• Susan Reynolds '84 (photo by Mark Washburn)

    Put Down the Phone: Alumni Combat Addiction to Technology in the Digital Age

    Friday, April 5, 2019
    News Type

A key to any entrepreneur’s journey is identifying a need. And often, that requires painstaking research. But sometimes a need is so intertwined with everyday life it can be taken for granted. Case in point: our addiction to smartphones. The problem of digital addiction is omnipresent—yet few entrepreneurs aim to combat it. Why not reframe the problem as opportunity?

At last Friday’s Dartmouth Entrepreneurs Forum—a biannual event that takes place in Hanover each spring and San Francisco each fall—a group of alumni and scholars gathered with this issue in mind. During a day packed with panels on topics ranging from entrepreneurship in rural innovation to voice technology, a session titled “Digital Addition to Digital Wellness” drew a crowd eager to explore a very relatable topic.

Susan Reynolds ’84, co-founder and educational liaison of the Digital Wellness Collective, moderated the panel. In front of her was a copy of the book Digital Minimalism, the latest from Cal Newport ’04, a computer scientist and author. A critic of digital addiction who has been called “the Marie Kondo of technology,” Newport was busy touring the new release and couldn’t join the panel—but a quote from its pages rang true throughout the session: “Minor types of corrections, willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape,” he wrote.

Distracted Living

Panel member Rich Levitan ’86 has firsthand experience with the most devastating consequences of digital addiction. In 2013, his 18-year-old daughter Merritt was killed by a texting driver during a bike trip. In the wake of the tragedy, Levitan founded TextLess Live More, an organization that works with teens around the country to discourage distracted driving.  

As the president and CEO of the nonprofit, Levitan never set out to define a market opportunity. But he knows he’s found one. “[People] know they have a problem, and they’re looking for help,” he said. “They’re looking for tools to help them change their relationship with their devices.”

Levitan prompted entrepreneurs in the audience to think about it from a market perspective. “It’s a big market. Everybody’s got a cell phone, and it’s a huge problem.” Levitan has worked to spread awareness, but a missing puzzle piece is leveraging innovative technology to change behavior. Whether it’s reengineering our phones, our vehicles, or something else, “if there’s a way to impact the use of technology within the technology, let’s figure it out,” he said.  

From left: Rich Levitan '86, Natalie Mendolia '19, Bill Hudenko (photo by Mark Washburn)

An “Organic Movement”

Panel member Bill Hudenko, research assistant professor in Dartmouth’s department of psychological and brain sciences, has experience harnessing technology to improve mental health. As CEO of Voi, he’s used his background in clinical psychology to develop advanced artificial intelligence to assess risk and prevent suicide.

The entrepreneur sees a lot of activity at the intersection of tech and mental health, but he also acknowledges the challenges when it comes to digital addiction. “For technology companies, their bottom line is about how much you use their device,” he said. “They want you to be addicted.”

Hudenko thinks it’s time we applied the principles of the organic movement to devices. When it comes to food, he said, “people have started thinking, What am I putting in my body? The organic movement came out of the need for a stamp of approval. There’s an opportunity for technology to brand things as more socially responsible.”

Mindful Frat Parties

One handy setting to test ideas is on college campuses, where researchers say a mental health crisis is on the rise. Panel member Natalie Mendolia ’19 described how digital addiction has impacted student social life. “The small moments we share with each other, staying in the present, make such a difference,” she said. “And I see those moments slipping away.”

Mendolia has worked with Reynolds to promote Mindhood, an initiative that takes mindfulness training into the digital age on campus. One of its piloted tools was a texting platform that prompted students, via an emoji exchange, to set daily intentions and challenges (i.e. to walk around campus all day without looking at a phone). “It’s a really creative way to remind yourself to take time in a moment,” Mendolia said.

Reynolds was surprised how positively Mindhood has been received among students—and in unexpected places. “I was welcomed full force in the fraternities,” she said. Following her training, one frat organized mental health discussions. Another threw a mindful party, requiring guests to relinquish their phones. Another put a water cooler in the basement to encourage more mindful (read: beer-free) games of pong.

To Reynolds, engaging the students themselves in developing solutions is paramount. Teaming up with Dartmouth’s Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship (host of the Entrepreneurs Forum), students—and alumni—have a unique opportunity to tackle the problem. “No university has done this yet,” she said.

Levitan agrees: “Dartmouth is a wonderful community with talented people. How do we as a community, as an institution, take the lead?”

Want to be part of the conversation? Attend an Ethics Institute-sponsored lecture about digital technology with Nicholas Carr ‘81 on April 6, or join us on September 6 at the San Francisco Dartmouth Entrepreneurs Forum.