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Story | Education
15 February 2021

Op-Ed: Future designs for digital wellness

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Op-Ed: Future designs for digital wellness

Online gaming disorder has been recognized as an addictive behavior.

Image source: Tu meifei, via REUTERS

Raian Ali, Professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s College of Science and Engineering, writes about digital addiction, and what tech companies can do to prevent “digital obesity”

The latest revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), developed by the World Health Organization and released in 2018, recognized Online Gaming Disorder as a disorder due to addictive behavior; while the latest edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders developed by the American Psychiatric Association and released in 2013 listed Internet Gaming Disorder as a condition for further study.

Whether or not digital usage can in some cases meet the criteria of addictive behavior, public concerns about it are on the rise

Raian Ali

Whether or not digital usage can in some cases meet the criteria of addictive behaviour, public concerns about it are on the rise. Google launched the “Digital Wellbeing toolkit” as an attempt to help a healthier relationship with their products. For example, it provides users with statistics about the time spent on each app and enables them to put time limits, mute notifications, and “wind down” before and during sleeping hours by changing screen to greyscale and muting sounds.

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Raian Ali, a professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University

Healthcare services for Internet Addiction Treatment also started to appear. And when people start to introduce peer support groups around an issue, it can be a good reason to argue the need for taking it more seriously. Game Quitters is an example.

The notion of “Digital Addiction” is used informally, and it typically refers to a problematic relationship with digital media – by being obsessive, excessive, impulsive, and hasty – and is associated with harm on the wellbeing of the individual and their social circle. The notion shall not imply that technology usage shall be plainly reduced or boycotted, but rather rationalized and optimized.

Some consumptions of technology can arguable lead to “digital obesity” with side effects of continuous distraction, preoccupation, lack of physical activities and also, procrastinating online and escaping other priorities.

Knowing that attention is one of the scarcest resources, designing a technology that is “attention-respectful” is a wellbeing requirement with social, economic and health implications

Raian Ali

Knowing that attention is one of the scarcest resources, designing a technology that is “attention-respectful” is a wellbeing requirement with social, economic and health implications. Digital media competes to access our attention as a valuable resource, not always with significant consideration of whether our sacrifice of attention would necessarily result in a positive return.

The root causes of problematic and addictive digital usage vary. For example, individuals who are introvert and with low self-esteem may overly rely on a social network as a social compensation method. When these individuals compare themselves to others, whom they perceive to be better off, their morale can decline further.

Individuals with low self-control may also procrastinate more on social networks and be subject to the influence of immersive designs more than others. Still, tech companies do not seem to consider the growing evidence of such cases as a legitimate reason for providing a design that is adaptable to maintain users' wellbeing.

Recently, there have been enquiries about the addictive nature of social networks like Facebook and Twitter and whether they have invested in internal research on it.

We can design digital media to be smarter in their interaction and delivery of messages and advice

Raian Ali

While movements in Inclusive Design succeeded in promoting the ethical and professional need for developing software that adapts to people with permanent and situational disability, we are still in the very early stages in considering users mental and psychological states as legitimate drivers for such adaptation.

For example, low impulsivity and high susceptibility to peer pressures can be personality characteristics leading some adolescents to stay on their social networks or play games with their peers excessively. We can arguably consider such personal attributes in a way similar to typical disability factors, whether permanent or situational factors, and consequently demand designs that can detect and respond to them.

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Technology tools now surround us in our daily lives – but this creates the risk of ‘digital obesity’. Image source: Cover Media, via REUTERS

An intelligent and socially responsible design of games and social media may apply, or offer users the ability to apply principles of Nudge and behaviour change to maintain their usage at a healthy level and style. Unlike substances, e.g. tobacco and alcohol, digital media has a unique feature that is yet to exploit in preventing abuse and dependence. Such media are more intelligent and can monitor the usage styles and react to the problematic instances in a timely and personalized fashion.

We can design digital media to be smarter in their interaction and delivery of messages and advice. In comparison to labels on cigarette packs and sugary drinks, digital media can tailor smarter labels that better fit the person and issue them at the right time. They can be in the form of direct messages but also in more subtle and less obtrusive forms like a reduction of the size of Post button or mandating extra confirmation before posting when the action seems to be unconscious or excessive.

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