Previous research showed the positive impact of social capital measured as trust, social and political activism, and the frequency of communication via information channels on life satisfaction. The usage of new technologies brings changes in human communications and connections. At the same time, the recent massive digitalization of social life questions happiness sustainability. This research highlights the moderation effect of digital development at the national level on the association of social capital and subjective well-being at individual level. With the help of multilevel modeling based on the latest wave of World Value Survey data for 2017–2020, we test how the Internet, mobile phone and social media penetration in a given country moderate the link between subjective well-being of individuals and their social capital measured as trust, confidence in institutions, social and political activism, and frequency of usage of information channels. The results demonstrated a significantly important role of the new technologies for individual happiness and life satisfaction. Thus, for example, the higher number of social media users in a given country improves membership opportunities, which positively contributes to individual happiness.
Empirical findings and discussion
For the last decade, the speed of technology and communication growth has been volatile. The massive use of digital technology has transformed individual and social values and attitudes, affecting subjective well-being of individuals. Notably, it has caused digital divides involving all aspects of community life in economic, political, cultural and social arenas (Ragnedda, 2018).
There is empirical evidence that digitalization — understood as “the adoption or increase in the use of digital or computer technology by an organization, industry, country, individuals etc.” (Brennen and Kreiss, 2016) — decreases unemployment, enhances the quality of life and raises citizens’ access to public services (Parviainen, et al., 2017). Moreover, previous research showed that digitalization broadens and enlarges social capital (Mandarano, et al., 2010; Meier and Reinecke, 2020; Villanueva-Mansilla, et al., 2015). Social capital positively associates with happiness and life satisfaction in society (Amati, et al., 2018; Leung, et al., 2011; Sarracino, 2013). Since innovations and new technologies are actively becoming part of our lives, it is important to understand whether societies will be able to keep happiness sustainable under further digitalization.
The goal of this study is to explore to what extent social capital indicators, moderated by digitalization at the national level, can affect subjective well-being (SWB) at the individual level. In other words, this article aims to answer the following research questions: 1) How much do countries differ in individual subjective well-being in regard with digitalization indicators? 2) Does Internet coverage, social media usage and mobile phone penetration moderate the effects of social capital on happiness and life satisfaction?
The multilevel modelling based on the World Value Survey (WVS) data 2017–2020 (Inglehart, et al., 2020) was applied to provide empirical evidence on how digitalization at the national level moderates an association between social capital and life satisfaction at an individual level. The digitalization country-level predictors were extracted from the Digital Report 2020 (percentage of Internet users, percentage of active social media users and percentage of mobile phone users) and added to the World Value Survey individual data (via country codes). The details of the research methodology are provided after the literature review. Moderation effects are discussed in the results section, followed by conclusions of the study.
Subjective well-being, social capital and digitalization of societies
The subjective well-being (SWB) construct has been actively studied across individuals, social groups and countries to determine a set of factors that may explain variance in happiness and life satisfaction. SWB is now often used as a typical measure to evaluate the state of a society in terms of quality of life (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2013). We follow the OECD SWB measurement recommendations (OECD, 2013) and consider its two components: a more static life satisfaction indicator and a more dynamic self-reported happiness evaluation.
Life satisfaction is a more cognitive evaluation of personal well-being and reflects an individual’s satisfaction with the objective characteristics of his or her life (Haller and Hadler, 2006; Valenzuela, et al., 2009), in answer to a question like “How satisfied are you with your life in general?”. Happiness refers mainly to a person’s emotional state and is usually asked with a question, “Taking all things together, how happy are you now?”. In this study, subjective well-being includes both happiness, reflecting more short-term feelings, and life satisfaction, associated with longer periods; both were taken as dependent variables. In line with Inglehart and Baker (2000), Welzel (2013) and Brulé and Maggino (2017), the SWB index was also used to combine these two dimensions harmonically.
Social capital is one of the main predictors of subjective well-being (Helliwell and Wang, 2014; Leung, et al., 2011; Doğan, 2016). The latest studies demonstrated that social capital correlates with subjective well-being stronger than even with economic growth (Sarracino and Mikucka, 2017). While social capital has many different conceptual interpretations in the literature (Glanville and Bienenstock, 2009; Antheunis, et al., 2015), the main idea could be reduced to communication, interaction and trust in the society (Mandarano, et al., 2010). From the micro-level perspective, social capital is regarded as “the instrumental and socio-emotional benefits of social interactions for individuals,” and from “the meso- and macro-level conceptualizations,” it is related to “community involvement, political participation, and general trust” (Halpern, 2005).
