How is your digital well-being?

In 2022, a pair of Thai activists embarked on a quest to explore what they call “digital well-being” for their fellow activists. Darika Bamrungchok from Thai Netizen Network focuses on digital rights and civil liberties, while Sattara Hattirat from Backyard Politics advocates the well-being of women and LBQ activists in Thailand. A shared interest in understanding how activists, particularly from feminist and LBQ communities, navigate the digital world brought the two together.

Thailand (according to Datareportal) had 61.21 million internet users (out of a population of 71.75 million) at the beginning of 2023, with an internet penetration of 85.3%. Back in 2015, it was 37%, which means that Thailand has more than doubled its internet penetration in less than a decade. Since the 2014 coup and the elections in May 2023, the country has experienced two semi-democratic governments. Activists in Thailand have encountered escalating government threats, such as censorship, judicial harassment, surveillance and social manipulation. Women and LBQ activists appear to be more vulnerable to attacks from both the state and non-state actors.

Som (name changed), an activist, describes an experience many fellow activists would find familiar, “Social media has made us public figures, but it has also subjected us to monitoring, criticism, and threats from both the public and state-sponsored Information Operations. I face more negative impact as a woman when it comes to cyberbullying. Women often endure attacks through sexually-harassing texts or based on our identity and appearance. The attacks are not directed at the issues we advocate, for but rather at our gender identities.”

The quest for digital well-being

To explore what the activists experience in the digital landscape, Darika Bamrungchok and Sattara Hattirat began preliminary research and held in-depth interviews with women and LBQ activists to gain a better understanding of this aspect of digital well-being. Bamrungchok recalls, “During the research interviews, when I asked the activists about their definition of digital well-being, it took them a long time to respond.” This led Bamrungchok to further explore the layered meanings and complexities of the subject. She adds, “However, when I asked them about the impact of digital usage, the responses came quickly. They were clear about the digital threats and harassment, including psychological impact. Although people were unsure about what digital well-being is, they could quickly express a lot about the negative impact from social media that they had experienced.”

While the definition itself may be hazy for many, Hattirat from Backyard Politics is clear in her mission on digital well-being. She states, “Digital well-being is the health and happiness that concern our digital usage. Good digital well-being means, first, we have digital literacy and are aware of not only the benefits but also the harms of the digital platforms that we are using. [Secondly], we have choices on how we use digital tools and platforms, and [lastly], we can access alternative tools and well-being supports beyond digital ones.”

After realising the impact of the use of technology on social activists and the demand for digital well-being support, they developed a series of workshops for women and LBQ activists in Bangkok. These workshops provide a safe space for participants to reflect on their experiences and discuss the impact and coping mechanisms related to their relationship with digital technology and activism.

Bamrungchok says, “When we started our first workshop, I didn’t consider myself an expert in professional digital well-being, but I did have a strong interest in raising awareness about this issue among social changemakers.” She goes on to add, “I was fortunate to have Sattara from Backyard Politics who shared the same values and mission on this topic. We aimed to learn how we used digital technology and how it sometimes used us, seeking to understand its impact on activist culture.”  She says it was hers and Hattirat’s curiosity that kickstarted their first digital well-being workshop, which they refer to as a “digital detox” collective space “because we thought the term ‘digital well-being’ was relatively new for people when we started our project.” Bamrungchok adds, “We wanted to create a safe space where our community could reflect on our relationship with the digital space, and facilitated a conversation about finding like-minded people who wanted to onboard on this journey together as a collective care effort.”

The workshops were designed as a series, allowing participants to attend monthly as an attempt to cultivate a digital care culture for the activist community. The theme and activity were changed each time, covering a range of topics from our virtual and physical selves, the negative impact of social media algorithms by design, and the impact of generative AI on sensitivity and activism.

This also provided an opportunity for participants to stay away from their smartphones during the four-hour Sunday afternoon sessions. Instead, the sessions offered other well-being tools that invited mindfulness, appreciation, and connection to own sensory experiences such as tea-making, dessert-tasting, music appreciation, stretching, breathing exercises and community conversation. Bamrungchok says about smartphone addiction, “Many participants shared their feelings and experiences of having faced the fear of missing out (FOMO) while using social media. They acknowledged [they were] spending a lot of unwanted time scrolling the screen but still continued to do so. I remember one participant reflecting that it’s like a love-hate relationship; they know it’s toxic, but they still cannot break up with [their phone and social media].”

Hattirat further observes that using social media may not necessarily create changes effectively. Tech companies intentionally create algorithms that make users lose track of time.  This is designed for addiction that reinforces the need for quick responses rather than meaningful conversations. Also, AI-tailored feeds that draw aggressive responses can lead to anxiety and possible conflicts among activists.  She states, “When conflicts occur online, instead of discussing them directly in person, many debate via social media posts or online texts. This can quickly aggravate the dispute or lead to more misunderstandings. While social media can facilitate progress on social justice issues through fast and wide reach, it simultaneously fractures the community of our social changemakers more than ever before.”

Moving forward with well-being

Pim (not her real name) has participated in a series of digital well-being workshops and reflected on how she found what she learned during the workshops very useful for crafting her work-life balance. “I find that being aware and having a better understanding of what the platforms can do is very useful. Now I understand my actions more while surfing online.” She adds, “During the workshop, I was surprised that I could lose track of time on other meaningful conversations and activities without picking up my phone for half a day. What I learned and experienced may not be easy to share in a short answer or checklist box, but it’s a way for us to revisit and reflect on our habits and usage of digital devices,” she says during the wrap-up of the last workshop, adding, “I would like to share my experiences with others if I have the chance.” 

Receiving positive feedback from participants is motivating, but Bamrungchok and Hattirat recognise the need to further develop a digital well-being framework for activists, especially women and non-binary groups in Thailand. She emphasises the critical need for more resources and support to expand their work in the long term, aiming to grow the community regionally in the coming year. She also adds, “There is a lot more for us to understand and uncover for our activist community. We are on the path to understanding our relationships with digital tools and their impact. We aim to find more ways to support our community.”

Hattirat reflects that many activists in Thailand use social media to advocate their causes. However, there are few discussions on the price they pay in terms of their own physical and mental health while maintaining a degree of high social media engagements. “I want to create a new culture where human rights defenders can use digital tools to mobilise their activism, and at the same time, care about their own digital well-being and that of the activist communities,” she concludes. 


Cover image by Auggie Patanukom via Backyard Politics

Nat Sumon is a journalist and documentary producer for many international media entities. She covers a wide range of social issues, including human rights, democracy, inequality and environmental justice and digital security. She has experiences in capacity-building, media training and communications and has worked with several local and international non-governmental organisations.


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