s easy to be anonymous in the digital world, but anonymity is an illusion. For some reason, many people in the digital world behave less well when they believe they are anonymous or think no one is looking. The late basketball coach John Wooden pointed out, and I’m paraphrasing here, “…that the real test of character is what a person does when no one is watching.”
4. Learn how to consider and evaluate the digital content. Is it accurate, objective, current, and informative with attention to detail about a subject? Or is it awful? In his book Howard Rheingold notes that one of the important literacies in today’s world is what he calls the skill of “crap detection,” the ability to recognize the junk and discard it.
5. Curate digital profile. Each of us becomes a connected-world museum exhibit, so we need to determine what we want people to learn about us. What will a Google search reveal? When we thoughtfully and carefully pick and choose how others will view us in the digital world, we are curating our personal profiles. Check out this digital dossier video from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
6. Understand that multi-tasking is not what we thought it was just a few years ago. In fact, John Medina, author of Brain Rules, writes that multi-tasking is a myth. The brain does not do things simultaneously, but instead switches back and forth between activities. That switching uses up a lot of time.
7. Know that many tech executives are actually low-tech parents. Read this interesting 2014 article, Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent, in the New York Times. The gadgets that they create for us to purchase — those devices that children demand at younger and younger ages — are not always present in the homes of these entrepreneurs.
8. Learn how to take digital and social media breaks. Put away connected devices — perhaps during a meal or while reading a book, and certainly when it’s time to sleep. Do you need help figuring this out? Check out Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers.
9. Understand that people are the weakest links in social media and digital world communications. Encourage everyone in the family to develop an internal digital wellness compass, and use it think about how to handle things if things go wrong. The nicest people unexpectedly err in judgment.
10. Remain humble when digital problems happen to friends or other people’s children and refrain from making dramatic or negative judgments. Everyone makes mistakes, and the online world magnifies errors that used to be itty-bitty problems. All of us learn from mistakes.
All of us — children and adults — need to seek digital wellness in our 21st Century lives. We ’ll make better decisions and grow into stronger citizens — online and off. We’ll strengthen our ability to balance social media activities with face-to-face interactions. Most importantly we’ll grow more accomplished at steering ourselves around the embarrassing or risky problems that occur all too often on our connected-world journeys.