This paper is in line with previous studies (Coleman, 1988; Furstenberg, 2005; Paxton, 1999; Leung, et al., 2011) to analyse social capital influence on SWB from three perspectives, suggesting three major forms of social capital: (a) trust and obligations; (b) information channels; and (c) norms and sanctions.
Trust is an essential predictor of life satisfaction. Those who feel themselves to be living in a trustworthy environment have much higher levels of subjective well-being (Helliwell and Wang, 2011; van der Horst and Coffè, 2012). Trust can be represented as social trust (trust in family members, neighbours and strangers) and institutional trust (confidence in the police, the health care system, banks and businesses) (Leung, et al., 2011). Trust measured as confidence in police and banks was found to be a highly significant predictor of happiness (Helliwell and Wang, 2011; Leung, et al., 2011). Likewise, confidence in the judicial system is a highly significant determinant of subjective well-being (Boarini, et al., 2012). Thus, trust and confidence in authorities (army, police, courts, government) as well as confidence in the press were considered as a measures of social capital in this empirical analysis, in line with recent research (Helliwell and Wang, 2011; Deaton, 2008; Leung, et al., 2011; Boarini, et al., 2012).
Digitalization and new advanced technologies proved to improve the level of services provided by institutions, which increased institutional trust (Castellacci and Tveito, 2018; Lissitsa and Chachashvili-Bolotin, 2016; Guillen-Royo, 2019). Social trust also increased in society with the growth of the Internet and social media usage (Valenzuela, et al., 2009; Pénard, et al., 2013; Arampatzi, et al., 2018). Hence, we expect 1) to disclose the impact of trust and confidence in authorities on subjective well-being (H1a); and 2) to discover the moderating effect of digitalization in the society on the relationship between trust/confidence in authorities and subjective well-being (H2a.).
Coleman (1988) suggested that information channels involve people socializing to gain more information. Based on that, previous studies measured information channels as 1) — social relationships through contacts with family and friends; 2) — civic engagement or political participation; and 3) — membership in voluntary organizations (e.g., Bjørnskov, 2007; Putnam, 2000; Lelkes, 2006; Powdthavee, 2008, in Leung, et al., 2011). According to Doğan (2016), access to more information via social media can indirectly provide communication and socialization that reduce depression. The acquisition of information that is not available to their group can help enrich one’s understanding and adaptability, leading to improvements in personal well-being (Wang, et al., 2015). Notably, weak ties are an excellent source of information acquisition, e.g., to obtain beneficial information through public disclosures on social media (using wall posts), while strong ties can offer both informational and emotional support (Kramer, et al., 2014; Vitak and Ellison, 2013; Hwang, et al., 2019).
These previous findings serve as a ground to hypothesize that frequent usage of the Internet and social media as a primary source for information will improve subjective well-being (H1b). Moreover, this association will be stronger in countries with a higher level of Internet and social media usage (H2b).
As for political participation and civic engagement or activism, some studies showed that political participation is negatively associated with happiness (Leung, et al., 2011) while civic engagement has no significant relationship with happiness (Leung, et al., 2011). Following Sarracino (2013), we assume that community engagement or membership in different social/religious/sport/recreational organizations, as well as participation in charity, political and professional voluntary organizations, affect subjective well-being (H1c). One can expect that digitalization of society will bring more opportunities for different community and social engagements that would stimulate people to interact more and improve their subjective well-being (H2c).
ICT and subjective well-being: Results from the previous studies
Despite the incredible spread of Internet technologies, there is still limited knowledge about their effects on well-being (Castellacci and Tveito, 2018). Existing studies on SWB have mainly focused on GDP or economic growth as macro-level predictors (Sarracino, 2013; Mikucka, et al., 2017; Powdthavee, et al., 2013). Not many investigations have treated the impact of the digital divide and usage of ICT on individual well-being (Kavetsos and Koutroumpis, 2011; Graham and Nikolova, 2013; Pénard, et al., 2013; Ganju, et al., 2016). According to Vanden Abeele (2020), though, “the choice for a particular device, app or app setting is often personally motivated” , digital experience may have a long-lasting effect and may directly and indirectly relate to digital well-being.
