As a seventh grader, Emma Lembke was one of the last in her friend group in Birmingham, Alabama, to get on social media. When she did, she says she soon found herself addicted, spending five hours a day on the apps, mostly Instagram.
“At an important developmental period in my life as a young female, as a young kid, in middle school, [I got] wound up in this world of likes, comments, very deeply quantifiable measures of my value, addictive algorithms, and the endless scroll,” she says.
When Lembke reached what she calls a “breaking point” in ninth grade, she began looking into the effects of social media. She found research articles, statistics, and a now widely shared TEDx Talk that all suggested to her that the anxiety, body image issues, and isolation she thought she was alone in feeling were in fact linked to social media use.
During the pandemic, Lembke, who is now 19 and a freshman at Washington University, started an organization called Log Off, which provides resources for reducing screen time, advice for better digital well-being, a curriculum for schools on navigating social media, and a place to submit personal stories so teens can break what Lembke says is a stigma around admitting that use of social media is making them miserable. The group has since grown to a team of 60 digital youth advocates from 16 different countries.
“I was unaware of the heavy editing and toxicity of the body standards present on the apps, but what I was aware of was how I was not meeting that preset standard,” starts one anonymous story published on the organization’s website. “I wish someone would have told me to never get on the apps as a young, highly insecure 7th grader. It has taken years of self discipline and reflection to get to a place where I can look in the mirror and smile.”
Log Off is part of a growing Generation Z movement pushing back against companies like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, and the way they control teens’ social lives. Those born between 1995 and 2010 are often portrayed as “digital natives” who are gleefully glued to their phones. But they, like all age groups, are struggling with the mental health effects of spending hours in worlds that encourage heavy social comparison and value the quantifiable, the optimizable, and the performative over the authentic. Forty-two percent of Gen Z-ers now say they’re “addicted” to social media and couldn’t quit if they tried, and more than half believe life was better before social media, according to polling by the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics.
“Teens face a choice: Either risk your social circle or risk your mental health,” Lembke says.
The Social Media Generation
Unlike older adults, Gen Z never really had a meaningful choice about whether to use social media. To not be on Instagram or Snapchat or TikTok is, at most American schools today, to be in a distinct and socially left-out minority. Even before the pandemic, 95% of teens in the U.S. had their own smartphone or access to one, according to Pew Research Center, and 75% had at least one active social media profile, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
At the same time, research is increasingly showing that smartphone and social media use is connected with heightened anxiety, depression, self-harming behaviors, and sleep deprivation in teens.
In 2017, when psychologist Jean Twenge published an article in The Atlantic linking increased smartphone use with a 56% rise in suicide rates in Americans ages 10–24 between 2007 and 2017, her findings were widely dismissed.
“The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health,” she wrote.
But our understanding of social media has changed dramatically since 2017, with recent revelations by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen that the company’s own research found that teen girls’ eating disorders and body image issues got worse on Instagram. This came as there was already a growing awareness of the negative effects of heavy social media use because of the forced isolation of the pandemic. The release of The Social Dilemma on Netflix in September 2020, which features former employees of Facebook, Google, and Twitter revealing the addictive, emotionally manipulative design of these apps, furthered this cause.
In the past year, a nonprofit headed by The Social Dilemma protagonist Tristan Harris called the Center for Humane Technology—perhaps the organization that has done the most to raise awareness of and put pressure on Big Tech—has begun heavily supporting the work of young activists.
This includes LookUp, a nonprofit that funds young people to raise awareness about digital wellness and develop more ethical and inclusive tech. The organization was founded in 2019 by Susan Reynolds, a former English teacher at a private boys school in Concord, Massachusetts, who began researching the impacts of tech after noticing the addictiveness of AOL Instant Messenger in the late 1990s for her and her students. By the 2010s, she was meeting with college students to share research on associations between smartphone use and weakened cognitive capacity and sleep disruption.
“What was clear to me was that [teens] needed data, but they didn’t need me telling them what to do,” Reynolds says.
In the past year, LookUp has expanded, with chapters in the United Kingdom, India, and Africa. In October, the organization hosted a youth summit that drew 1,200 registrants and featured more than 175 youth speakers, as well as a panel hosted by Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, and remarks by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey, who is cosponsoring the KIDS Act. If passed, this legislation would ban social media’s addictive features, such as autoplay, push alerts, and follower counts, for users under 16.
Ritom Gupta, 22, director of community engagement for LookUp India, believes raising awareness is especially important for his peers. “People in this country are still getting addicted to tech. It’s still in its infancy, not like the U.S., where everyone’s aware.”
The group makes recommendations to its audience, such as not using one’s phone first thing in the morning, turning off notifications, and practicing meditation to use social media more mindfully.
“The irony on social media is that while you’re trying to capture the moment, you’re missing out on that moment to show people who are not there in that moment,” says LookUp India Chair Rijul Arora, 25.
One app LookUp has funded, called Mynd, allows users to rate their moods while on social media, selecting choices like “happy,” “angry,” or “anxious,” and then view trends as well as set goals for healthier social media use. Creator Madi McCullough, 23, a recent college graduate and freelance social media coordinator, was inspired by health apps that “use persuasive technology for good,” such as encouraging people to run more, rather than promoting addictive use.
Less and Better Tech
While the initial focus of LookUp was on funding tech projects like Mynd, Reynolds says that one of the widest-reaching initiatives centers around going tech-free. NoSo November, created by 20-year-old University of Colorado, Boulder, student Maddie Freeman, is an initiative for high schools and individuals to log off or delete all social media apps for the month of November and spend their free time doing activities like yoga, cooking, and calling friends. The idea is to make going off social media a group experience rather than a socially isolating one. (Freeman recently shot a promo for the challenge with The Social Dilemma director Jeff Orlowski).
Like other Gen Z-ers, Freeman appreciates that social media allows her to connect so easily with people in different time zones and doesn’t think it is the sole cause of mental health issues, but she believes it contributes heavily. In high school, 12 of her peers, including several friends, and all of whom were heavy social media users, committed suicide.
During the first NoSo November challenge last year, participants noticed a change right away, she says: “Within days of being in that challenge, everyone was like, ‘I do not miss these apps at all. I don’t want to re-download them.’ It was a weight lifted off of all of our shoulders.”
While in the near-term, young activists have focused on raising awareness of social media’s impact and strategies to cut down on their use of it, they don’t talk about it as a matter of personal responsibility and self-control the way older adults often do. Instead, they frame it as a systemic issue that requires regulation, such as the KIDS Act and an online safety bill out of the United Kingdom that could influence how the rest of the world handles tech.
At the same time, teens and young adults don’t believe social media is going away. The focus, they say, must be on designing more authentic and less toxic ways of connecting, and teaching media literacy—and they are ready to help lead the way.
“Being in Gen Z, social media was baked into the DNA of my childhood, and I think that’s going to be the same with every generation that comes after,” Lembke says. “As a society, we can force social media companies to prioritize their users and youth mental health, and to exist in healthier ways. I hope legislators will open up and listen to us, because there’s much to be said from our side.”
Elaine Meyer writes about work, public health, and technology, writing for outlets including Dame, Salon, Fast Company, Forbes, Huffington Post, and Pacific Standard. Previously, she worked as a communications specialist in public health and taught English in France.