Editor’s Note: This article contains mentions of eating disorders and disordered eating. Please take care while reading, and note the helpful resources at the end of this story.
In May 2015, then-college student Larissa May was struggling. She felt consumed by social media and estimates she was spending between eight to 12 hours a day looking at her phone. As a fashion student, her interest in certain Instagram accounts and blogs was causing the algorithm to show her “thinspiration” and eating disorder-focused posts, which only worsened her preexisting anxiety and depression symptoms.
“I went to the psych center on campus and they were quick to ask about drugs, sex and alcohol — the normal traditional college student vices,” May told In The Know by Yahoo. She was told by a counselor to start exercising and eat better, but at no point was May asked about her social media habits.
“I was doing everything on paper, but they didn’t ask me about the drug that was in my pocket, which was my phone,” she said. “We are so quick to capitalize and have conversations on social media about sexual wellness, physical wellness and, luckily, now mental wellness. But why aren’t we addressing digital wellness?”
May’s nonprofit, #HalfTheStory, started as a grassroots storytelling movement in response to her college self’s unhealthy relationship with technology. While the brand has been around since May was a senior in college, she credits the pandemic with amplifying the general public’s need and desire to step away from social media. Especially young people.
“A big challenge is that capitalism is at war with the most vulnerable minds and well-being of the next generation,” she said. “Our society capitalizes off of the business of digital sickness.”
A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that social media platforms are “designed to hook our brains.” Aza Raskin, the engineer who invented the “infinite scroll” feature in 2006, told BBC that tech companies are “taking behavioral cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface and that’s the thing that keeps you like coming back and back and back.”
“Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting,” Raskin said in the 2018 interview.
The solution isn’t simply cutting teenagers off from social media, May argues. In her research and presentations, she always makes a point to highlight the positive aspects of social media — the sense of community it offers and the endless information the internet provides young students.
“A lot of the inequities that exist in other parts of our society also play into digital wellness and minoritized populations,” she said.
#HalfTheStory worked with middle school students in the Bay Area in Northern California and found that almost half of the students there didn’t have access to the internet at home. The nonprofit works with the Stena Foundation, which aims to invest in equal access and support systems for students in rural communities, as well as minority groups and nontraditional students.
“We’re very much at the beginning of understanding how much more of an impact can we make if we meet kids the moment they get their device,” May said. “In order to really empower our kids, we need to be looking at the emotional impacts of the digital age, giving them digital metacognition [and] emotional metacognition skills to thrive.”
Tips for digital wellness and balance
Part of what #HalfTheStory aims to teach young people is how to consume actively, rather than passively. May emphasizes this isn’t just about screen time — which, she argues, is not the only benchmark for digital wellness — because not all screen time is equal.
Digital clean-ups: Reorganize your phone’s home screen or purge your phone’s apps to limit your visuals to platforms you actually want to use.
Setting “away messages” on texts or iMessage: This encourages users to be intentional when they pick up their phones and want to talk to friends.
Greyscale settings: Tech companies use colors that attract the eye and there is psychology behind why apps use certain logos. Blue, for example, was found to have a high association rate with feelings of “reliability” and “competence,” which is why so many apps are blue (Facebook, previously Twitter). The color black is associated with “luxury,” like the Apple logo. Red is a color most commonly used in social media to express excitement or urgency, which is why notifications are usually marked in red. Using grayscale helps make your phone feel “unappealing.”
“Let’s acknowledge both sides of the social media coin and figure out where various parties can make concessions so that we can optimize for digital flourishing,” May said. “Right now, like there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all for any type of health care, and that’s how our society is treating digital wellness.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating habits, contact The National Alliance for Eating Disorders at 866-662-1235. You can also connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor at no charge by texting the word “HOME” to 741741. Visit the Alliance’s website to learn more about the possible warning signs of eating disorders and disordered eating.
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