Table 1 summarizes recent research results on the Internet, mobile phone and social media usage and individual happiness and life satisfaction. Generally, technology access is positively associated with subjective well-being (Kavetsos and Koutroumpis, 2011; Graham and Nikolova, 2013; Ganju, et al., 2016; Hong and Chang, 2020). Notably, users in high mobile and Internet penetration countries report higher levels of life satisfaction (Kavetsos and Koutroumpis, 2011). Likewise, online activities such as instant messaging, using e-mail, online entertainment and online shopping have a significant positive impact on subjective well-being (Pénard, et al., 2013; Lissitsa and Chachashvili-Bolotin, 2016; Arampatzi, et al., 2018; Guillen-Royo, 2019; Hong and Chang, 2020; Castellacci and Schwabe, 2020). Furthermore, social media use and specifically the intensity of Facebook usage improves life satisfaction (Valenzuela, et al., 2009; Graham and Nikolova, 2013; Doğan, 2016; Gerson, et al., 2016; Hwang, et al., 2019; Phu and Gow, 2019). Moreover, Internet skills indirectly have very strong and positive effects on social well-being (Buchi, et al., 2019).
At the same time, a few studies demonstrated negative correlation or no effect at all between subjective well-being and mobile phone usage and Internet usage (SNS activities) (Aarts, et al., 2015; Chan, 2015; Buchi, et al., 2019; Arampatzi, et al., 2018). Likewise, permanent online connection through mobile phone use did not affect subjective well-being (Lin, 2019). Moreover, the misuse (addiction to or dependence on) of social media or game playing may be associated with lower life satisfaction (Lissitsa and Chachashvili-Bolotin, 2016).
Internet usage helps to expand social capital (Rainie and Wellman, 2012) and facilitate new engagement pathways (Hargittai and Shaw, 2013). Likewise, mobile communication technologies influence online as well as off-line social actions (Vanden Abeele, De Wolf et al., 2018). For example, mobile phones are used “not only as a tool for utility functions (clocks or alarms) but also for the continuous connection” to the Internet and with other users .
Social media usage helps people to enlarge social capital and social support (Gergen 2002; Conroy, et al., 2012; Antheunis, et al., 2015; Meier and Reinecke, 2020). Recent studies found that digital capital emerges to be a significant predictor of online regular social activities. For example, during the coronavirus outbreak, the Internet was highly used to access information and participate politically (Ruiu and Ragnedda, 2020). Moreover, Facebook intensity measures are strongly associated with social capital and this association is more significant than those between social capital and frequency of usage or time spent on Facebook (Vanden Abeele, Antheunis et al., 2018; Meier and Reinecke, 2020).
In line with Hwang, et al., (2019), we claim that social media usage, Internet access and mobile phone usage are significant moderators of the relationship between social capital and subjective well-being. The empirical analysis below estimates the moderating effect of country-level digitalization indicators on individual subjective well-being via individual social capital indicators. The conceptual framework for the models is described in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Conceptual framework.
To explore the moderation effects of national digitalization on individual social capital indicators and subjective well-being, the World Value Survey (WVS) data for 2017–2020 was used (Haerpfer, et al., 2020). This data covers 78 countries with representative samples of about 1,200–2,500 respondents per country. The hierarchical structure of the data (individuals nested in countries) requires multilevel regression modeling as an estimation method (Hox, et al., 2018).
The primary outcome variable in the analysis is the subjective well-being measured as happiness, life satisfaction and the SWB index. These measures of SWB were widely used in previous studies (Inglehart and Baker, 2000; Delhey, 2010; Welzel, 2013; Foa, et al., 2018). Both happiness (reversed coded question “How happy are you?” 1 — very unhappy, 4 — very happy) and life satisfaction (“How much are you satisfied with your life?” 1 — extremely dissatisfied, 10 — extremely satisfied) variables were rescaled from zero to one using the formula: (Xi-Xmin)/(Xmax-Xmin) (Welzel, 2013). SWB index = happiness * life satisfaction, which also ranges from zero to one (Welzel, 2013). Multilevel mixed effects linear regression (random slopes, random intercept) was applied.
