Well-being in a Digital World

Technologies of the Self for 21st Century Life

MyFitnessPal, Headspace and Noom: a growing number of apps is being developed for self-care and well-being. In the past decade, digital self-care tools have quickly gained prominence, and are being used by millions of people around the world. Self-care apps have become increasingly important recently, as social distancing practices have moved much of our lives online.

What is digital self-cultivation, and what are the caveats to this trend? As a philosopher and ethicist, Dr Matthew Dennis studies digital well-being at TU Delft. He advocates for an international mark of quality to ensure that apps adhere to ethical standards.

mjdDr Matthew Dennis is part of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus affiliated Leading Fellows Postdoc programme. He is hosted by TU Delft’s Department of Values, Technology and Innovation, which is part of the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management (TPM). He researches how self-care app technology can improve digital well-being.

Self-care apps through an ethical lens

Well-being is not limited to physical health alone, it also includes mental health. Dr Dennis explores how self-care apps can be improved by drawing on a philosophical understanding of human character development. His work primarily focuses on self-cultivation and character development, especially on how online technology can be best integrated into our lives. 

ddfvDesigning technology to improve our lives

At TU Delft, there is an increasing focus on ethics: what do you design for what purpose, and how do people deal with this? Matthew Dennis is affiliated with TU Delft's Design for Values initiative that focuses on value-oriented design for well-being. He explains digital well-being: 'In the most simple terms, digital well-being is how we can live well – even flourish – online. It’s the concept of how our online and offline lives connect up, especially how we can design technology to improve digital well-being. Self-care apps aim to cultivate our digital well-being in many ways. There are now apps for meditation, memory, fitness, diet, as well as for happiness in general.'

Self-cultivation: then and now

'The process of finding oneself and striving to self-develop has historical precedents at least going back to the Hellenistic period. Today, companies are marketing apps that claim to be able to increase our well-being and happiness. This idea struck me as ambitious and provocative. Many of these apps claim to improve our emotional, social, and physical well-being in ways that were previously left to ourselves, to our friends and families, or to professionals, such as psychoanalysts and personal trainers. At first, I was dubious – could an app really help us cultivate ourselves?'


​'Despite my initial scepticism, I began thinking more deeply about the possibilities self-care apps offer and began taking these products more seriously. Historically speaking, self-cultivation has always been reserved for socio-economic elites, but apps make this much more accessible. Instead of flying to Nepal to join a yoga retreat, or even commuting for a fitness class, self-care apps are available to anyone with a mobile phone and an internet connection. Also, these apps can make caring for ourselves fun by gamifying our self-care. Popular self-care apps like Headspace and Happify use gamification to make their platforms extremely interactive and motivating. The makers of these apps have even tried to create a sense of community – for example, upon logging in to Headspace, users can see how many others are simultaneously meditating across the world. People find this very motivating. '

Medical misinformation and unrealistic beauty ideals

'The ethics behind some self-care apps can be questionable. Some apps, like fitness apps, can offer unfounded medical advice and promote unrealistic beauty standards. I believe that we have to be careful here, as the messages promoted by some apps can potentially be harmful. This is especially important if the apps are marketed at vulnerable groups, such as adolescents or the elderly.'

    Lack of regulation in such a large market is unusual."​

Regulation and quality-standards for self-care apps

'Self-care apps currently operate in an unregulated market. The methods used by these apps may work well, but the physical and psychological ideals that they promote can be ethically problematic. As an ethicist and a philosopher, I believe that we should influence public debate on these issues where possible so that policymakers can legislate against the deliberate promotion of unethical ideals. Lack of regulation in such a large market is unusual. For example, supervisory organs for advertisements already exist. We need similar oversight for the self-care app market.

Ideally, it would be best if users could find out about the ethics of an app before they downloaded it. With this in mind, I’ve proposed an international mark of quality with the European Institute of Innovation & Technology. The ethics of the self-care app market needs to be tightened up.'​

Digital welfare in the times of corona

meditateman'Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, self-care apps have seen massive increases in downloads. In the next few months, many of us will use self-care apps to cope with self-isolation, both for physical exercise and to improve our mental health. Hopefully, these tools will improve the quality of our lives and will highlight the importance of digital well-being.

Since many of us will find ourselves constantly living, working, and socialising online during the crisis the challenges for our digital well-being have never been greater. I also think that after the pandemic, a lot of the things that we had previously done offline will remain online, particularly work and leisure activities. Hopefully, in a post-corona world, we’ll be able to find a good balance between the online and offline life and to make the best use of the possibilities the digital world offers.'

Working group on the ethical issues of the COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 crisis will cause an unprecedented period of disruption to public and private life in the Netherlands. As well as acutely affecting public health, it is now likely that the crisis will disrupt commerce, industry, education, work, and leisure for the foreseeable future. These changes will create many short-term ethical challenges, but how we respond to these challenges may also cause lasting shifts in our moral norms and our ethical lives. The decisions we make now will establish ethical, social, and political precedents that could last a generation. 

While the stakes are high, the Netherlands is well prepared in terms of ethical expertise. Dutch universities within the TU network are now internationally recognised centres of excellence in this area. Over the upcoming months and years, these institutions have a crucial role to play in directing ethical debate in the Netherlands; they also have the chance to lead Europe and the rest of the world.
To start this process, we have formed a working group on the ethical issues presented by the COVID-19 crisis (WGCV-19). The WGCV-19 aims to coordinate a collective response to the philosophical issues raised by the COVID-19 crisis from the philosophy of technology researchers based in the Netherlands.
Please contact m.j.dennis@tudelft.nl for more information.

Leading Fellows Postdoc Programme
leading fellows
The LEaDing Fellows programme (partly funded by the EU from the Marie Sklodowska Curie COFUND program) offers a total of 90 postdocs, spread over 3 consecutive calls, an appointment for 2 years at one of the LDE institutions of medical centres. The program contributes to the career development of newly graduated students by offering opportunities for international, cross-sectional and interdisciplinary research. It also stimulates regional and international network between (non)academic institutions and the business community. With this, it contributes to the economic development and competitive position of South Holland.

Find out more about the Leading Fellows programme

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