Benefits and Opportunities
1. Digital media facilitates social interaction and empowers people
Digital media connects people in ways never before possible, enabling users to maintain friendships across time and distance. It enables those who are socially isolated or somehow set apart from their immediate physical community to connect with like-minded or like-situated people. Digital media also facilitates interaction across social, economic, cultural, political, religious and ideological boundaries, allowing for enhanced understanding.
Many people access social media platforms to express empathy and receive support from friends and family, including in times of emotional distress. This enriches people’s relationships and their ability to stay in touch, and the ability of friends and family to identify and help loved ones in need. According to a 2015 survey by Pew Research Center, the use of social technology is linked to having a greater number of close confidants, as well as a larger, more diverse social circle. Another Pew survey showed that 57% of teens state they have made a new friend online, and 83% state that social media makes them feel more connected and informed about their friends’ lives.59
Social media can help to deepen relationships and facilitate the formation of support networks – 68% of teen social media users have received support on these platforms during tough times.
A study by Vaughan Bell and colleagues found that adolescents’ use of social networking sites enhances existing friendships and the quality of relationships for those who use digital social networks to deal with social challenges. Those who use online social networks to avoid social difficulties, however, tend to exhibit reduced well-being.60
By facilitating social interaction, digital media also appears to lower stress for at least some users. A separate Pew Research Center survey in 2015 of 1,801 American adults concluded that digital media users do not have higher levels of stress than others.61 This makes sense, especially for those who perform knowledge work and are aided by the greater access that digital media provides to colleagues and information. Moreover, Pew researchers found that digital media actually mitigated stress for women who use Twitter, email and cell phone picture sharing to build relationships.62 The same study did find, however, that digital media makes some people more aware of stressful events in others’ lives, resulting in higher reported levels of tension. (Other findings on the negative impact of digital media consumption on stress are discussed later in this report.)
2. Digital media gives people a voice, increases civic participation and facilitates the creation of communities
While traditional media has long been central to informing the public and focusing public attention on particular subjects, digital media is helping to amplify the response to humanitarian crises and to support those afflicted by these crises. During the Arab Spring of 2011-2012, digital media served as a vehicle to mobilize resources, organize protests and draw global attention to the events.6364 Through digital media, users around the world collected $2 million in just two days for victims of the Nepal earthquake of 2015.65 Refugees fleeing the war in Syria have cited Google Maps and Facebook groups as sources of information that helped them to not only plan travel routes but to also avoid human traffickers.66
Digital media has also enhanced information sharing across the world, giving people much greater access to facts, figures, statistics, and similar, allowing that information to circulate much faster. This not only enables people to respond in real time as events unfold, but also helps to expose political corruption and unfair business practices. For example, when a pharmaceutical company made plans to raise the price of a particular drug by more than 5,000%, outrage spread quickly through digital media, forcing the company to reverse direction.67
Digital media is also allowing people around the world to build communities, organize action and make their voices heard on a multitude of issues. Through online petitions and charities, people across the cybersphere can act on causes about which they care. Change.org, which helps individuals to start petitions and advance their causes, has enabled more than 123 million users to attain their own goals on almost 15,000 issues in 196 countries, according to its website.68 Avaaz.org is another example of a platform with the goal of enabling people to take action on pressing global, regional and national issues, from corruption and poverty to conflict and climate change.69 Through the site Witness.org, thousands of activists and citizens around the world have been trained and supported to use video safely, ethically and effectively to expose human-rights abuses and fight for change.70 For refugees currently coming to Europe, websites and applications such as refugees-welcome.net, refugee-action.org.uk and workeer.de are helping coordination of action among people who are physically dispersed.
Similarly, digital media is helping people to support chosen causes financially. According to a report by Blackbaud, a non-profit software and services provider, online giving is growing, particularly in response to humanitarian disasters.71 Websites such as #GivingTuesday, YouCaring.com, JustGiving.com and DonorsChoose.com are funnelling donations from millions of donors to the causes of their choice. Of course, the ease with which individuals and organizations can build and disseminate communications on different issues and crises also creates the risk of weakening long-term support as users are bombarded with information or requests for help on more issues than they can handle. Additionally, an instrument for a good cause can also be used for a bad one (see discussion on downsides and risks later in the report).