Following Sarracino (2010), Leung, et al. (2011), Sarracino and Mikucka (2017, 2016) and Amati, et al., (2018), the main independent predictor — social capital — was identified through: 1) trust (in people in general, family and neighborhood) and confidence in institutions (confidence in police, army, government, courts, press); 2) group memberships, social and political activism indices; and 3) frequency of using information channels. Hence, three separate sets of models were estimated to test three hypotheses with three SWB dependent variables each. Questions on social activism, political activism, groups and association memberships, confidence in government, confidence in press as well as on main information sources were asked not in all countries, which reduced the number of countries in the sample.
The moderating effects of digitalization was tested via interactions of country-level digitalization indicators and individual-level social capital indicators. Three national digitalization indicators, such as 1) percentage of the population actively using the Internet; 2) percentage of the population actively using social media; and 3) percentage of mobile users, were added to the individual data file of WVS from the Digital Report 2020 for each country. We merged country-level information with individual-level variables via country codes, so that we received one data set with both macro-level and individual level indicators.
Previous studies demonstrated that SWB depends on factors as sex, marital status (Deaton, 2008; Sarracino, 2013), income (Alesina, et al., 2004; Blanchflower, 2009; Deaton, 2008; Easterlin, 2001), age (Alesina, et al., 2004; Blanchflower, 2009; Deaton, 2008; Easterlin, 2001; Sarracino, 2013), and education (Ferrer-i-Carbonell, 2005), health (Helliwell and Putnam, 2004; Jebb, Tay, Diener, et al., 2018), employment status (Sarracino, 2013; Karabchuk and Soboleva, 2020), national pride (Foa, et al., 2018), and freedom of choice (Jebb, Tay, Diener et al., 2018). Thus, we take these variables as controls in our models. The complete list of all the variables included in the multilevel regression models is presented in Table 2. The summary statistics for each of the variables could be found in the Appendix.
We tested two specifications for each dependent variable — without and with interaction effects between country-level digitalization indicators and social capital indicators one by one (see Tables 5–7). All estimations were done in the Stata package (xtmixed).
Empirical findings and discussion
Previous studies based on the World Values Survey data concluded that, on average, high-income countries are happier than low-income countries (Deaton, 2008; Boarini, et al., 2012; Sarracino, 2013). Cultural factors have an impact on the average self-reported life satisfaction levels in different countries. It is often noted that east Asian countries tend to report a lower level of life satisfaction than might otherwise be expected, while Latin American countries report a higher level of life satisfaction (Diener, et al., 2000; Boarini, et al., 2012).
Despite all of the cross-national differences in happiness and life satisfaction levels, the indicators increased in value over the last two decades. By 2020, many countries had less than 10 percent who reported themselves to be unhappy (Table 3). This increase in well-being was mainly due to innovations and improvements in information and communication technologies (Castellacci and Tveito, 2018; Guillen-Royo, 2019; Vanden Abeele, 2020). Low-income countries and less developed economies managed to improve their levels of subjective well-being via intensive usage of the Internet and mobile phones (Ganju, et al., 2016). Such positive correlation between digitalization and well-being was revealed in low-income sub-Saharan Africa (Graham and Nikolova, 2013).
According to the Digital Report 2020, the percentage of mobile phone users exceeds 100 percent in most of the countries in our analysis, meaning that on average each person possesses more than one mobile phone (Table 3). The share of active Internet users is on average 78 percent of the population across the 74 countries; the percentage of social media users varies much more (Table 3).
The growth of mobile phone usage and Internet penetration increased the frequency of usage of social media and the Internet in daily life. The frequency distributions of daily usage of the Internet as well as mobile and social media as primary sources of information, started reaching or even exceeding traditional usage of television and newspapers in many countries (Table 4). For example, in China, Ethiopia, Nigeria and the U.S. most of the population use, on a daily basis, their mobiles, social media and Internet more than newspapers and television to search for news and information. However, television news remains a dominant source of information in many countries.
