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Use of digital tools, digital skills and mental well-being

Key message
Estonian internet users aged 12 to 16 have satisfactory digital skills and mental well-being indicators compared with other European countries, while excessive internet use predicts lower levels of mental well-being in young people. The middle-aged and older population (aged 50 and over) tend to have problems with digital skills, while people with better digital skills feel less lonely and depressed. Although the factors affecting mental well-being are different in these two age groups, how and in what context digital skills are acquired is essential in both cases.

In the digital age, information technology tools and environments play an important role in everyday life – in learning, communicating, using services and elsewhere. This is why, in 2006, the European Parliament included digital competence among the eight key competences of the 21st century. A key competence is a combination of knowledge, skills and attitude that all people need to ensure success, self-realisation and personal development, active citizenship, social inclusion and employment. Therefore, digital competence is vital for all people, regardless of age.

Digital competence is the ability to use information and communication technology to benefit oneself and others in everyday life and reduce potential harm.Digital competence incorporates several digital skills, such as information management and data literacy, communication and collaboration, digital content creation, safety and problem-solving..

Problems with the use of digital tools, including a lack or low level of digital competence, are considered social deprivation. Social deprivation increases the risk of exclusion, which in turn affects mental health and wellbeing. Children, youth and older people are the most vulnerable. The relationships between digital competence and mental wellbeing manifest in different ways at different ages. These complex and indirect associations in children and youth have not been researched extensively. vidence shows that young people’s better digital skills are linked to their greater experience with online risks, but there are no links to online harm. Greater digital competence may reduce harm, as digitally competent young people are better able to cope with online risks (Haddon et al. 2020).

While technology is regarded as a stimulating environment for successful ageing, the rapid development of technology also creates psychological pressure in older people. Research reveals that the use of digital tools in older age improves the quality of life, subjective well-being and self-reported health. Older people are discouraged by their lack of digital competence(Tambaum 2021). When managing the digital environment becomes too much for older people, they tend to blame themselves and their age and feel they are of less value.

In this article, we look at the mental well-being and coping of two vulnerable groups – Estonians aged 12 to 16 and those older than 50 – in a rapidly changing digital environment and compare this with international results. We focus on the links between mental well-being and the use of digital tools and self-reported digital or computer skills.

Mental well-being of young Estonian internet users in the European contex

A network of researchers from more than 30 countries who aim to help children be safer and more aware of the internet EU Kids Online has studied the main trends in young people’s internet use in Europe, including Estonia. This article is based on data from the second round of the EU Kids Online survey,1 conducted mainly in 2018 in 19 European countries, among children aged 9 to 17 and their parents (N = 25,101). We look at 12-to-16-year-old internet users in our analysis, since in most countries only adolescents were surveyed about digital skills and mental wellbeing, and 17-year-olds were not included in some countries. For comparability, we included 16 countries (N = 12,018) with weighted data representative of the general population.

The EU Kids Online survey measured young people’s mental well-being on a scale of emotional problems consisting of four statements (‘I worry a lot’, ‘I am nervous in certain new situations; I easily lose confidence’, ‘I am often unhappy, sad or tearful’, ‘I have many fears and I am easily scared’; response scale 1 – not true for me … 4 – very true for me) and on a life satisfaction scale (‘Imagine that the top of the ladder “10” is the best possible life for you and the bottom “0” is the worst possible life for you. In general, where on the ladder do you feel you stand at the moment?’)

1 The EU Kids Online 2018 survey in Estonia was funded by the Estonian Internet Foundation, the Ministry of Education and Research (from the European Social Fund), the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Social Affairs, and the research projects PUT 44 (Estonian Research Council) and IUT 20-38 (Ministry of Education and Research). Turu-uuringute AS collected the data.

Safety of the digital environment and emotional problems

We assume that the digital environment, where young people operate every day, influences their mental wellbeing.

Young people who perceive the digital environment as safe have somewhat fewer emotional problems.

The EU Kids Online survey reveals that young people who perceive the digital environment as safe have somewhat fewer emotional problems (Pearsoni r = -0,11; p < 0,001). The same pattern is evident when comparing the average aggregate indicators of the countries (see Figure 4.1.1; Pearsoni r = -0,47; p = 0,07).

On the international comparison matrix (Figure 4.1.1) Estonia‘s young people have slightly fewer emotional problems than the average in the 16 European countries, but their perceived safety of the digital environment is significantly higher than the average in the 16 countries. Estonia is most similar to other countries in the Scandinavian and Baltic region – Lithuania and Norway.For example, only 3% of 12-to-16-year-olds in Estonia stated that they never feel safe on the internet, while more than 14% of young people in Romania, Italy and Switzerland agreed with that statement (Figure 4.1.2).

One in seven Estonian adolescents stated that they are often unhappy or tearful (Figure 4.1.2), which indicates a serious problem in their mental well-being. The average level of unhappiness was higher in eight countries and lower in seven. Thus, according to one of the main indicators and the aggregate feature consisting of four indicators presented Figure 4.1.1 Estonia falls within the average of the European countries studied in terms of the prevalence of emotional problems among young people.

Figure 4.1.1. Emotional problems and the perceived safety of the digital environment among 12-to-16-year-olds in European countries (averages of the scales; lines indicate the average of the sample)


#faili sisselugemine ja andmete formaadi korrigeerimine
J411=read.csv("PT4-T4.1-J4.1.1.csv",header=TRUE, encoding ="UTF-8")
names(J411)=gsub("\\.", " ", names(J411))

  geom_point(aes(x=`Emotsionaalsed probleemid`,y=`Digikeskkonna turvalisus`),cex=3,col="#FF3600")+
  geom_label(aes(x=`Emotsionaalsed probleemid`+0.02,y=`Digikeskkonna turvalisus`+0.04,label=Riik),cex=3,col="#668080",fontface="bold",alpha=0.5)+
  geom_abline(aes(slope=0, intercept=1.386875),col="#668080")+
  theme(text = element_text(color="#668080"),axis.text=element_text(color="#668080"))+
  xlab("Emotional problems")+
  ylab("Safety of the digital environment")

Source:figure by the authors, based on EU Kids Online data from 2018
Figure 4.1.2. Self-reported internet safety and emotional state of 12-to-16-year-old young people in European countries (percentage of those who agreed with the statement)