Digital Well-Being: An Industry Perspective by Paul Marsden

I had the pleasure of having consultant consumer psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden of and WPP as a guest lecturer in my course on digital well-being. Paul has a PhD in social psychology and helps brands understand the effects of consumer technology; how consumers think, feel, and behave.

He offered an excellent and nuanced overview of how digital well-being is understood in and matters for companies. Whereas a couple of years ago, the focus was on increasing engagement and trying to go viral, Paul showed how today there is a lot more awareness of potential harms and reputational risks — and this applies to nearly every company, not just tech companies, because they all have a digital presence. Clearly, the motivation for a focus on customers’ well-being is not a moral but a rational one: happy users are profitable users because they tend to buy more and more frequently, are less price-sensitive, and crucially, are more likely to recommend the product. Thus, happiness is a business model.

A part of the presentation that resonated most with me was Paul’s conclusion that digital well-being can be better understood from the perspective of media effects research (and thus could benefit from decades of findings in this field): media technologies are generally not the underlying cause of increases or decreases in well-being, although they have historically repeatedly been blamed for this (from novels to bicycles to television); media are a risk factor worthy of consideration, but effects are generally small and inconsistent across individuals. After a time of techno-optimism, today’s causal reductionism — “social media made me feel this way” and so on — is equally inept. Paul identifies digital literacy as a priority for digital well-being initiatives. A great point was also that digital well-being is very broad: beyond screen time and social media, people use and are affected by digital algorithmic technologies in all life domains, from dating and digital assistants to predictive policing and autonomous vehicles.

Paul Marsden is a featured expert in the 2021 documentary I Am Gen Z.

Investigated through expert interviews and the web lens of Generation Z, the documentary explores how the explosion of the digital revolution is impacting our society, our brains and mental health, how the forces driving it are working against humanity and have put us on a dangerous trajectory that has huge ramifications for this first generation growing up with mobile digital technology.

His website also has a very useful compilation of digital well-being definitions.


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