Published in April 2023 by The Tulsa World. View here.
By Dee Harris, Community Advisory Board
When Emma Lembke was 12, she created her first Instagram post. She described the experience as “magical.” By the 9th grade, she was met with the harsh reality that social media was causing her to be anxious and depressed.
When I first joined social media in 2008, I was pulled in like a moth to a flame. What a rush to catch up with old friends and see information in real-time. I was quickly liking, hearting and scrolling. As an adult with highly developed digital and media literacy skills, I strive to balance my online and offline life. Still, it’s easy to become absorbed in trending topics and digital rabbit holes, and before you know it, hours have passed.
In a 2021 article, Lembke said, “I knew it couldn’t just be me. Why weren’t more people not discussing how negative social media can be?” It was then that Lembke made a power move, founded LOG OFF, and began her work as a youth digital wellness advocate, helping teens overwhelmed by social media find their balance.
In February, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary and Trends Report confirmed that Lembke was not alone. Since 2011, mental health conditions and suicidal thoughts and behaviors in teens have increased with teen girls experiencing the most sadness or hopelessness at 57% (up from 36% in 2011) and 30% saying that they have seriously considered suicide (up from 19% in 2011).
Suicide rates in Oklahoma have been rising for over a decade. In 2021 when the U.S. surgeon general warned about our youth mental health crisis, the problem was years in the making. Add pandemic stressors. Now this crisis is boiling over.
The CDC report confirms that youth mental health started to tank as social media and smartphones began to take hold. Social psychologist and New York University professor, Jonathan Haidt, has studied the effects of social media on mental health for years and directly connects social media as a major cause of the mental illness epidemic.
Major cause, yes, but not the only cause.
Mental health outcomes are influenced by various factors which include social determinants of health, children with parents who have a mental illness and a person’s life experiences. Since digital experiences are still life experiences, they can be both positive — connecting with people across the world and sharing Corgi pics — and negative — cyberbullying, a fear of missing out and algorithm filter bubbles.
It’s important to strike a balance between positive and negative digital experiences for our mental well-being. When negative digital experiences become predominant, mental health can suffer and the consequences can even be fatal.
Since our youth mental health crisis is complex, it requires a multifaceted and comprehensive approach that includes:
- Early identification and intervention of a mental health problem;
- Coordination between schools and mental health professionals;
- Combatting social determinants of mental health through policies and programs that promote equity, social
- justice and economic opportunity;
- Advocating for the ethical responsibility of big tech to align products with public interest values; and
- Empowering youth to advocate and prioritize their own mental health, fostering resilience and developing digital literacy skills to navigate online swipes, popups and scrolls. (Meta has even started promoting the importance of digital literacy.)
Today, we stand at the base of a mountain called, the exponential growth of technology. If we don’t prepare ourselves and our children to scale the rocks with tools and mental health protections, that mountain will flip and become the precipice in which we fall. Our youth mental health crisis is a serious matter that demands urgent action. It is our collective responsibility to ensure a brighter future.
Dee Harris is the chief strategic engagement officer at Family & Children’s Services in Tulsa. She is a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board.