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Digital Carbon Footprint Awareness

Before reading this project, I recommend that you read “Social Media Habits.” It will provide context and a better understanding of the study that I will be discussing on this page.


After having read the recommended page above, you may wonder how many people are actually aware of the issue of digital carbon footprints. Who is aware of it? Would people actually try and act on addressing this issue? What motivates one to do so? What can we do, and how much are people willing to do regarding this issue?

An academic source called "Digital carbon footprint awareness among digital natives: an exploratory study" addresses exactly those questions. The research is conducted by members of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in the Department of Information Security and Communication Technology. The work in this paper explores “users’ awareness of their digital carbon footprint, their attitudes, perceived responsibility, and agency towards current as well as future use of digital services.” (Gnanasekaran et al. 3) Further research into these areas would provide information fundamental to figuring out what strategies to implement in order to promote awareness of the significance of digital carbon footprints.

In order to assess, the researchers conducted an experiment of 2 parts: semi-structured interviews and online surveys. This academic paper focuses on the first portion of the experiment. 21 interviewees were gathered, 11 female, 10 male, and all within the age range of 20-25 years. They are all students, but not all from within the same study. The interview questions focused on collected their responses to “the extent to which today’s digital natives are aware of their digital carbon footprint, what could motivate them to reduce the footprint, and what kind of compromises they might be willing to make in reducing it.” (Gnanasekaran et al. 4)

All of the responses were transcribed in the form of verbatim, and coded into four main categories.

  1. Digital awareness vs digital ignorance

  2. Motivation for opting pro-environmental measures

  3. Potential pro-environmental measures

  4. Challenges

The results and analysis were as follows.

In terms of digital awareness and ignorance, students who were pursuing their studies in the field of engineering, computer science, and other technical fields seemed to demonstrate a better understanding of the complex processes that the internet goes through. (Gnanasekaran et al. 6) In addition, those who harnessed an interest in gaming, which were 15 out of the 21 participants, demonstrated higher digital awareness as well. However, a 22 years old female student in the field of industrial design engineering quoted, “ “to be very honest, I did not think of this at all, and I assumed it did not matter because it does not seem like the TV or smart phones emit anything.”

Furthermore, they discovered few sub categories that fell under possible reasons behind digital ignorance. They were, lack of technical understanding, lack of public information, and lack of social awareness. A participant studying social economics noted that the invisible materiality of digital consumption and “her lack of understanding the underlying technical processes as an explanation of her lack of awareness.” (Gnanasekaran et al. 7) To add on, half of the participants noted that if they were more exposed and educated of the concept of digital carbon footprint, their awareness and willingness to take part in a more environmentally friendly digital behavior would have increased.

So what are some motivations being opting for pro-environmental measures? The exploratory study revealed that wanting to improve personal well-being, more so than the environment, was a common factor. A notable example of this would be a user of the internet limiting and decreasing their time on the web in order to ensure health. Another key factor is one’s hedonic use of the internet, which points to one’s awareness of social engagement. During the holiday period, many of the participants concurred that their tendencies of binge watching - hedonic use of the internet - and their social engagement has hence decreased. Therefore, one’s motivation to immerse themselves more in social activities could subconsciously make them a participant of taking pro-environmental measures.

Unlike any global issue, some challenges follow this as well. The two that are noted in the study is one’s unwillingness to claim self responsibility and one’s familiarity with the technology at hand. Majority of the interviewees pointed the finger at governmental institution and big external organizations for being at fault, and contend that they are responsible for taking action in addressing the environmental impact of digital services. Thus, denying or unaware of the fact that each an every member of the digital community is a contributor of environemtnal damages. In terms of familiarity with current technology, a very tangible example is one’s unwillingness to switch from using Spotify to any other streaming service. A 21 year old male participants studying musicology revealed that “now I feel like my Spotify has become very personalized after having it in 7-8 years. They present new music, based on my previous choices. So it would take a long time for another music provider to get to know me in the same way as Spotify.” (Gnanasekaran et al. 10) Personally, this feels like a very reasonable explanation behind why one may not want to stray from their current technology even if the swap could be more environmentally friendly.

So what are some pro-environmental measures that could be taken? The participants mentioned two measures that could reduce one’s digital carbon footprint.

The first is investing in more eco-friendly products, and the other is prioritizing content over quality. (Gnanasekaran et al. 9) Some participants stated that they would be open to using more environmentally friendly digital producers even with a monthly costs. Others revealed that there are eco-friendly search engines that does not come with a cost. An example provided was using a search engine called Ecosia. Through personal research, I found that Ecosia is a very simple extension that could be added to Google Chrome, and with your searches, plants trees, builds corridors, etc. to fight climate crisis. This would be a very simple and small lifestyle change that could help mitigate the damages of our digital carbon footprint.

The second measure that was mentioned was prioritizing content over quality. Around half of the interviewees mentioned that an unintentionally eco-friendly action that they took was lowering the quality of the content they are accessing in order to save battery, improve performance, and maximize storage space. (Gnanasekaran et al. 9)

It is without a double that the aforementioned strategies are very simple measures that could be taken by any member of the digital community.

From this, it is easy to conclude that there is a wide lack of digital carbon footprint awareness among students within the age frame of 20-25. Though this doesn’t directly address people of other age groups, students and people of the interviewees’ ages are the ones that are the most involved in the digital world. Hence, the fact that we must promote awareness of this matter is pertinent as even some of them were completely unaware of the weight of this issue. If members of the community begin to take eco-friendly measures one by one, the positive impact on the environment would add up to a very significant amount.

With this website and other resources noted in the “Resources” tab, I hope that we, as members of the digital age, become more environmentally and digitally aware citizens.

Works Cited

Gnanasekaran, Vahiny, et al. "Digital carbon footprint awareness among digital natives: an exploratory study." Norsk IKT-konferanse for forskning og utdanning. No. 1. 2021.

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