In The ZenZone: Local High School Student Teams Up With Former Classmates In China On Focus App
By Craig Manning | Nov. 19, 2023
“Chief Operating Officer” and “Chief Technical Officer” aren’t typically titles held by teenagers, but Traverse City’s Mia Dungan has gotten to claim both before even graduating high school. That’s because Dungan (pictured, center), a senior at Traverse City West Senior High, is a key team member in ZenZone, a Shanghai-based startup and software application that seeks to help teenagers around the world curb their internet and phone addictions.
The story of ZenZone and Dungan’s involvement starts in Shanghai, where she spent most of her life prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though Dungan’s family had roots in Michigan – and a summer home in the Traverse City area – her parents were educators based in Shanghai, which meant she lived in China and went to school there for 12 years. “Then we went on vacation for Chinese New Year in 2020,” Dungan says. (In 2020, Chinese New Year fell on January 25.) “We came back to America, thinking it would just be a one-week slot to visit family in Michigan. And during that one week that we were here, China’s borders closed and we were unable to go back.”
For a while, the Dungan family stayed in limbo, wondering if they could soon return to Shanghai. When it became clear that things weren’t going to resolve quickly, the family decided to make Michigan their permanent home. And so, in fall 2020, Mia enrolled at West Senior High as a freshman.
The early weeks and months, Dungan says, were a tough adjustment. “There was a lot of culture shock, going from this huge city of Shanghai to a small rural town, and so it took me awhile to get adjusted to the environment,” she tells The Ticker. “But once I started getting involved and making friends, it got a lot better.” Dungan now serves on the Student Senate and the National Honor Society board, is a member of West’s chemistry club, and is heavily invested in the school’s STEM programming.
Dungan has gotten plenty of real-world experience to supplement what she’s learning in those STEM classes. Two years ago, Luke Penazola, a friend from back in Shanghai, reached out to her about an app idea he was brainstorming.
“It all stemmed from COVID, because Luke started realizing how detrimental it was to his mental health to just be inside every day, and how much technology was consuming him on the daily,” Dungan explains. “People my age, I think we all experienced that, because social media was our outlet during that period, and we probably could have been doing better things with our time. And so, Luke came up with ZenZone, an app to maximize student productivity by helping you block out certain websites or apps that distract you.”
Dungan calls teenagers both “serial procrastinators” and “the most distracted people in the world,” and points to internet and smartphone addictions as key drivers in a mounting youth mental health crisis. ZenZone, available for Mac computers and iOS devices, helps curb those distractions by allowing users to create lists of websites or apps they want to use less.
Instead of blocking distracting apps or sites permanently, ZenZone lets users activate blocklists for temporary “focus sessions,” where everything on the list is disabled for a pre-set duration. A blocklist might look different for a calculus study session than it would if a student was writing a paper, as the latter scenario would require more access to the internet for research. The idea is that ZenZone is flexible enough to limit access to whatever the user deems to be most distracting in any circumstance – whether that means blocking social media networks, gaming apps, video streaming sites, or even text messages.
ZenZone also builds in some of the social and gamification aspects of the very apps it’s helping users get away from. Similar to fitness trackers, the app tracks and visualizes data about focus sessions and focus time, doling out achievements based on focus “streaks.” And just like social media, the app shows users how they compare to others in terms of tuning out distractions, and encourages them to share their progress with friends or family, in hopes of building a ZenZone community “that helps push each other to grow and be accountable.”
A whiz with coding and web design – she’s taking AP Computer Science as part of her senior schedule – Dungan built the ZenZone website and handles other tech-related needs of the business. She’s also party to all the core operations of the company – even though that means navigating an 11 or 12-hour time difference and trying to fit in virtual meetings with her colleagues around school and extracurriculars like soccer and robotics. It’s a complicated arrangement, Dungan admits, especially since she’s the only member of the ZenZone team in the United States. But she’s appreciative of the opportunity – both to keep a connection with friends from her old home, and to help build ZenZone’s profile in America. While the app is currently only available for Apple operating systems, Dungan hopes to spearhead a version that works on Chromebooks, the laptops issued to students at Traverse City Area Public Schools.
As for post-high-school plans, Dungan expects to continue her involvement in ZenZone – even if her ultimate career aspirations lie elsewhere.
“I’m an avid aerospace engineering fan,” Dungan says. “So that’s really want I want to go into. I know it doesn’t really coincide with coding a website for a mobile app, but I love aerospace, and I want to be an engineer. Right now, I’m doing a research project with some professionals about nuclear fusion spacecraft propulsion, and it’s so fascinating. And I also know there is a growing aerospace sphere here in Traverse City, so I definitely do want to get involved in that.”Comment