Five reasons why digital wellness should be an integral part of media literacy

Five reasons why digital wellness should be an integral part of media literacy

Stanley Currier, Tara Susman-Peña, and Matthew Vanderwerff


Woman doing a yoga pose


Imagine a day where you wake up, make breakfast, brush your teeth, and then sit down to log into your computer. You eat in front of the screen, oblivious to the taste and texture of your food, answer email after email, multi-task during video meetings….  Before you know it, it is late afternoon. You realize that you’ve barely left your chair, your neck feels stiff, and you are tired and listless. Sound familiar? In the piece below we outline five powerful reasons to focus on our digital wellness, which in turn will strengthen our media literacy and increase our resilience to manipulative information.

When schools and workplaces went online in 2020, IREX teams began hearing about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic from partners around the globe. In the Baltics, IREX had just started integrating our Learn to Discern media literacy training into classrooms and community settings, and preparing future journalists and citizens with skills and tools to engage critically with media and build resilience to manipulative information. Faculty partners shared that students were beginning to experience ‘Zoom fatigue’ -  their attention spans waned after prolonged periods of time online, and it was challenging to design learning experiences that kept them engaged and focused.

After several years of sustained remote learning/work, we recognized that many of us could benefit from tips to improve our physical and emotional well-being so we began to integrate strategies for digital wellness into our media literacy training materials. Our experience shows that when individuals build holistic healthy digital habits, it positively influences their abilities to engage with media in a critical, responsible, healthy, and empathetic way – both on and offline.   

Here are five reasons why we think that you, too, should integrate digital wellness into media literacy initiatives:

Reason #1: Media literacy isn’t just about our minds

There is a temptation to imagine that building media literacy and critical thinking skills is primarily—or exclusively—about helping people to “think better.” We may assume that if we upgrade our cognitive software with new capabilities, it will follow that those capabilities will lead to healthy information engagement. This view is compelling because it builds on a common understanding that our minds work much like our technology. It may also be appealing because it confirms the biases that many of us have: the people who really need media literacy are others outside our group who don’t know how to think correctly.

However, new science teaches us (or perhaps reminds us) that we are not just thinking machines, but whole human beings who are influenced by our social and physical experiences and our emotions. For example, if we are angry about something, that feeling will color how we interpret—and then react—to a piece of news or information. In his new book Emotion: How Feelings Shape our Thinking, Leonard Mlodinow notes that “[w]here we once believed that emotion was detrimental to effective thought and decisions, we now know that we can’t make decisions, or even think, without being influenced by our emotions.” To help people really make good decisions when engaging with information, we need to first help them pay attention to what they are experiencing and feeling. Digital wellness practices remind us to embrace that we are fully human.

Reason #2: Screen time takes a toll, physically and emotionally, at scale

If the day we asked you to imagine at the beginning is all too familiar, you are not alone.  A recent meta-study that analyzed 89 recent scientific studies found that people of all ages increased their screentime during the pandemic, which was associated with negative changes in diet, sleep, eye health, and mental health. Because these types of impacts take a toll on our overall experience of life and ability to function healthily, they naturally also will impact our ability to identify and resist manipulative information.

Practiced regularly, simple exercises that are accessible to almost everyone – such as walking and gentle stretches – have many benefits, including getting our blood circulating, increasing our energy levels, and improving our mood. Similarly, science backs the benefits of simple structured breathing exercises, that balance the nervous system, relieve stress, and allow your mind to move into rest and relax mode. We will share some resources for stretches and breathing at the end of this article.  

Reason #3: It’s fun!

Across IREX’s Learn to Discern programs, we have been experimenting with incorporating different modalities from digital wellness – introducing the topic, running interactive quizzes, leading simple stretching and breathing exercises, emphasizing simple emotional regulation techniques and more – since the first year of the pandemic. Whether with IREX colleagues, or in programs in the Baltics, Iraq, Latin America, and the U.S, participants express their appreciation for these activities. They feel a sense of relief to be recognized as a whole person – not just a rational person trying to learn hard skills, but an emotional, physical, social, and sometimes vulnerable person.

Reason #4: Digital wellness practices can be integrated into any program

At IREX, we know that educators and trainers need tools that can be integrated incrementally through experimentation to learn what works and what doesn’t with different audiences. We are reluctant to recommend strategies that require large investments in time or resources or that may introduce new unforeseen risks. The digital wellness practices we have outlined above can be effective tools for training designers because they do not require additional resources and they are easy to integrate into a variety of different programs or contexts. If they don’t work with your audience, it’s easy to pivot.

Reason #5: Exercises for digital wellness build connections!

Incorporating digital wellness activities into programming opens the door for shared experiences and community-building among participants. After a few minutes of stretching, we ask participants to share a few words about how they feel. We often hear the words calm, refreshed, and relaxed. When people participate in an activity together, we find it creates a space for connection, engagement, and dialogue.

How might adding some elements of digital wellness strengthen your participants’ capacity to improve the lives of their communities?

Digital wellness is easy to integrate, popular with participants, and quickly demonstrates benefits, whether online or offline. We offer techniques for different domains of digital wellness including physical health; emotional and mental health; safety and security; learning and productivity; values and purpose; and relationships. Digital wellness is only likely to increase in importance as people are realizing the negative impacts of living increasingly online and  identifying strong connections between wellbeing and “well-doing.” Though we have just begun our journey toward incorporating digital wellness practices throughout our offerings; we hope you will join us.

IREX Resources

Physical Exercises for Your Digital Wellness

Simple Breathing Exercises for Digital Wellness