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Teenagers know that social media is detrimental to their mental health. They found solutions and resources.

When he was in sixth grade, Antonio Chow spent hours on his phone, watching endless videos about the latest movies and cars.

His family grew concerned as he became more and more distant, his face still flooded by the bright screen of his phone. He stopped studying and bombed English quizzes. In a short time, his grade went from A to B.

“When I was really close to a C, I knew something was wrong,” Antonio said. He remembers all the time he spent online and how, at the end of the day, he was left with a feeling of emptiness. “I felt like I hadn’t done anything.”

Antonio, 13, was able to kick his social media addiction and his family noticed the change. He started playing tennis again and going for walks with his father. He and his sister Angelina, 15, joined a group that spent a year and a half creating videos and brochures focused on mental health and social media.

The teenagers in the group, some as young as 13, faced social media addiction, body dysmorphia and cyberbullying from classmates and strangers, as platforms that they frequented fed them streams of uncensored content.

This younger generation grew up with social media at their fingertips and are therefore “unwitting participants in a decades-long experiment,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek K. Murthy said in a May advisory warning of the impact negative social media on mental health. young people.

And while Murthy acknowledged that some teens have reported the benefits of social media, there isn’t enough research to conclude that its use is “safe enough.”

Teenagers have known this for some time, but they feel like their voices as actors are often left out of the national conversation. As concern grows about the impact of social media on teens, lawmakers are enacting laws restricting teens’ access to social media as they try to rein in tech companies.

In March, Utah became the first state in the nation to impose limits on social media use by requiring parental permission for minors to open social media accounts in 2024. Last year, Gov. of California, Gavin Newsom, signed legal requirements for social media companies that protect. minors by applying strict privacy settings by default.

This year, California lawmakers are proposing a bill that would audit social media platforms to ensure they are not using algorithms or features that knowingly harm children, such as fostering addiction or leading young people to develop eating disorders, and propose allowing local and state governments to sue companies for failing to correct their practices.

For teens, the conversation about mental health and social media means developing healthy habits around the platforms, which have become an almost inextricable part of their lives. Through the Los Angeles Public Library’s Teens Leading Change initiative, a group of teens from the Palms-Rancho Park and Playa Vista branches created public service announcements and brochures offering tips on how to they and their peers can maintain healthy habits online.

Antonio Chow sits for a portrait with his sister Angelina, after meeting with his peers as part of the Teens Leading Change initiative at the Palms-Rancho Park Branch Library. Antonio became addicted to YouTube and began to drift away from his daily life before abandoning his phone.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

One afternoon in May, the teens gathered at the Palms-Rancho Park branch library for one final meet-and-greet before presenting their efforts to family and friends. They ate pizza while Emily Meehan, a young adult librarian who led the group, guided them through the planned discussion points.

“What is the way to use social media in a healthy and conscious way? » » Meehan asked.

“Although social media is the root of many body image issues, people also use it to counteract these bad things,” added Shira Cohen, 14.

“Yes, body positivity,” Meehan said, nodding. She followed up with another question: “What important thing have you learned during your participation in this project?” »

“When you’re on social media, make sure you’re constantly on your toes,” Angelina said. “Not everything you see is real.”

For many teens, their own experiences have shaped their desire to discuss the effect of social media on their lives. In college, Shira joined Pinterest and Instagram to inspire her artwork. But his feeds started showing his fashion photos and photos of women and girls who had “perfect bodies.”

She started comparing herself to these models and felt that her body didn’t match what she saw online. So she started hiding in baggy T-shirts and pants.

“I just didn’t feel good about myself,” Shira said. But once she realized those “perfect bodies” were the result of dieting and photo editing, she quit all social media platforms. “I didn’t want to subject myself to all these comparisons and I wanted to feel good about myself.”

Angelina, who watched her brother struggle with his social media addiction, also saw one of her close friends develop an eating disorder and compare himself to models she saw online, she said. declared. Her friend stopped eating during school lunch, she said.

This change disturbed Angelina. She wrote the script for one of their PSAs focused on body dysmorphia, a disorder in which people obsess over flaws in their appearance that, often, only they can see. The PSA is titled “Perfectly Imperfect.”

His message to his peers: “You shouldn’t try to compare yourself to something that isn’t really realistic. »

Studies show that social media reinforces body dissatisfaction, including eating disorders and low self-esteem, especially among girls, Murthy believes. Overall, 46% of teens ages 13 to 17 said social media made them feel worse about their body.

A group of teens sit during a presentation about the Teens Leading Change initiative at the Palms-Rancho Park branch library.

A group of teens sit down during a presentation to family and friends as part of the Teens Leading Change initiative at the Palms-Rancho Park Branch Library. Young people created public service announcements and brochures offering tips on how they and their peers can maintain healthy online habits.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Zane Herndon was in eighth grade at Palms Middle at the time of the project. He said that when he was in sixth grade and classes were held on Zoom, his classmates found his TikTok accounts and made fun of his appearance.

“They said I was a nasty bum,” Zane said. It made him feel terrible; he cried for a few days after it happened, but the hateful comments continued. He blocked the accounts and eventually told his mother, who confiscated his phone.

“She just told me not to use my phone too much and these things happen,” he said.

Adam Talasazan, 15, a sophomore at Palisades Charter High School, also faced harassment from people he met through online video games. Like Zane, Adam had no choice but to rely on the internet to find friends while stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adam said he became close to the people he met through online gaming. But eventually, they started talking about him negatively. Eventually, they began to delve into his personal life. So he blocked them. However, they managed to find his Snapchat account and harassed him over photos he posted of himself, which made him feel bad about himself. He was in seventh grade then.

“(My friends) helped me get through it,” he said. “But at the time it was very hard.”

They’re not alone: ​​About two-thirds of teens are “often” or “sometimes” exposed to hateful content, and studies have linked cyberbullying to depression in children and teens, according to the report. American Surgeon General.

On a Saturday afternoon in June, the group presented their project and launched their public service announcements to a small group of proud parents, grandparents and friends gathered in a conference room at the Palms Library.

They gave tips for navigating social media responsibly: don’t scroll before bed, set a limit on social media use, practice gratitude, and know when to ask for help .

The first video depicted a familiar school scene: a young girl was scrolling through her phone when she started receiving hateful text messages. “Ugly,” the texts mocked. “Silly.” The girl’s bully is eventually revealed to be a former soccer teammate who was left upset by the girl’s mistake that cost them a game.

The second video featured a trio of friends hanging out. We start taking selfies obsessively. The other two try to tell their selfie-obsessed classmate that she is beautiful no matter what. Through arguments and difficult conversations, friends find each other again, selfies abandoned.

The videos, written, directed and performed by the teens, contain links and phone numbers to organizations that help people experiencing thoughts of self-harm and bullying.

Jerry Chow said that as a parent, it was difficult to determine how and whether to limit his children’s use of social media as it became so intertwined with their school work.

“Even the parents, we don’t know what to do. Should we monitor them or should we deny them social media? » he asked after seeing his children present their project. He was happy to see them take the lead in the conversation on social media and understand their effects, something he hadn’t had to deal with growing up.

Then they handed out stress balls and stickers that read “stay happy and healthy when using social media.”

Meehan, the librarian, said teen voices are important in the broader debate as adults aim to regulate social media companies.

“I feel like as adults we constantly see teenagers and say… ‘They grew up with this, they’re always going to be addicted and it’s going to (be) detrimental (to) their lives,'” Meehan said. .

But the project proved that they “see how social media affects their lives and the lives of their peers, and they won’t have that.” They want to do something about it.

Los Angeles Times

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