TThe results of multilevel analysis allowed us to test the hypotheses on the moderation effects of digitalization on society at the national level on the relationship between social capital and subjective well-being at the individual level. The next three tables reflect the models we tested for each of three social capital concepts (trust and confidence in social institutions, social and political activism and information channels). The set of control variables at the individual level and country-level variables were same in all three models, the main independent variable-concepts of social capital were changing. Since questions on social capital, such as information channels or online political activism, were asked not in all 74 countries, it reduced the country sample size (which does not limit the analysis since we are not comparing the three sets of models between each other, but testing the moderation effect of digitalization indicators separately for three social capital concepts).
First, the outcomes allowed us to state that social capital and subjective well-being were associated at the individual level, which had been widely highlighted in the literature. Following previous studies (Leung, et al., 2011), multilevel modeling disclosed a positive correlation between general trust and SWB (Table 5). Confidence in institutions appeared to be even more significant and important for individual subjective well-being. The trustworthy environment has proven to be a highly influential factor in previous research (Helliwell and Wang, 2011).
In line with Sarracino (2013), the findings illustrated that memberships in various groups and organizations associate with higher scores of self-rated happiness and life satisfaction (Table 6, specification 1,3,5). At the same time, individuals who were heavily involved in political actions online tended to declare lower levels of life satisfaction (Table 5). Interestingly, this result differs from previous findings of Sarracino (2013) and Valenzuela, et al. (2009), who associated political participation with higher self-reported rates of life satisfaction. That could be due to changes in the questions as in this WVS wave questions were asked about political activities online.
Usage of television and talks with friends for information made everyone happier (Table 6). Similar findings were highlighted in the literature (Amati, et al., 2018; Sarracino, 2013). Daily usage of social media as a primary information source slightly decreased life satisfaction, while usage of e-mail made people happier (Table 7, specifications 1,3,5).
The results of the specifications 1,3,5 in Tables 5, 6, 7 (without interaction terms), that were testing the direct effect of national digitalization indicators, disclosed a sustainable significant positive relationship between social media coverage and subjective well-being (Table 5). In other words, in countries with a higher number of social media users, people reported a higher level of happiness and life satisfaction. In line with previous studies (Kim, et al., 2009), we found that the percentage of Internet users as well as the percentage of mobile users in countries did not directly associate with individual subjective well-being.
The interaction terms in all three models speak to the moderating effect of national digitalization in countries on the association between social capital and subjective well-being. The growing percentage of active Internet users in a country corresponds to higher general trust and SWB (Table 5). At the same time Internet penetration might diminish confidence in authorities which was still positively associated with subjective well-being. The higher number of mobile phone owners in the country also added to confidence in authorities and improved SWB, which contributed to hypothesis H2a.
Important findings should be declared in relation to the information channels and digitalisation indicators (H2b): social media coverage significantly correlated with individual SWB (Table 6). Higher mobile phone penetration associated with negative impact on SWB via easier access to e-mail. It might be interpreted as having constant access to e-mail through massive use of mobile phones was negatively associated with SWB. The opposite effect of mobile phone usage was delivered with 24/7 access to the Internet as an information channel. In countries with high rates of mobile phone usage, there was a positive impact of Internet use on individual life satisfaction.
Significant interaction terms with membership index contributed to hypothesis H2c: indeed, an increase of social media usage corresponded with higher happiness scores via individual inclusion in a variety of clubs, groups and organizations (Table 7). It should be noted that the size of the effects was small. Unexpectedly, in countries with higher numbers of social media users, political activism was negatively associated with life satisfaction. There was no significant moderating effect from mobile phone penetration and Internet coverage at the country level.
Future consequences should be discussed under the conditions of further digitalization within societies. Does it really bring constant and sustainable happiness? At first sight, the answer would be definitely “Yes,” as previous research provided clear evidence that usage of the Internet, mobile phones and social media increased subjective well-being (Castellacci and Tveito, 2018; Lissitsa and Chachashvili-Bolotin, 2016; Guillen-Royo, 2019; Gerson, et al., 2016). Further digitalization would contribute to the sustainability of happiness and life satisfaction in the future. At the same time, looking at this issue more precisely generates some concerns.
For instance, overwhelming digitalization of everyday life raises privacy questions and personal security, which directly links to individual happiness and well-being. In this respect, it is vital to analyse public opinion if governments have the right to monitor e-mail and Internet usage, collect information about individuals without their knowledge or keep people under surveillance in public places.
