Navigating the digital maze: Dhahran summit seeks solutions for youth wellbeing online

As the world's young Internet users grapple with the complexities of their tech-saturated lives, how can we bring digital wellbeing to all?

By Shaikh Ayaz

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Published: Thu 30 May 2024, 6:53 PM

Do you know anything about Carson Bride from Portland, Oregon? Here was a promising young life cut short tragically by vicious attacks of cyberbullying. Do we want this future for our children? Carson's life was celebrated and the message that young users are always vulnerable on social media resonated far and wide on the very first day of the recently-held Sync Digital Wellbeing Summit 2024 at the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, as Carson's mother Kristin Bride recalled what it has been like to live with the unspeakable trauma of losing a son. The American teen had worked hard to get a summer job. His family was proud of him. All was well — until it wasn't. One fateful night in 2020, Carson returned home, had dinner and scribbled his work schedule on the kitchen calendar. The next morning, he was gone. To her horror, the grieving Kristin quickly learned that her son was at the receiving end of hundreds of negative, harassing and sexually explicit messages on an app by his high school friends. Kristin has since become a vocal advocate for cyberbullying prevention. She has diligently railed against big tech's apparently unscrupulous, profit-driven practices through their continuous launch of new digital products and platforms without adequate regulation and accountability. Carson was one of the star speakers at the Sync Digital Wellbeing Summit, a gathering of tech wizards, scientists, social media reformists, authors, AI experts, psychologists, child healthcare specialists and hundreds of attendees from all over the globe. In a moment of profound irony, Kristin found herself on stage alongside Steve Wozniak. But "Woz," the co-founder of Apple, proved to be just the perfect match for her in a conference of this nature, which aims to unite the global community in reflecting on not just the dreams but also the deterrents to the growth of technology and provide solutions to an empowering and ethical digital future. Wozniak, who firmly believes in ‘digital positivity’, brought the house down when he deadpanned, “I often like to say that those of us who brought this digital world should be executed.”

But then, the gentle Woz, like the rest of us, has been condemned to live in such a world. That's his punishment. Yet, at the two-day Sync Digital Wellbeing Summit 2024 that took place on May 22-23, it wasn't just Woz who grabbed the headlines. Among the panoply of voices, one stands out — the Bahrain-based social media influencer, Omar Farooq. His powerful and at times, unintentionally amusing documentary, The Dark Side of Japan, wowed audiences. The film's credo encapsulates the essence of the Sync Summit's mission — exploring whether Japan's unhealthy obsession with technology offers a glimpse into the world's collective future and what insights and lessons its darker aspects might hold for us. Watching The Dark Side of Japan with a packed audience at a theatre in King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture, popularly known as Ithra, we see a predominantly young crowd hooting and cheering throughout the screening. It's a testament to Farooq's rockstar-like popularity (he is truly a social media phenom, boasting 3.9 million followers on Instagram). With record numbers of young Japanese experiencing the detrimental consequences of their excessive dependence on technology (after all, this is a nation infamous for its anime obsession, cuddle cafes for the lonely hearts, high suicide rates and a unique social isolation phenomenon often referred to as 'Hikikomori') the movie immerses us in a mindset that urges us to approach social media with caution. It prompts us to question whether we can truly regain the lives or identities we have lost amidst the relentless march of technology. The documentary is told through Farooq's eyes and features his voiceover. Few countries in the world are as tethered to technology as Japan, where social media has been identified both as its strength and scourge. So it's refreshing to hear one Japanese interviewee remark that he finds greater happiness in the simple joys of life. “We don't need much to be happy. We are much happier with less,” the man observes, as he tries to navigate the intricacies of the digital world, especially its effects on children and impressionable minds.

Like mental wellness, digital welfare is fast becoming a buzzword as younger users from Riyadh to Rome and New York to Nice Tik-Tok their way to an online mega-verse in the hope of finding a sense of comfort, solace, happiness, round-the-clock entertainment, validation, motivation and even inspiration in what is essentially just a glorified bubble. In our rapidly digitalised world, bombarded by notifications and like buttons, social media anxieties, the need for data management, click-baiting content, the peer pressure to conform to viral trends or engage in slacktivism, the spread of misinformation and major advances in the Internet of Things including gaming, Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), striking a middle ground between our real lives and online personas is more crucial than ever. At the Sync Summit, one of the takeaways turned out to be that digital wellbeing goes beyond just screen time management or avoiding harmful content. It encompasses a broader perspective, including fostering healthy online interactions, using it as a cultural tool, making a conscious effort to spread positivity and kindness through your digital platforms even though you are hiding behind a screen of anonymity, challenging and condemning negative emotions, embracing and learning from the technology's educative aspects and basically, being a good digital citizen, or ‘digital sheriff’, as the zeitgeist has it.

