How My Own Tech "Addiction" Inspired a Course to Help Other College Students
In the fall of 2017, I started college as an Energy Engineering student at UC Berkeley. Although I came in full of confidence, I was woefully unprepared for the transition that awaited me. High school had been a breeze: I was able to maintain good grades without excessive work, the rigid structure of school days and extra-curricular activities left little need to manage my own time, and I lived in a small town with few distractions. It was a different story at Berkeley. For the first time in my life I was truly challenged academically, my schedule was far less defined, and there were so many social events happening that I often didn't carve out the amount of time I needed to study effectively. It didn't take long for me to fall behind. I flunked the first midterm in my calculus course and suddenly my identity as a star student was being tested.
Being challenged in college is a good thing. Learning to deal with stress and overcome adversity is a key to learning and growing, but doing so requires a level of resilience that I couldn't muster due to my relationship with my phone and social media. During that first year at Berkeley, I developed a habit loop that many fall victim to nowadays: uncomfortable emotions (namely boredom, stress, and anxiety) became a trigger for me to pull out my phone and start mindlessly scrolling.
I developed a habit loop that many fall victim to nowadays: uncomfortable emotions (namely boredom, stress, and anxiety) became a trigger for me to pull out my phone and start mindlessly scrolling.
I'd start off the day with a burst of energy to tackle school head-on. I'd get up, go to the library, and start working on a problem set thinking there would be nothing that could get in my way, but 15 minutes into my working session I would come across a problem that was challenging. After about 5 minutes of being stuck, the discomfort would become unbearable, and I would start scrolling through Instagram, often without consciously realizing what I was doing. At night I would try to commit to getting a full 8 hours of sleep, but laying in bed was one of the only times of day that I was truly alone with my thoughts. I'd start to think about how much less I had accomplished that day than I had intended and how big the hole was that I'd dug myself into in school. These thought patterns would give rise to a feeling of stress and anxiety that I would soothe by pulling out my phone and watching Youtube videos until I fell asleep.
These thought patterns would give rise to a feeling of stress and anxiety that I would soothe by pulling out my phone and watching Youtube videos until I fell asleep.
Throughout freshman year, I averaged over 3.5 hours per day on Instagram and Youtube. My smartphone, which I once viewed as a tool, had become a digital pacifier that I used to avoid any uncomfortable emotion. In addition to consuming so much of my time, my smartphone addiction damaged my academic performance, abused my sleep schedule, diminished my attention span, and resulted in countless missed opportunities. The most impactful effect, however, was on my identity and self-esteem. Your actions are the evidence upon which your identity is built. Although I had always viewed myself as an athletic, outdoorsy, adventurous, over-achieving student, my actions were now telling a completely different story. I found myself out of shape, behind in school, and completely lacking motivation. For the first time in my life, I didn't like who I was as a person, and I felt that I could no longer keep the promises that I was making to myself.
Learning How to Manage My Own Tech "Addiction"
These struggles continued until January 2020 when I was given an opportunity to take a semester off of school to intern at a startup in New York. After countless failed attempts to cut down on social media and get my life back on track, I recognized that I needed to hit the reset button. I realized that becoming immersed in a new environment and being held accountable to other people was exactly what I needed to change my behavior, so I jumped at the opportunity. In New York, I deleted social media apps from my phone and spent my newfound free-time exercising, reading, and meditating. Slowly but surely, changes started to occur. I got back in shape, was able to focus for longer periods of time, did work that I was proud of, and my mental health improved dramatically.
Throughout my 16 months at the startup I was surrounded by a number of highly intelligent, ambitious peers. As I attempted to learn from them I started to notice a pattern amongst the employees that really stood out: they knew how to use their devices to augment themselves. A few of the coworkers I was closest to had developed systems for task and time management that enabled them to work far more effectively than they would be able to alone, and used the internet as a tool for learning and personal knowledge management. The idea that the same devices that had drained my time, damaged my mental health, and challenged my identity for so long could be used to make me a more intelligent, productive, happy person was profound to me, and I started to research how to change my relationship with my phone and laptop such that they would serve me, not the other way around.
I started to research how to change my relationship with my phone and laptop such that they would serve me, not the other way around.
Over the course of the next few months I read books like Digital Minimalism, Atomic Habits, Deep Work, and The Shallows, and experimented with apps like Notion, Things, Readwise, Roam, and Obsidian to implement systems for time management, journaling, habit tracking, and personal knowledge management. The effects of changing how I interact with my devices are difficult to overstate: I've never learned so easily, worked so productively, or felt so in control of my behavior. The things I have been able to accomplish in 2021 prove how profound the change was for me.
