Alumnus examines the impact technology has on our well-being
Technology plays a huge role in our daily lives. Between 2020 and 2022, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, daily average screen time increased five hours per person per day. This resulted in a range of 11.1 to up to 17 hours on screen per day for those who worked remotely. But is all this time with technology good for us?
St. Olaf College alumnus Tyler Rice ’17 is passionate about determining how technology helps or hinders our mental wellness. He co-founded the Digital Wellness Institute, which helps hundreds of organizations and individuals optimize their digital usage to promote mental health and productivity while embracing a positive digital culture.
His work is rapidly gaining attention. He was invited to speak at the World Happiness Summit in Lake Como, Italy, in March, where he presented on the ways that digital well-being can be deployed as an employee wellness strategy to improve productivity, retention, and reduce depression and anxiety in the workplace. He spoke to an audience of happiness experts, corporate leaders, professors, and economists such as Lord Richard Layard, co-editor of the World Happiness Report; Jen Fisher, the chief well-being officer at Deloitte; and Lord Gus O’Donnell, former cabinet secretary and head of the British Civil Service. For International Digital Wellness Day this May, Rice and the rest of the Digital Wellness Institute team announced the first Certified Digitally Well Workplace™ and University™ and he also recently authored an Impact Study exploring how purposeful digital habits improve employee mental health, retention, and productivity.
Developing a career in digital wellness
Rice took a job as a consultant at UnitedHealthcare after graduation, and he started to notice particular trends with mental healthcare that piqued his interest. “We took all of the nations’ largest self-insured companies and ran them through a predictive claims engine to show them what the No. 1 spend in their employee population was projected to be over the next 10 years — and 99 percent of the time, it was mental health,” Rice says. This statistic deeply worried Rice. He looked at the vast list of employer wellness benefits these companies offered and asked himself, “Why then is this mental health crisis continuing to grow and gain in traction?”
To get answers, Rice looked inward — and upon examining his own experiences, he discovered feelings of digital burnout. He realized that technology played a huge role in this trend. “When I was at work, I spent my day behind a screen. And then when I went home to live with my roommates (who were also Ole grads) we all sat in our living room, opened up our laptops and did more work for an extra four hours at night. And when we weren’t doing that? You guessed it … We were scrolling through social media on our own personal digital devices,” he says.
Rice began to critically examine the human relationship with the screen. “I think the feeling of being always ‘on’ and the compulsion to live our lives through screens is actually leading to a breakdown in community, increased rates of mental health issues, lower rates of productivity, and impaired sleep and physical health,” he says.
I think the feeling of being always ‘on’ and the compulsion to live our lives through screens is actually leading to a breakdown in community, increased rates of mental health issues, lower rates of productivity, and impaired sleep and physical health.Tyler Rice ’17
This realization pushed him to sign up for Stanford’s Idea-to-Market Incubator, where for the next six months he created a business case for digital wellness at both workplaces and schools. Soon after, he met Amy Blankson and Nina Hersher, and the three of them ended up co-founding the Digital Wellness Institute in 2020.
Measuring the impact of technology
At the Digital Wellness Institute, Rice and his team are creating a new method of thinking about and measuring digital wellness and the impact of technology on our health, happiness, and satisfaction. One of the ways that they are doing this is by creating the industry’s first set of standards for certifying and recognizing both Digitally Well Workplaces™ and Digitally Well Colleges and Universities™. An example of this standard is measuring the digital well-being of students and staff through the Digital Flourishing Survey, an assessment that the Digital Wellness Institute created to get individuals — including college students — to reflect on their tech usage.
“I remember when I was a first-year at St. Olaf and we received emails about alcohol abuse awareness training and sexual assault prevention training. Those kinds of training are so important,” Rice says. “We should also be teaching students how to manage their digital lives when they enter campus. How can they build community? How can they build awareness around the ways that tech is either impairing or supporting their connection, their productivity, and their well-being?”
This is not the only way that St. Olaf has influenced Rice’s path. He highlights that the Hill’s focus on community was also a driving force for his work. When he graduated from St. Olaf in 2017, he found that he had to be a lot more intentional about creating community off the Hill. “If we let our work lives and our time spent on screen completely take over our days and we choose to build a community virtually, I think we lose an important aspect of what it means to be human, what it means to be flourishing,” Rice says. “So I really credit St. Olaf for really instilling in me the importance of community and knowing what it feels like to have that support, knowing what it means to be a part of a living and learning community.”
If we let our work lives and our time spent on screen completely take over our days and we choose to build a community virtually, I think we lose an important aspect of what it means to be human, what it means to be flourishing. So I really credit St. Olaf for really instilling in me the importance of community and knowing what it feels like to have that support, knowing what it means to be a part of a living and learning community.Tyler Rice ’17
Additionally, Rice found that a liberal arts education really prepared him for life outside campus. From his current role as the Chief Operating Officer of the Digital Wellness Institute to his first role out of college as a consultant, he’s had to wear many hats and do things he had never done before, and his liberal arts education emboldened him during his journey. “Without my liberal arts background, without that confidence to ‘learn how to learn’ and find a solution, I would have been afraid to take risks,” Rice says. “I would have been afraid to think about things in a way that’s not just binary. St. Olaf empowered me to think outside of the box, look at things through more than just one lens, and engage with uncertainty.”
Rice also had the chance to study abroad, an experience he says was transformative. While at St. Olaf, Rice was a political science major with concentrations in management and Nordic studies, and he participated in a study-abroad program in New Zealand focused on management studies. “Going to New Zealand and studying innovation there, I learned as much in that class as I did in the Stanford incubator and even some of my graduate level courses at NYU,” says Rice, who is currently finishing his Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. “It really prepared me to be an entrepreneur.”
For Rice, this work on digital wellness is not just a job — it is his vocation. He says, “This aligns with my vocation because it feeds my drive for social impact. Through digital wellness, we are not only addressing the mental health crisis, but empowering students — and individuals of all ages — to learn how to maximize the benefits of technology while mitigating its harms.”
Rice highlights, however, that technology does not only negatively affect our well-being. “Happiness and technology are interrelated. What we are doing is bringing awareness to the ways our tech usage impairs our happiness, but also the ways it improves our happiness,” he says. “It’s not a one-directional thing.”