From organizing grassroots campaigns to advocating for policy change, the Brown sophomore is on a mission to make screen time safer, healthier and more empowering for young people.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As a teenager, Aliza Kopans moved from the Boston suburbs to the “middle of nowhere Vermont” to attend a semester school program, where she went four months without her cell phone. But that wasn’t the culture shock — it was coming back home.
“Here are a bunch of teenagers and nobody’s interacting with each other in this real, physical sphere, because we’re so consumed by what’s happening on our screens,” Kopans said.
But within a matter of months, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, and suddenly, screens were the safest way to engage with her peers, which inspired a shift in Kopans’ internal monologue.
“It wasn’t, ‘How can we get rid of these devices?,’ but, ‘How can we design, teach and use them in a way that’s leveraging our shared humanity rather than extracting from our well-being?’”
That change in thinking led Kopans, now a sophomore at Brown University, to pursue an internship with Fairplay, a Boston-based organization that works to protect children’s rights to a play-filled childhood. Yearning to take more action, she pivoted to the policy side and co-founded Tech(nically) Politics during her senior year of high school with her friend Emma Lembke, now a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis. Their goal was to create a teen-led movement that collects youth testimonials relating to social media to push forward legislation that protects people under the age of 18 online.
“It would be such a missed opportunity to not turn to the first generation who has grown up with phones in our back pockets to hear about our experiences and how we want to see the design and regulation of digital spaces change,” Kopans said.
When she arrived as a first-year student at Brown in 2021, Kopans decided to expand her work with Tech(nically) Politics and interview students about their relationship with technology and social media. She first set up virtual interviews, but after dozens of no-shows, Kopans went analog: With a bowl of candy and a cardboard sign, she sat on the College Green and waited. More than 60 Brown students spoke with Kopans, and those interviews came to form a mini docu-series that explored the experiences of students’ love-hate relationship with the reality of being perpetually online.
“I think the student body at Brown has this level of introspection and curiosity and desire to connect with others,” she said. “Technology is fundamentally changing the way we’re doing that, so it’s just been such a beautiful thing to continually remember that I’m not alone in this.”
As Kopans points to numerous studies that have examined the harmful impacts of unfettered screen time on children and teenagers, from distraction and sleep disruption to body image issues and increased levels of depression and anxiety, she focuses on what broad legislation might look like. Kopans campaigned for a bill to protect young people online — by restricting suggested content and removing addictive-by-design features like autoplay — that was signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom in September 2022. Tech(nically) Politics was even featured on “60 Minutes” for its work in advocating for and advancing public policy related to youth digital wellness.
At Brown, she’s built lasting relationships with not just with her fellow peers, but faculty members. An Introduction to Public Policy course taught by Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs Robert Hackey and Ethics of Digital Tech taught by Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy Julia Netter were particularly influential and collaborative; and she has participated in conversations with Professor of Data Science and Computer Science Suresh Venkatasubramanian to envision a future space on campus that brings in minds from all disciplines to design technology for the betterment of humanity.
It’s no surprise then, that deciding on a concentration was a bit of a challenge at first. Kopans said she took thorough advantage of the Open Curriculum, taking her time to explore disciplines in which she felt would have the most impact. Science, technology and society, education, environmental studies, and Caribbean and Latin American studies were all options she considered before having a eureka moment during a guest lecture in an Introduction to Public Health class:
“I have it in my notes,” she said. “I wrote in all caps: ‘THE WORK I’M DOING IN DIGITAL WELLNESS IS PART OF A PUBLIC HEALTH MOVEMENT.’”
So now, as a public health concentrator at Brown, she’ll continue the movement.
By Maggie Spear
*Source: Brown University