Although the changes above are great, the most impactful changes I've experienced can't be measured. Rebuilding my relationship with my devices has given me a new lease on life.
Mental Health - The brain fog and the low-grade hum of anxiety that had become my normal state are gone.
Time - I've been able to make time for more adventures and social events than ever before.
Cognition - I can focus on a single task for more than 5 minutes again, and my memory has improved dramatically
Autonomy - I feel that I have agency again, and that if I make a promise to myself I can keep it.
Identity - I'm happy with who I am, and I enjoy spending time alone with my thoughts.
Two Things Learned
When I reflect on the journey my relationship with technology has taken, two things stick out:
First, there is a massive gap in the education system with regards to teaching our generation how to interact with our devices in a constructive, intentional manner. No one warned me about the effects of commonplace digital practices on memory and attention, and I was entirely unaware of all of the things my devices could do to make me a happier, healthier, more productive person. We have gone through a massive paradigm shift in the last 10 years. The education system has not been able to keep up.
First, there is a massive gap in the education system with regards to teaching our generation how to interact with our devices in a constructive, intentional manner.
Second, conversations around smartphone addiction and digital wellness are not happening at the rate that they should. I distinctly remember feeling so ashamed of my excessive use of Instagram and Youtube that I feared bringing up the issue with even my closest friends. Now I realize that many of them were facing the same issues to varying extents. My parents have been overwhelmingly supportive throughout my life, but I could never muster up the courage to tell them how big this issue was for me. Even if I did, I doubt they would have truly understood the problem. After all, they didn't grow up with social media. College was difficult for them as well, but they didn't have 24/7 access to instant gratification when they were in school. Admitting "I spend about as much or more time on my phone than I do studying" to the people that were helping finance my degree was too scary of a conversation to have, but keeping this issue inside only added more stress and anxiety, making the problem worse.
Creating the Course: Becoming Tech Intentional
In an effort to solve both of these problems I created INFO 98: Becoming Tech Intentional, a course that I taught to over 60 students during the 2021-2022 academic year. INFO 98 was designed to give students a framework for resetting how they interact with their devices in an effort to cultivate intentional digital habits. In many ways the course is a condensed version of the transformation that I went through during my time away from school. Over 12 weeks, students analyzed their screen time, learned about the underlying dynamics of the attention economy, redesigned their digital environments to promote intentional use, and explored new systems for time management and note-taking. I also made sure to facilitate in-class discussions about digital wellness and social media addiction to give students the space to talk openly that I never felt I had.
Teaching INFO 98 opened my eyes to two main things. First, smartphone and social media addiction is ubiquitous. Even amongst highly ambitious Berkeley students, nearly everyone is spending far more time on social media and entertainment apps than they want to. Second, people can change how they interact with their devices dramatically with proper guidelines. Most people fall into their digital habits with very little intention:
they download apps on a whim without considering the long-term implications of that decision
they accept notifications without being aware of the amount of distraction they are signing up for
they set up no clear divides between work and play on their devices
Once people take a step back, analyze where their time is going, rethink how they want to engage with tech, and adjust how their devices are configured accordingly, change is inevitable. On average, students in the Fall 2021 cohort decreased their time spent on social media and entertainment apps by over 2 hours per day and reported significantly healthier relationships with their devices (read the full Fall 2021 report here).
A New Mission
My experience facilitating INFO 98 has clarified my mission in life: I want to help others build healthy relationships with their devices. Project Reboot is my effort to spread the content of INFO 98 to a broader audience through consulting, bootcamps, and speaking engagements. Although I am focusing on high school and college students at first, I believe that almost everyone can build a more intentional constructive relationship with tech.
If you can take away one thing from reading my story, let it be this: technology is a force multiplier for your habits. If used properly, it can bridge the gap between your brain's natural capabilities and the demands of modern economy. If used improperly, it will damage your cognition, undermine your autonomy, and prevent you from reaching your potential. If you find your relationship with tech is working against you, reboot.
Author Dino Ambrosi is an ex-social media addict with a mission to help others build healthy relationships with their devices. Here's what he says: "The internet has given us a powerful set of tools, but most people receive no education on how to engage with them in an intentional, constructive manner. As one of the first people to get on social media in middle school, I received no guidance for my online behavior. As a result, I developed an addiction that negatively impacted my college experience. It took me years of trial and error to build healthy digital habits, but today my devices help me live a better life. I want to give incoming college students the resources, best practices, and the space to discuss digital wellness that I never had in order to help them succeed in college and beyond."