Studies examining the impact of digital media on civic engagement have had mixed findings. Exploring the effects of social networking sites on offline behaviour, a 2015 meta-study by Shelley Boulianne of Grant MacEwan University in Canada found that while the correlation between the use of social networking sites and election-campaign participation is weak, the relationship with civic engagement is stronger. 72 However, research indicates that messages on social media can significantly influence voting patterns. A study of the impact of certain messages posted on Facebook and promoted by friends on Election Day during the 2010 elections in the USA “increased turnout directly by about 60,000 voters and indirectly by another 280,000 voters through social contagion, for a total of 340,000 additional votes”.73 This suggests that online political mobilization works, but it raises the issue of potential manipulation of digital media users and their political action, even when considering that digital media platforms give the opportunity to identify and challenge instances of manipulation.
This report’s research into the impact of digital media on civic participation also reveals mixed findings. While a majority of respondents to the Implications of Digital Media Survey in China and Brazil say that digital media has had an overall positive effect on their civic participation, a less-robust percentage of respondents in South Africa, and even smaller percentages in the USA and Germany say this is so (Table 16).
Similarly, respondents in Brazil (47%) and China (36%) are more likely to have taken action on a political or social issue because of something read on a social networking site, than are respondents from South Africa (22%), Germany (25%) or the USA (12%) (Table 17). Across the five countries, about one out of five respondents uses social networking sites to share political information or encourage action on political issues a few times per week (Table 18).
3. Digital media is changing how work gets done, boosting productivity and enhancing flexibility for workers and employers
Digitization of content and data, as well as new digital communication technologies, have opened up novel opportunities for where, when, how and by whom work gets done. This is changing the nature of the employment relationship. Many jobs now can be done anywhere, at any time, facilitated by the availability of digital data, high speed internet, and better messaging, audio and video technology.
“We see job opportunities in the freelance and “gig” economies in roles that you wouldn’t have been able to previously see 15-20 years ago – anything from marketing to executive roles to medical.”
Sara Sutton Fell, flexjobs.com
A Pew Research Center study of American adults in 2014 found that among full- and part-time workers, 21% work outside their workplace every day or almost every day, and 59% does that at least occasionally.74
Digitization is a major enabler of this trend, with one-half reporting that the internet and mobile are “very important” to allowing them to do their job remotely, and another 24% saying that these tools are “somewhat important”.
This same study also found that 46% of employed internet users feel their productivity has increased because of their use of the internet, email and mobile or smartphones; only 7% feel less productive. Half of internet-using workers say these technologies have expanded the number of people outside their company with whom they communicate; 39% state it allows them more flexibility in the hours they work; and 35% say it has increased the number of hours they work.
These findings echo results from the Implications of Digital Media Survey, in which respondents rate digital media as having an even bigger positive effect on their work lives than on their private or public lives, with particular benefits to their ability to find work, do work, develop professionally and collaborate with colleagues (Table 19).
Although social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn were not identified as important tools for online workers in the 2014 Pew Research Center study, professional communication and collaboration platforms have high future potential. For example, the Royal Bank of Scotland recently introduced “Facebook at Work” to “encourage collaboration and allow employees to communicate faster and more efficiently” as it stimulates non-hierarchical communication and discussion.75
Slack, one of the most highly valued start-ups in recent times, with currently 1.7 million daily active users, exemplifies how virtually all knowledge, information and data related to work can be managed within one platform. Its users claim to have cut email volume by almost half, improved transparency and offline culture significantly, and increased overall productivity by one-third.76
Workers demand the same usability and features of their private communication tools for their professional ones.
The Implications of Digital Media Survey results mirror these findings: almost 70% of participants agree that the use of digital media for work-related purposes has already grown significantly and that it will continue to do so in the future (Table 20).
The changes in work that digitization and digital media have facilitated bring several advantages for workers, employers and society at large. Beyond enhanced productivity, the greater flexibility afforded by digital media allows for better work-life integration – a critical element in enabling workers to effectively juggle multiple roles as workers and caregivers. On a larger scale, higher work flexibility is helping to equalize and globalize work opportunities for people living in remote areas, those who are less mobile, or living in countries with less developed or struggling economies.
Organizations can and should use digital media to communicate and engage with employees. Social enterprise tools are well suited for developing community within a company. Yet only 56% of employers use digital media to communicate with employees on topics such as organizational culture, team building or innovation, a Willis Towers Watson study found.77
Managers, still one of the most important drivers of sustainable employee engagement, should be enabled to use social business and collaboration tools to intensify employee productivity and engagement.
