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A day off the grid, from a finalist of NPR's Student Podcast Challenge


Have you ever thought about what it would be like to take a break from your cellphone, your computer, from the whole technology-driven world? Brandon Kondritz did. He's a journalism student at Northwestern University, and he spent an entire day unplugged - no scrolling, no staring, no swiping and no typing. He made a podcast about this. It was one of the standouts in our NPR College Podcast Challenge. During this week, when many people are taking a break at the beach or at the grill, we thought we'd share his story.


BRANDON KONDRITZ: Every day, i can't even tell you how many hours I spend responding to emails and texts, building that perfect spotify queue. So in a world where you have to use technology for everything, I wondered what would happen if I just stopped. So that's exactly what I did.

Hi. This is me the night before my grand unplugging.

In preparation, I submitted everything I could. Throughout the day, I recorded short voice memo check-ins, journaling how things were going. A disclaimer - I did use my phone to record these, but that's all it was used for.


STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The war between Russia and Ukraine is the most visible in history. We now have an...

KONDRITZ: When my alarm clock went off, I instinctively reached for my phone on the nightstand next to me. Don't worry. I stopped myself. But it turns out I'm not alone in keeping my phone right next to me throughout the night.

ELIZABETH DOWDELL: We find with young adults phones are usually within an arm reach.

KONDRITZ: That's Elizabeth Dowdell. She's a nursing professor at Villanova University just outside of Philadelphia, where she researches digital behavior in teens and young adults. Her area of expertise - sleep texting.

DOWDELL: The phone has buzzed, and the instinctual move is to get it.

KONDRITZ: Although I'm not a sleep texter, signs show that my phone could still negatively impact my sleep.

DOWDELL: If there's a conscious awareness that that buzz has come through, your sleep's already been interrupted. Who, then, is in control? Is the tech in control or is the human? It can be turned off, or it can be silenced, or it can be put into airplane mode, and that's OK.

KONDRITZ: Bottom line - having your phone right next to you can hurt your sleep, even if the buzzing and dinging don't wake you up. I'm moving my charger across the room thanks to Dowdell.


KONDRITZ: After a quiet bowl of oatmeal, I headed out to my first class.


KONDRITZ: I usually take Google Doc notes for this one. So today, it was good old pen and paper.

I think the biggest challenge in this first class is going to be staying focused because usually this is the class that I'm on my computer, and I'm doing other things, like, I don't know, looking for an apartment or something like that. So...

The result?

Honestly, I felt so locked in in this class. Like, I felt like I really understood what was going on. Like I understood the points that were being laid down in the lecture.

When you think about it, it's not surprising. When you're concentrating on one thing, like listening to your professor, it's easier to focus than when you're trying to take notes, search for next quarter's classes and play Connections all at the same time. But don't just take my word for it. Jim Roberts at Baylor University says so too.

JIM ROBERTS: At first, I started measuring mostly smartphone addiction, right? What - you know, what kind of signals and how many people are addicted and, most importantly, what are the negative outcomes of that addiction? Well, really, right now is the biggest hurdle that, you know, we have as college professors - getting people to just not be distracted.

KONDRITZ: Roberts is one of the earliest smartphone addiction researchers, and he's looked at everything from TikTok's instant gratification appeal to the effects of phone snubbing. As we chatted, I kept thinking, am I addicted to my phone?


KONDRITZ: Went to my second class of the day - in that class, especially, I'm always checking my watch, seeing, like, notifications and stuff like that. And so not having my watch on my wrist really helped me focus in on what was going on, and I was able to contribute to the discussion in that class today.

And don't get me wrong, even though I felt laser-focused in class, I had my fair share of close call relapses.

I was sitting in the library this afternoon working on my homework, and I was just like, oh, my gosh, this is so boring. I should check my phone. Ah, no, but I can't.


KONDRITZ: Above all, the biggest challenge was not being able to listen to music, especially in the gym.

So that 20-minute run and then my ab circuit that I did was really strange without music. The sounds of my feet thumping the treadmill was really strange.

And walking through campus.

I left that class, and I had to do the 20 minute walk back down south. And that was weird because usually, I listen to my music while I'm walking.

As strange as the silence felt, it turns out it's actually good for me, at least when I'm crossing the street.


DAVID SCHWEBEL: I'm David Schwebel.

DESPINA STAVRINOS: I am Despina Stavrinos.

SCHWEBEL: My research broadly is on...

STAVRINOS: Injury prevention.

SCHWEBEL: And one component of that is pedestrian injury prevention.

STAVRINOS: This somewhat new phenomena of people crossing the street while using devices.

KONDRITZ: Schwebel and Stavrinos, both from the University of Alabama, pioneered this type of research in the early 2000s. In simulations and real-world observations, they found that...

SCHWEBEL: One of the highest risks is just listening to music because you are not hearing the traffic.

KONDRITZ: It's no secret that Northwestern's campus is full of busy roads. Have I almost been hit by a bike before because I was texting my mom? Yes. But the duo says, I'm not alone.

STAVRINOS: Humans have a limited capacity for multitasking, even though many of us do it a lot, so we think, oh, we're so good at it, but it truly can lead to suboptimal performance and increased risk.

SCHWEBEL: It's commonplace. We have busy roads. We have less busy roads in our campus, and students are distracted on all of them.


KONDRITZ: I really needed this, I feel like. It was not at all what I expected it to be, which was really cool and interesting.

Even though a total unplug isn't practical...

I am now catching up on my emails and text messages, and I have about 50 unread text messages, 20 emails, so many notifications. I'm just swimming in notifications.

...There are still things you can do to lessen technology's impact on your daily routine.

DOWDELL: Plug it in at the end of the bed.

ROBERTS: Make those boundaries and try to stick to them.

SCHWEBEL: When you get to that intersection, turn it off for a minute.

KONDRITZ: My advice - try a digital detox yourself. Sure. It would feel weird, considering the fact that we've grown up surrounded by tech. But I can't help but wonder how the world would look and feel if everybody took even a second to take off their headphones, look up from their screens and enjoy the world around them.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATION RINGING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Student Podcast Challenge