Table 8 analyses answers to these questions in different countries. The percentage of those who answered that the government should not have the right to 1) collect information about everyone without their knowledge; 2) keep people under surveillance in public places; and 3) monitor e-mail and the Internet, was calculated.
Thus, in China and Jordan only one-fifth of the population thought that the government should not have the right to collect information about everyone without their knowledge. In Germany, Romania, Andorra, Mexico, Brazil and other countries about two-thirds of those surveyed definitely disagreed with this notion. A tolerance to video surveillance in public places was much higher than monitoring e-mail.
This example of considerable differences in public opinion to the inevitable presence of technology and control in everyday life speaks to the complexity of digitalization and well-being.
This article examined the moderating effect of digitalization in a given country on the association between individual subjective well-being and social capital, measured as trust and confidence in institutions, social and political activism and information channels. The recent wave of 2017–2020 of WVS data was used for empirical analysis. Country-level digitalization indicators were taken from the Digital Report 2020.
One of the key findings was that the spread of social media usage in a country has a direct positive effect on both happiness and life satisfaction of individuals living in that country. The influence of the Internet and mobile phone penetration at the country level on individual SWB was not consistently significant.
Applied multilevel models confirmed significant moderating effects of digitalization in societies on general trust, confidence in authorities, membership in different organizations, political activism, usage of the Internet and e-mail as information channels, on the one hand, and the happiness and life satisfaction on the other.
More specifically the study disclosed that increased usage of the latest information and communication technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones facilitated a positive linkage between confidence in authorities and subjective well-being. It might be explained through the development of online services which increased confidence in government, courts and police, improving happiness and life satisfaction of individuals in a country. This outcome might be of particular importance for policy-making.
The higher percentage of social media users facilitated social engagement into different groups, clubs and organizations, which associated with higher scores of self-reported happiness in a country. The unexpected result was discovered for political activism, which negatively related to SWB, and this effect was higher for countries with a larger number of social media users. Social media facilitated this negative correlation between being politically active and unhappy. These results might be of particular interest for governments in terms of youth policies and civic engagement in society. At the same time it is important to note that we were not tackling the issue of endogeneity or causality, we only addressed an association between political activism and SWB.
Finally, mobile phone penetration in the country provided easy access to the Internet as information channel that correlated with higher scores of individual SWB. At the same time, access to e-mail on mobile phones seemed to decrease individual happiness levels in society.
The findings of this study could contribute to policy-making in terms of prioritizing national well-being and digitalization policies of countries. Digitalization improved subjective well-being; this result could be used by policy-makers to make societies more sustainable and cohesive.
Further research on age group differences in social capital and subjective well-being under national digitalization would be essential. We know that the effects of Internet use on subjective well-being vary significantly with age; moreover, life satisfaction decreases over time faster for Internet users than non-users (Castellacci and Schwabe, 2020). The analysis of SWB in respect to social capital and national digitalization across different age groups could account for important targeted social policies and sustainable development of national well-being within population groups.
About the authors
Tatiana Karabchuk is associate professor of economic sociology, Department of Government and Society, CHSS, UAE University. Research interests include cross-national comparative surveys, studies in the labour market, social media, youth employment, family and fertility, values and gender equality attitudes, happiness and subjective well-being, post-Soviet countries’ and Gulf countries.
E-mail: tkarabchuk [at] uaeu [dot] ac [dot] ae
ORCID ID: 0000-0001-5794-0421
Aizhan Shomotova is a Ph.D. candidate in leadership and policy studies in Education at College of Education (CEDU), UAE University. Research interests focus on higher education, education leadership, student development, sociology, parenting and family, social media, youth employment, career development, well-being and happiness, digitalization, digital capital, post-soviet countries, Central Asia and Middle East.
E-mail: aizhanshom [at] gmail [dot] com, 201990089 [at] uaeu [dot] ac [dot] ae
ORCID ID: www.orcid.org/0000-0002-1168-9224
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Received 10 September 2021; accepted 8 October 2021.
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Digitization, social capital, and subjective well-being across the globe
by Tatiana Karabchuk and Aizhan Shomotova.
First Monday, Volume 26, Number 11 - 1 November 2021