Naturally, Artificial Intelligence (AI) took centre stage at the summit. One of the highlight sessions included ‘Confronting the Digital Paradox: Navigating the Complexities of Our Tech-Saturated World’, in which speakers argued about how AI is a double-edged sword. Mo Gawdat, entrepreneur and bestselling author, admitted AI’s power to manipulate human behaviour by saying, “Artificial Intelligence is the reason behind the manipulation of the human mind.” Another discussion focused exclusively on Gen Alpha, the first generation born entirely at the digital dawn. Drawing on Ithra Sync’s global research, ‘Are the Kids Alright? The Truth about Gen Alpha Family Life in a Digital Age’ explored how technology is fundamentally reshaping family life, childhood, and parenting in this new era. It highlighted the growing importance of understanding how to navigate the digital landscape for both children and their caregivers. Dr Hanan AlShaikh, chair of women and child healthcare at Johns Hopkins Aramco Healthcare in Dhahran, was one of the speakers. Acknowledging the pervasive influence of digital media, Dr AlShaikh says, “Digital media is an integral part of education today and offers children a window to the world. However, at Johns Hopkins Aramco Healthcare, we emphasise the critical importance of a balanced approach to digital usage. As healthcare providers, we've observed how excessive screen time can lead to physical and mental health issues such as obesity, anxiety, and depression.” Moreover, she adds, “The risks of cyberbullying and online exploitation demand vigilant action. Our role extends beyond treatment to education and advocacy, guiding families on the safe and beneficial use of technology. Regulation of digital content is as crucial as speed limits on roads to prevent accidents.”

A groundbreaking flagship initiative called the Global Digital Wellbeing Index (DWI) was also unveiled by Sync. This first-of-its-kind research provides a comprehensive framework for understanding how technology impacts our wellbeing. Developed through collaboration between Ithra, Horizon Group, and PSB Insights, the DWI combines data from 35 countries and is based on a survey of 12 key areas such as social cohesion, the quality of information available online, cybersecurity, the ability to disconnect from technology, and social connectedness. The index ranked Canada as the country with the highest overall digital wellbeing. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) achieved an impressive 16th place, while Saudi Arabia, a tremendously modernising economic hub with 63 per cent of Saudis being under 30 and a booming digital sector to boot, secured 27th position. Not bad for a Kingdom that until recently was criticised for its ultra-conservative rhetoric. However, under the leadership of its dynamic Prime Minister Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the country has been shaking things up. Traditionally known for its petroleum sector, the giant from the Arabian Peninsula is making bold strides towards diversifying its economy through technology and innovation and the Sync Summit further underscores the Kingdom's ambition to become a leading player in the ever-evolving global tech landscape.

Inside the iconic, pebble-shaped Ithra building in Dhahran (symbolising 'unity' and designed by Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta), Fahad AlBeyahi, lead of the Digital Wellbeing Research at Ithra, sits beside a striking installation of a spinning globe firing away a veritable technological trove. He insists that he has his work cut out, stating that the Sync Summit remains steadfast in its commitment towards promoting ethical technology consumption. “Digital wellbeing is a critical global and social issue. We need to invite reflection on it from a multiple perspective,” he tells wknd., catching a much-needed time off from the hubbub at the Ithra auditorium. Despite the obvious concerns surrounding tech's negative effects, AlBeyahi is optimistic about the digital future. “The digital is touching every one of us, not leaving anyone. It's affecting our health, productivity, our environment, privacy and safety. With this summit, we want to create awareness about digital wellbeing and to safeguard the world’s future. We believe that technology can be a force for good and can provide great opportunities for learning.” The summit brought together a diverse group of over 70 speakers and hundreds of experts from 20 countries. AlBeyahi highlights the all-encompassing nature of technology, spanning academia, media, environment, ethics, politics, society, and even sports. “Today, technology is everywhere but we also wanted to explore some of its harmful aspects and strive to achieve what I call a digital balance,” he concludes.

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