The greatest wealth is health

Virgil

A bird’s eye view of health and well-being

The health and well-being domain covers wide-ranging topics and challenges, from the appropriate, timely use of technology and the impact of unreliable or distorted information to the way technology is modifying interactions within families and between citizens in their everyday life. For the purpose of clarity, key aspects of this domain will be separated into three different areas, as we look at how digital technology influences the capacity of citizens to participate, learn and create both positively and responsibly.

  • 1. Social-emotional impact through modified human interactions.
  • 2. Informational aspects related to gathering and processing data.
  • 3. Health-related aspects from ergonomics to pseudo-medical data we find online.
     

How does technology impact human interaction?

Online technology has considerably modified the way we interact. While it force-feeds our brain with a constant diet of fast-moving sounds and images, it simultaneously reduces the capacity of people to “read between the lines”. Nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and body language are essential facets of communication that facilitate comprehension and lessen the risk of misunderstanding.

Except for tools such as voice over internet protocol platforms (VoIPs, which include video applications like Skype and WhatsApp),1 a large part of today’s interactions, especially among teenagers, is reduced to the bare bones of sound, icons and short-cut language.

Emoticons, for example, offer little scope for sensing meaning or discerning patterns in communication, which are so important in developing digital citizenship competences such as sound listening and observing skills, and empathy. In a nuanceless world, a joke or misunderstanding can very easily escalate into conflict, violence and bullying. At another level, when children are unable to see the nuanced version of a situation, it is much more difficult for them to hypothesise on the consequences of their own actions. This underscores the crucial need to foster the development of analytical and critical thinking.
 

Informational challenges to health and well-being

Today’s over-rich diet of sounds and images has other effects on children and young people’s well-being too, in particular related to their information-processing capacity. Data often comes from unreliable sources and, on top of this, internet users are consistently profiled by search engines to filter out any information that does not “fit” their profile (see Fact sheet 9, “Privacy and security”). Because of this, young people are frequently denied the means of exploring multi-perspective views on issues and can be rapidly polarised towards extreme views, as we are seeing with the rise of hate speech, radicalisation and poorly informed excessive standpoints.

To complicate the issue further, researchers are showing through Magnetic Resonance Imaging that even moderate use of online technology can result in the overdevelopment of certain parts of the brain and slow down development in other parts. They are pointing to a consequent underdevelopment of the prefrontal lobe which is said to be limiting the capacity of young people to project the outcomes of actions. Kindergarten teachers and child psychologists are also voicing concern that online technology is having a considerable impact on developmental phases in early childhood, markedly prevalent in reduced concentration spans and delayed development of certain motor co-ordination skills.
 

Ergonomics and health

Besides the impact on health and well-being of issues such as bullying,2 hate speech and radicalisation, excessive use of technology can bring about a range of physical issues from postural distress and lack of exercise to disrupted life-balance. These problems are further exacerbated by the plentiful but often misleading health information to be found online, requiring the sharpest of critical thinking skills to sift out the true from the false. The current focus on beauty and body in today’s era of selfies and likes can rapidly lead young people to seek out nutritional tips that may accentuate eating disorders, such as anorexia, or join groups of “like-minded” people that goad them into other risky behaviours. These challenges are likely to have a lasting effect on a person’s social, professional and emotional life, and hence on their role as an active citizen.
 

1. Also called Over-the-top Technologies or OTT.

2. Copeland W. E., Wolke D., Angold A. and Costello E. J. (2013) present findings on the long-term health, wealth and social impact of bullying in “Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolescence (Bullying and Parasomnias: A Longitudinal Cohort Study)”, JAMA Psychiatry 70(4), pp. 419-426.

How does it work?

Balance is the operative word in the digital domain of health and well-being and necessitates a blend of the full range of digital competences, from values to attitudes, and skills to knowledge and critical understanding. Balance is something that children develop by learning to listen, observe, show empathy and co-operate. Well-being is built to a large degree on how children perceive themselves through the eyes of others, and hence on interaction with others.

Over the past quarter of a decade, European society appears to have acknowledged health and well-being as essential elements in digital citizenship, and is striving to upgrade education systems accordingly. This requires taking into account the social, physical, cognitive and psychological aspects of learners rather than just performance-related aspects. It underlines the importance of focusing on the individual as well as the group.

Above all, new educational approaches strive to give children room to develop their capacity for listening and enquiring, discerning social patterns and systemic approaches, building empathy, valuing diversity and much more. In today’s society, the oft-repeated phrase “Mens sana in corpore sano” – “a healthy mind in a healthy body” (generally attributed to the pre-Socratic philosopher, Thales) – is taking on a new meaning as we progressively comprehend the importance of counterbalancing our device-bound online lives with the challenges of well-being in society.