On Wednesday, April 22, five weeks after nationwide school closures and stay-at-home orders began, I found myself sitting in a virtual meeting with seven youth. These were high-school-aged teens who, like all their peers, had been ordered not to attend class. Even over Zoom, the range of their feelings was palpable. They felt frustration, overwhelm, and denial. They also felt acceptance. Gratitude. Hope.
My name is Anna, and I’m a researcher of youth mental health on the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team (SMAHRT) at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. The youth I mention above make up the Youth Advisory Board for one of our research programs, the Technology and Adolescent Mental Wellness program (TAM). The goal of TAM is to explore how technology can support adolescent mental wellness. TAM has a Youth Advisory Board because we know we cannot answer that question without young people themselves.
At the virtual meeting described above, we wanted to better understand how youth’s social media use had changed five weeks into COVID. More than that, we wanted to understand what they felt and how they coped. As not just a researcher, but as another quarantined human being, I was eager to hear them talk frankly about their experience of both mental health and social media during lockdown.
Here are a few of the takeaways from the meeting.
Despite the wealth of information social media provides, it didn’t always aid in understanding the virus. It can feel like “you’re not really getting the whole story,” said Jared, one of our youth advisors. “There was an influx of information…I think we’ve gotten numb to it.” The youth also noted that some articles on Facebook turned out to contain misinformation.
The constant stream of information, not all of which was accurate, left some of them feeling bewildered, even hopeless. “Everybody just gets scared,” Sydney concluded. “Like, what am I supposed to do if I really can't protect myself from this?” In Sydney, I recognized the same questions I’d asked myself during lockdown: What are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to feel?
Facing the Pressure to Excel
The pressure to excel, not only in online school, but in all areas of life, was overwhelming for our youth advisors. “Instagram is really pushing this idea that you have to come out of quarantine either really healthy, or with a new skill,” said Siena. “You should have read a billion books, or you should have done something special.” It’s as if “just surviving isn’t good enough. I’m just trying to make it through and keep it together, and I’m not going to come out with a new language learned.” Josh agreed: “It needs to be okay to just be doing what we’re doing. Otherwise we’ll go insane.”
Maggie observed that TikTok has made the pressure to achieve worse. “A lot of people feel pressure now that you have to be working out, you have to be eating right. If you’re overweight, or you don’t have that perfect house background, or if you’re not the stereotypical Hollywood beauty, you’re not coming up on [TikTok’s Discover] pages.” Being digitally connected provides a “constant reminder” of perceived inadequacy, of things you haven’t done.
An Increase in Screen Time
Siena admitted that her “screen time has been ridiculous,” and that she’s been having a hard time falling asleep because of it. Since she’s been in quarantine, Kelly has “finished three Netflix series, and one of them was seven seasons long.” Maggie compared her screen time prior to quarantine to her average now: “Before, it was about like an hour and a half a day — like I really did not use my phone. And now my average is up over 12 hours a day.”
Our youth advisors identified some clear benefits to screen time. Jared noted that social media helps him take his mind off things. “My distraction or procrastination is social media…if I have to do online school, I’m going to give myself a good half hour on TikTok and then start it.” Maggie added that social media has lifted her spirits. After prom and graduation were canceled, “people made jokes about doing prom on Minecraft [an online game]…The ability for a lot of people to have a sense of humor…is one way that we’re coping.”
Still: are memes and distractions enough to make all this screen time worth it? If this were the whole story, perhaps the answer would be “no.” But our youth advisors pointed to another, more compelling reason to go online: the search for connection.
For Maggie as a recent high school graduate, her ability to connect now with the people she’ll meet in college has been vital. “I have a lot of GroupMe notifications all the time from college group chats…They zoom every single night until 3 a.m. No one is really caring about their sleep schedule anymore because at least you’re getting some social interaction.” Kelly also emphasized the opportunities for connection. “I also text my friends, like all of them… I feel like I’ve gotten a lot closer to those friends who I wasn’t close with before.”
A few days ago, Jared and Sydney coordinated a virtual lunch with a few of their friends. “We had a group Facetime where we all sat down and made lunch and ate lunch together, because that’s what we’re used to doing every day.” This familiar routine, even performed virtually, offered a sense of normalcy, comfort and support.
As the youth shared, I found myself anticipating their every word. But research on the youth experience of COVID is scarcely out yet. So how was it that I knew what they were going to say? It’s not based on credentials and it’s not based on professional experience; it is, rather, because I am a human. As a human in the COVID era, I have gone online and left feeling inadequate. I have gone online to understand the state of the world and I have left feeling even more confused. But I have also gone online and found my spirits lifted because of it.
I’ve been a part of many virtual game nights and family-wide discussions over Zoom. As an introvert, I have surprised myself by texting my faraway friends, just to say “Hey, isn’t this weird? How are you handling it?” Like the youth, I’ve experienced the highs and the lows of digital connection. Yes, I’ve wondered if I’m doing enough, if I am enough. And yes, the phone in my pocket has simultaneously felt like a lifeline, a reminder that none of us are alone in this.
As an academic, as a professional, and as a human, I understand now more than ever that the relationship between mental health and technology is relentlessly nuanced. Sydney captured this well. Social media “can be really toxic, because you’re put to such high standards.” But she noted that apps like TikTok have also provided opportunities to meet like-minded online friends. “It’s just that much easier to realize there’s people going through the same thing as me.”
Anna Jolliff is an adolescent health researcher on the Social Health and Adolescent Health Research Team (SMAHRT), and program manager for the Technology and Adolescent Mental Wellness program (TAM). She earned her Master’s degree in counseling psychology, and now brings a mental health lens to all things research. Anna is also an advocate for courage, vulnerability, and making the personal professional; you can check out her own mental health experience at www.onawakening.org.
To learn more about the TAM youth advisory board, check out this film made by Amanda Lipp, TAM Board Advisor and NAMI National Board Member.