Online Digital Screen Engagement and the Perception of Public and Private Spheres

The potential of contemporary digital screen engagement generates a multitude of reactions and responses. Most are placed on online and digital media platforms’ ability to restrict and empower people concurrently as they interact in public and private spheres. The public sphere implies a realm of an individual’s social life in which anything relating to public opinion is formed. On the other hand, the private sphere refers to one’s social life, unrestricted by other institutions, the public, or the government (Dagoula, 2017). Therefore, the internet, which acts as the operative medium for converging and sustaining multiple technologies, can become an asset or a detriment to the public and private spheres, depending on the application. The internet in these spheres functions as a tool and may not possess the agency to effect a social change. However, on the one hand, people have divergent levels of the agency, upon which they may apply the internet to varying ends, gratifications, and effects (Papacharissi, 2008). The difference in agency levels dictates the online digital screen users’ perception of private and public spheres. Therefore, this paper explores the impact of contemporary online digital screen engagement on people’s perceptions of private and public spheres.

The public and the private sphere are critically significant for modern societies. For instance, the public share serves as a forum where citizens communicate jointly pertinent issues, get informed concerning societal emerging developments, and observe and control economic, political, and other elites, while the private sphere implies anything to do with one’s personal life, including private data. Scholars have developed normative theories describing how the public sphere should be designed to ideally serve the role of communicating, engaging, and informing whilst respecting the rights entranced in the private sphere. The most prominent normative theory of the public share is the discursive (participatory), strongly advocated by Jürgen Habermas (Nielsen, 2018).

The model maintains that public engagement should incorporate relevant issues, topics, assessments, and arguments (opinions) and strive for extensive popular inclusion of various actors and divergent views. The design and structure of public communication significantly influence the citizens’ opinions about the public sphere. The normative demands are designed to apply across the public share in general but are realized to varying degrees in different public sphere forums (Nielsen, 2018). The traditional mass media has dominated the communication forums in the public sphere for decades. They include television, print media, and many others, characterized by full-fledged organizational and structural infrastructure and dominated by experts, journalists, and collective actors (Balčytienė, 2020). The ordinary citizens are demoted to the passive part of receiving.


The relegation of the ordinary citizens to the passive role of receiving coupled with the emergence of online digital media has led to a change in the public’s perception of the traditional media as bias, hence a biased public sphere. There are significantly noticeable limits linked to analog media platforms such as television and print media despite their substantial influence on society due to more extensive audience reach and organizing the larger parts of opinion formation and societal self-observation (Balčytienė, 2020). For instance, contrary to the online digital media platforms, the traditional mass media is seen to hugely reduce social complexity when issues are presented, allowing only a fraction of available topics, actors, arguments, and issues to be published. This has been cited as a significant limitation in light of the “ambitious demands of the participatory model of the public sphere.” The selection models adopted by the mass media platforms such as television or newspapers are viewed as biased by the political preferences and economic pressure (Nielsen, 2018). Therefore, the traditional mass media is perceived as an intensely regulated communication and information sharing forum, which systematically honors institutionalized and powerful actors but excludes civil society and smaller institutions, and essentially by-pass public debate, which is an essential facet of the public sphere (Ho, Binder, Becker, Moy, Scheufele, Brossard & Gunther, 2011).

While it is paramount to shun the deterministic view that online digital technologies can on their own “make or break” both public and private spheres, it is essential to appreciate that technologies repeatedly embedded the assumptions concerning their potential applications, which is traceable back to the cultural, political, economic, and social environment that brings them to life. Therefore, online digital technologies’ continued adoption impacts how individuals perceive the public and private spheres. The emergence of online digital communications is seen as a “new” significant medium, allowing impartial dissemination of information (Ho et al., 2011). The internet, for instance, is more accessible to more people irrespective of political or economic inclination. The internet is increasingly regarded as a more inclusive, easily accessible, and legitimate source of information, superseding the traditional mass media in all these aspects. Many media researchers, political scientists, and other social science scholars believe that online digital platforms can critically alter societal communication changes (Barnidge & Rojas, 2014).

Internet communication, in a nutshell, create a better public sphere compared to analog media. The perceptions draw significantly on the participatory model’s conceptualization of a fair and effective public debate. The argument is that the internet or online digital forums incorporate multiple actors, particularly from civil society, who may not have much access to the traditional media due to comparatively limited resources (Barnidge & Rojas, 2014). Furthermore, online digital forums are expected to present an alternative evaluation/assessment and interpretation online, and the available information is more differentiated/segregated on the internet. The expectation is that the internet or the online digital media will democratize the public sphere, translating into a strengthened political interest and increased participation among the common public (Rojas, 2010).  

However, despite providing equal access to information for the public to engage in political, social, and economic issues, creating an unbiased public sphere, online digital media has its share of challenges in the private sphere. Most of the concerns relate to the infringement of privacy rights, which is an essential facet of the private sphere. The border between the public and private spheres presents a constitutive connotation to any liberal-democratic society. There is no freedom when everything is shared publicly, as there will be no space where individuals or groups can belong to themselves, both in life and death, where everyone has the right to self-will without having to justify themselves (Van den Hoven, Blaauw, Pieters, & Warnier, 2014). At the same time, where everything or most things are private, there will be no political freedom where to citizens can negotiate on what concerns the society beyond their immediate environments (Aquilina, 2010); hence a fine line must be drawn between the two spheres.

There is a lack of a clear line concerning the extent to which the private sphere should limit the public sphere and vice vasa. Humans value their privacy and the security of the private sphere of life. There has to be some sense of control over personal information, which should not just be accessible to everyone. However, technological advancement threatens privacy, reduces personal information control, and opens substantial ramifications due to private data access (Van den Hoven, Blaauw, Pieters, & Warnier, 2014). The paradigm shift from traditional to online digital media brings new juridical and ethical challenges that mainly relate to the right to access information and privacy and the protection of intellectual property rights. The right to privacy is immensely threatened by the increased weight on the free flow of information. The interception and reading of emails, data-banking (merging of databases with personal information), hacking, and cracking affect people’s privacy is common in online digital communication (Aquilina, 2010).

The revelations of the Cambridge Analytica case of private data mining more recently confirm the worries concerning online digital communication’s negative impacts on people’s private sphere. The technical capability to gather, search and store a massive amount of data such as telephone conversations, electronic payments, and internet searches is also in place and widely adopted by corporate actors and government agencies alike. For business organizations, personal information about current and potential customers is considered assets. The extensive scale of application and the spread of advanced digital technologies for surveillance by countries such as China have also added many concerns regarding the private sphere’s invasion (Van den Hoven, Blaauw, Pieters, & Warnier, 2014).  

This paper has explored the impact of contemporary online digital screen engagement on people’s perceptions about private and public spheres. The effect of modern digital screen engagement is primarily determined by the platforms’ ability to concurrently restrict and empower people as they interact with one another in both public and private spheres. Contrary to the analog media such as television and prints, the online digital forums are perceived to create a better public sphere based on the participatory model’s conceptualization of a fair and effective public debate. Internet or online digital platforms incorporate multiple actors, including civil society, who may not have access to traditional media due to limited resources. However, online digital communication poses a threat to privacy as technology advances, presenting a significant drawback.

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