A new student movement wants you to go offline
Millennials may have been the first generation to come of age online, but their Gen Z successors have truly grown with it — and hardly ever go online.
A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 95% of adolescents have access to a smartphone; 45% say they use the Internet almost constantly. For many of them, social media has been a space for self-expression, entertainment and connection.
But as social media use has increased among teens, the rates of the Depression, anxiety and suicide. Although the relationship is not directly correlational, there is evidence that some platforms have exacerbated youth mental health issues; for example, Facebook internal research documents, leaked to The Wall Street Journal by whistleblower Frances Haugen, showed that Instagram made body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls.
A March 2022 study published in the scientific journal Nature found that the relationship between social media use and mental health varied by age, but there were two windows where social media use was more likely to have a negative effect on adolescent well-being: at the onset of puberty and again around age 19.
Emma Lembke, a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, experienced these negative effects firsthand. That’s why she started the Disconnect movement in June 2020. The project aims to stimulate dialogue between young people who feel the harmful effects of social media and wish to adjust their relationship to it.
In a phone interview, 19-year-old Ms Lembke spoke about the movement she started, the pros and cons of social media and how she worked to loosen its grip on her wellbeing. The interview has been edited for clarity.
What was the first social network you joined?
I joined Instagram when I was 12.
How did you experience being on social media?
I was spending at least six hours a day on these apps, scrolling mindlessly, absorbing all these unrealistic body standards. This led to eating disorders. It just became this awful loop of going to these apps, especially Instagram, feeling worse about myself, but feeling like I couldn’t stop scrolling because it has this weird power over me . Social media served as a tool to amplify negative attributes and feelings that I really didn’t want to have.
Many recent news stories have highlighted the negative effects that social media can have on young people and on self-esteem. How did these stories influence your thinking about the project?
The first article I read that really got me started was How smartphones destroyed a generation. I found study after study showing the possible correlation between increased rates of anxiety, suicide rates, and tracking eating disorders alongside increased rates of use.
What other factors drove your decision to start the disconnect movement?
The most powerful thing for me was not the studies. It was the fact that the personal stories weren’t being told and there was no epicenter where people could come together and say, “This is my personal experience. “This is how I got hurt.” “These are the accounts that made me feel bad about myself.” I knew it was necessary. The genie came out of the bottle.
As Gen Zers, we understand that there are positive attributes and negative attributes to social media, but right now, in their current use, they can be really harmful.
How does the Log Off Movement solve these problems?
Through our podcast, leadership advice, educational program on how to use online spaces safely, and blogging, we discuss ways to advance technology and allow it to return to being a tool rather than a a controller.
What we’re asking teens to do is be comfortable talking about their experiences so we can educate lawmakers to understand a Gen Z perspective, what we need from technology, our privacy issues, our having mental health issues. We have an advocacy initiative through Technology[nically] Policyadvocating for laws to ensure teens have a safe online experience, in particular the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Bill.
Your website indicates that you intend to promote healthy ways to exist on social media, rather than asking people to disconnect completely. What does healthy social media engagement look like?
I know that for me, I can’t disconnect completely. Healthy use of social media would be any interaction where the user feels they benefit and their health is not compromised. It’s mentally disconnecting for a second and thinking about what makes you happiest and why you’re on social media. If you’re not enjoying it at all, then I’d say the healthiest type of social media existence and the healthiest habit is to log off.
Having a digital presence may seem inevitable these days. Still, it doesn’t have to be exhausting. How have you adapted your own relationship to social networks? What methods worked?
Whenever I go through a stressful time with exams, I delete Instagram. I know that in times of stress, I’m going to tend to mindlessly use it as a form of coping. Another thing that worked for me is Grayscale, which makes the phone appear only black and white.
I always suggest screen genius, which offers solutions to limit screen time. I use Habit Lab for Chrome, which helps you reduce your time online. This creates a level of friction between you and the addictive technology.
Are there any apps that you particularly like?
BeReal is my favorite. At some point during the day, you will receive a notification simply saying: “It’s time to be real”. And you take a picture of everything you do. It feels like a real time of someone’s day.
What feedback do you get from other teenagers?
One spent six hours a day on social media and said her eyes hurt. Coming down, she says, she can now see better. It’s like the world is much clearer, both mentally and physically, for her.
What changes have you seen in your own mental health as a result of limiting your social media consumption?
I’m still dealing with my generalized anxiety disorder, my OCD. But I can tell you significantly that the symptoms, especially around my body image, have really diminished.
What is your ultimate goal with this effort?
I really hope this will result in some sort of pivot that prioritizes the well-being of users in these online environments. Technology is embedded in the DNA of our generation. He works to push toward regulation, so that more systematic change can occur where individuals can feel more protected and find healthier habits.