Research groups investigate how to achieve healthier use of digital technologies

With its permanent accessibility, increasing flood of information and constantly changing technologies that humans have to familiarize themselves with, digitization is fundamentally changing society and individual lives. These changes come with both opportunities and risks for health. The risks of using digital technologies and media include stress, burnout, depression and other health impairments.

However, stress can also have positive, stimulating effects that need to be promoted. Technological design is well advanced, so digital technologies and media can also preserve and promote human health by including artificial intelligence, adaptivity and interactivity.

In a joint project, research groups from the universities of Augsburg, Bamberg, Erlangen-Nuremberg, Munich and Würzburg are now investigating how a healthier use of digital technologies and media can be achieved. The Bavarian State Ministry of Science and the Arts is funding the ForDigitHealth research network with around 3.35 million euros. The project is scheduled to run for four years.

The Würzburg subproject

The Department of Developmental Psychology (Prof. Dr. Gerhild Nieding and Dr. Wienke Wannagat) at Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg is involved in this project. The two scientists' research deals with extended media literacy in children and adolescents, which includes so-called metacognitive and cognitive self-regulatory abilities that are assumed to protect against digital stress. These abilities include, for example, the knowledge that a smartphone present on the desk can distract from homework and the ability to regulate one's own behavior based on this knowledge.

The long-term goal is to develop and evaluate training approaches that will enable children and adolescents to use digital media and technologies in a healthy way.

In previous work, the JMU scientists have shown that media literacy in pre-school children, adolescents and adults is related to academic and health-related variables: the greater the media literacy, the better the skills in areas such as reading and mathematics—and the lower the risk of developing an internet or video-gaming addiction.

Since the beginning of 2019, the department has also been developing a computer-based training program aimed at promoting media sign literacy skills in kindergarten children. The children learn about the typical characteristics of films, comics and other media. This is important because media sign literacy is a prerequisite for later media literacy, as the researchers explain. The German Research Foundation is funding this project.

The aims of the ForDigitHealth network

According to Professor Henner Gimpel of the University of Augsburg, spokesman for ForDigitHealth, "in their everyday lives, many people experience for themselves that digital technologies not only offer support but also sometimes seem to have taken complete control over their lives. They notice this, for example, when they are overwhelmed with all the e-mails at work, or when they find themselves constantly checking their phone for new messages or comments on a previously posted picture."

The aim of the network is to scientifically evaluate how the increasing presence and use of digital technologies and media affect our health — especially with regard to the development of positive and negative stress. In addition, prevention and intervention approaches are to be developed and evaluated. In this way, the research network aims to contribute to an appropriate, conscious and health-promoting use of digital technologies and media.

Experts from the fields of medicine, psychology, computer science, business informatics and communication science are working on these questions. The eleven individual projects deal with theories of stress, methods of stress assessment, and fundamental ethical and legal aspects. They also evaluate how digital technologies and media differentially affect specific social groups, including children, adolescents and employees. In addition, different areas and contexts of life are taken into account, such as the family and the workplace.

The aim is to explore how digital technologies and media are used and experienced in different everyday contexts and, in particular, how this affects the mental and physical health of various groups of people.

Bavaria's Science Minister Bernd Sibler commented:

Health research is futurology! The research network ForDigitHealth investigates crucial questions that are highly relevant for a healthy life with digital media. In the age of digitization, it is very important that we use digital media confidently and autonomously. It is also crucial to be aware of how digital media influence our daily lives and our health."

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