Millennials may have been the first generation to come of age online, but their Gen Z successors have truly grown up with it – and rarely ever log off.
A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone; 45 percent 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 risen among teenagers, so have rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. Although the relationship is not directly correlational, there is evidence that some platforms have exacerbated young people’s mental health issues; For example, internal research documents from Facebook, leaked to The Wall Street Journal by the whistle-blower Frances Haugen, showed that Instagram worsened body-image issues for one in three teenage girls.
A March 2022 study published in the Scientific Journal Nature found that relationships between social media use and mental health varied by age, but that there were two windows where social media use was more likely to have a negative impact on well-being of adolescents. : At the start of puberty and again around age 19.
Emma Lembke, a rising sophomore at Washington University Louis, experienced those negative effects firsthand. That’s why she started the Log Off Movement in June 2020. The project aims to spur dialogue among young people who are experiencing the adverse effects of social media and want to adjust their relationship to it.
In a phone interview, Ms. Lembke, who is 19, spoke about the movement she started, the ups and downs of social media, and how she has worked to loosen her hold on her well-being. The interview has been edited for clarity.
What was the first social network you joined?
I joined Instagram when I was 12.
What was the experience of being on social media for you?
I was spending at least six hours a day on these apps, just mindlessly scrolling, absorbing all of these unrealistic body standards. That down the line resulted in disordered eating. It just became this horrific loop of going on these apps, well Instagram, feeling worse about myself, but feeling as though I couldn’t stop scrolling because it had this weird power over me. Social media served as a tool for amplification of the negative attributes and feelings that I really didn’t want to have.
Many recent news reports have highlighted the negative effects that social media can have on young people and self-esteem. How did those stories play into your thinking about the project?
The first article I read that really launched into it was How Smartphones Destroyed a Generation. I found study after study showing possible correlations between increased rates of anxiety, suicide rates and eating disorders along with increased rates of consumption.
What other factors fueled your decision to start the Log Off Movement?
The most powerful thing I did was not study. It was the fact that personal stories were not told and there was not an epicenter where people could come together and say: “Here is my personal experience.” “Here’s how I was harmed.” “These were the accounts that made me feel worse about myself.” I knew that was necessary. The genie’s out of the bottle.
As members of Gen Z, we understand that there are positive attributes and there are negative attributes to social media, but right now, in its current usage, it can be really harmful.
How does the Log Off Movement address these issues?
Through our podcast, a leadership council, an educational curriculum on how to use online spaces safely and blogs, we are discussing ways we can move forward with technology and allow it to become a tool again rather than a controller.
What we are asking teenagers to do is talk about their experiences so that we can educate legislators to understand a Gen Z perspective, what we need from technology, what privacy concerns we are having, what mental health concerns we are having. having. We have an advocacy initiative through Tech[nically] Politics, which pushes for laws to help teens have a safe online experience, is the California Age Appropriate Design Code Bill.
Your website says you intend to promote healthy ways to exist on social media, rather than asking people to log off completely. What does healthy engagement look like on social media?
I know that for me, I just can’t log off completely. Healthy use of social media would be any interaction where the user feels as if they are benefiting and that their health is not being harmed. It’s mentally logging off for a second and reflecting on what makes you happiest and why you’re on social media. If you do not benefit at all, then I would say the healthiest kind of existence on social media and the healthiest habit is to log off.
Having some digital presence can feel inevitable in the current day and age. Yet it doesn’t have to be all-consuming. How have you adjusted your own relationship to social media? What methods have worked?
Whenever I go through a stressful period with exams, I delete Instagram. I know that in periods of stress, I’m going to lean towards mindlessly using it as a form of coping. Another thing that worked for me is Grayscale, which makes the phone appear only in black and white.
I always suggest Screentime Genie, which provides solutions on how to limit screen time. I use Habit Lab for Chrome, which helps you reduce your time online. It creates a level of friction between you and addictive technology.
Are there any apps you particularly like?
BeReal is my favorite. At one point in the day, you’re going to get a notification that just says, “It’s time to be real.” And you take a photo of whatever you’re doing. It feels like a genuine moment of someone’s day.
What feedback have you gotten from other teenagers?
One spent six hours a day on social media and said her eyes were hurting. Getting off, she said, she can now see better. It just feels like the world is much more clear, both in a mental and physical way, to her.
What changes have you seen in your own mental health as a result of limiting your social media consumption?
I still deal with my generalized anxiety disorder, my OCD but I can tell you significantly, the symptoms, especially around my body image, really decrease.
What’s your ultimate goal with this effort?
I really just hope it results in a kind of pivot prioritizing the well-being of users in these online environments. Technology is baked into the DNA of our generation. It’s working to push towards regulation, so that more systematic change can occur where individuals feel better protected and find healthier habits.