Talent platforms, like Upwork, Topcoder and Tongal, are facilitating the placement of free agents with companies, and giving them additional options for getting work done. In the emerging “gig economy”, workers might no longer hold full-time jobs with fixed job descriptions, but could be employed for particular tasks for a defined period of time.
Even as digitization enables the greater democratization of work, it also places a premium on certain types of work (particularly those involved in the development, manipulation and leverage of technology and data). A McKinsey & Company study suggests that employers worldwide face a potential shortage of 38-40 million skilled workers and a potential surplus of 90-95 million low-skill workers by 2020.78
These “friction points” give rise to new ways of accessing talent and getting work done. In 2011, more than 22% of the global workforce could be classified as contingent (i.e. not employees in the traditional sense).79 In 2014, one in three Americans in the workforce was freelance, according to a recent survey by Freelancers Union.80 Moreover, according to Workforce 2020, a global study by Oxford Economics and SAP, one finding (which allows multiple choices) shows that an impressive 83% of company-respondents use: contingent workers (41%, i.e. independent contractors, part-timers, or temporary or leased employees), consultants (34%), intermittent employees (35%) or interns (40%).81
This represents real change for employers as well as workers, permitting work and talent to flow in and out of organizations, boosting agility, productivity and competitiveness. As more work moves outside the traditional employment relationship, organizations inevitably will need to become more flexible, collaborative, interlinked and permeable to allow tasks to be accomplished by the most capable talent – whether this be a full- or part-time employee, a freelancer or an employee of an outsourcer.
“Work has gone from being largely aggregated into jobs to increasingly being dispersed outside the organization. Talent is moving in and out of organizations much more freely.”
Ravin Jesuthasan, Willis Towers Watson
Such a shift has implications for the broader society. A recent analysis by McKinsey & Company suggests that talent platforms like those mentioned above could boost global gross domestic product (GDP) by $2.7 trillion by 2025 (Figure 12). The highest share of the gain would come from greater labour-force participation of currently inactive people and more hours for part-timers. The rest of the gain would result from higher employment due to more and faster job matches and higher productivity as a result of better matches, all achieved through online talent platforms.82
4. Digital media can facilitate education and life-long learning to build and source the skills of the future
The World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Education project identifies critical skills for the 21st century, and explores ways to address any gaps through digital platforms.84 The labour market increasingly demands higher-order skills, i.e. non-routine analytical and interpersonal skills. Literacy in information and communications technology, and competencies such as creative problem-solving and collaboration are among the most important. In addition, character qualities such as adaptability, and social and cultural awareness need to be developed. Building digital skills from an early age provides opportunities to successfully navigate life, improve employability and participate in society – which can help make the world a better, more equal place. Increased use of digital media is helping this process.
“I’m a big believer that we absolutely need technical literacy across all ages. And that starts with our education system. We don’t need everybody to become a computer scientist, but we need everybody to understand the computational systems that are shaping their lives.”
danah boyd, Data & Society Research Institute/Microsoft Research
Employees need to be more flexible to adapt to changing requirements and continuously learn and develop new skills. Global Talent 2021, a study by Oxford Economics in collaboration with Willis Towers Watson, among others, identified digital skills, agile thinking skills, interpersonal and communication skills, and global operating skills as the most important competencies for the future.85
Digital leadership (enabling execution of the digital strategy) based on digital acumen is essential. Managers and leaders need the right knowledge and skills to recognize and anticipate digital trends, understand implications for business and leverage technology to stay abreast. However, only 19% of leaders are viewed as strong in digital leadership and management, a Harvard Business Review study published in 2015 found, so a need exists to develop such skills.86
Digital media and technology can help to close skill gaps by supporting teaching and self-education. Learning resources can be made available to a broader audience at lower cost and higher quality. Digital media can be used to facilitate life-long learning, e.g. through embedding learning technology in widely used platforms or using digital media for communication (e.g. teaching, mentoring and coaching) between students and educators. Digital media also is increasingly used for attracting and sourcing talent, especially young, digitally savvy workers. Diverse cross-industry talent pools might be another way to meet the need for new skills while offering growth opportunities to employees.87