Towards a Theory of Digital Well-Being


Extended Abstract [pdf]

Accepted for inclusion in the #AoIR2020 virtual conference and to appear in SPIR.

Büchi, M. (2020, October 28-31). Towards a Theory of Digital Well-Being. Paper presented at AoIR 2020: The 21st Annual Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers.


How can we live a good life both thanks to and despite the constant use of digital ICTs? A theoretical framework rooted in social sciences, Digital Well-Being Theory (DWBT), is proposed that focuses on the mechanisms between digital ICT use and well-being by analyzing concomitant harms and benefits associated with individual’s digital behaviors, skills, and dispositions. Hereby, Bourdieu’s concept of habitus (1977) is applied to the theorization of the digital (also see Ignatow & Robinson, 2017), or more specifically in this case, to digital well-being.

Academia and policy makers have long attempted conceptualizing the “good life,” using various indicators to determine quality of life (Diener et al., 2018). Although different facets of digital media have been presumed to affect well-being, a theoretical framework for the question of how individuals’ personal well-being relates to their everyday digital uses is missing – in particular to guide research that substitutes the moral panic, or alternately utopianism, around the use of digital media for empirical-analytical rigor and a sensitivity for the complex social/cultural, economic, and technical conditions that frame individual experience. In a digital society, the competent handling of relevant ICTs needs to go beyond notions of technical skills and encompass their integration into everyday life in such a way that they enable and support rather than detract from the achievement of personally valued goals. Digital well-being is here defined as subjective, personal well-being in a social environment characterized by the digitization of virtually all life domains and the constant abundance of digital information and communication options as a default (see Büchi et al., 2019).

The Relationship Between Digital ICT Use and Well-Being

Notably, large Internet companies – ostensibly in the business of “making information universally accessible” or “bringing the world closer together” – have started to publicly address the issue of potential negative effects (Makin, 2018). For instance, Google introduced an application to “disconnect when needed” and an online course that aims to help users “learn how to develop and maintain healthy tech habits” (Google, 2019); Facebook introduced a tool to exclude content related to a defined keyword from their feed for 30 days (Facebook, 2019).

In empirical academic research on the relationship between digital ICT use and well-being at the user level, the findings are overall inconclusive. Different research traditions have dealt with this general relationship with different definitions and there is a high risk for false positive findings or overinterpretation of small effects (Orben & Przybylski, 2019). DWBT points to the need to explicate intermediary mechanisms: theoretically plausible causal chains that lead from a specific manifestation of digital practice to a relevant individual well-being outcome with some regularity.

Many studies assume, although rarely empirically demonstrate, beneficial effects of digital ICT use (e.g., digital inequality research: Author; Robinson et al., 2015). This line of research suggests that digital ICT use is individually beneficial, but socially problematic because its proliferation tends to exacerbate social inequalities. On the other hand, while no reputable research has concluded with any claim to generality that “digital ICTs are bad”, several findings can nevertheless be subsumed under a countering narrative as negative impacts of Internet uses on measures of personal well-being have been demonstrated (e.g., Laconi et al., 2019; Salo et al., 2017). How digital ICT use affects well-being depends on how we define and operationalize both sides of the equation, and on a host of potential moderators and mediators for this primary relationship – this is what DWBT sheds light on.

Harms and Benefits of Digital Practices in the Context of Structure and Habitus

DWBT offers a conceptual starting point, a way of systematizing effects at the intersection of digitization and well-being. Different mechanisms become salient in different ways in people’s everyday lives. The macro-trend of digitization has been affecting virtually all life domains, entwined with three key socio-technical transformations (Rainie & Wellman, 2012): a turn away from small groups, the proliferation of the personalized Internet, and the mobile-making of information and communication. Anticipated or realized consequences of digitization at this level of analysis include increased efficiency, innovation, and transparency; but also political manipulation, privacy breaches, and growing socioeconomic inequality. With relative stability, such current macro conditions function as structural-situational constraints and opportunities for an individual. The concept of habitus helps in understanding how even highly individualized attributes such as the preferences in one’s online uses relate to the social structure and conditions in which Internet user were socialized and live their everyday lives.

Digitization is not an inevitable law of nature but borne by the interdependent actions of human beings embedded in social networks. Thus, at the micro level, personal digital practices, produced by the habitus and thus, in part, by the social structure, can yield beneficial and harmful outcomes, and ultimately impact well-being; for example, increased feelings of belongingness, convenience, or relevant information, but also stress, disinformation, or embarrassment. DWBT introduces such concrete harms and benefits at the individual level to increase the empirical accessibility and specify causal mechanisms. Analytically, outcomes of digital practices as concrete harms and benefits can be disaggregated to varying degrees depending on the specific empirical phenomenon and research question. Importantly, beneficial and harmful consequences of the digital habitus and practice are often concomitant factors – to give a concrete example: an adolescent who joins a social networking site may gain gratifications from connectedness with peers and at the same time experience stress and social pressure; and in many instances there are reinforcing and bidirectional processes at play. Selecting, specifying, and testing relevant mechanisms from this basic model is the goal of further development of DWBT.


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