Seated in their bedrooms scattered throughout the city, three different District teens took a deep breath, unlocked their phones—and deleted their social media accounts.
We might expect that in this time of isolation teens would be turning to technology more than ever in order to connect with their friends and community. And at first, they did. Youth transitioned to virtual school and spent the remainder of their day Facetiming with friends, watching Netflix and YouTube and scrolling through Instagram and Snapchat.
But as the pandemic dragged on, screens and social media exerted an even greater influence on their mental health, already a challenge for many teenagers. According to the CDC, over 4 million children have diagnosed anxiety and close to 2 million have diagnosed depression.
Pre-pandemic, teens were struggling to manage amidst a host of pressures. However, the pandemic added layers of uncertainty which, youth say, have degraded their mental health to the point that it is impossible to ignore.
In my conversations with over a dozen DC teenagers, I was told over and over again that of the realization: with declining mental and physical health teenagers needed to find it within themselves to address this reality—because they had no choice.
Dropping Off Social Media
The pandemic has exacerbated the already negative effect of social media and technology on teenagers’ lives. While the extra time in the day can be used for exciting new projects and learning opportunities, there’s also a strong temptation to try to find comfort in scrolling and tapping through devices.
“Screens can be a time suck. It’s very easy for me to spend hours doing something meaningless on my computer,” reflected Juliette Krevat, a sophomore at School Without Walls (SWW).
But the excessive amount of time on screens started to deteriorate these young adults’ mental health as they compared the joyful, casual photos on screen to their own lives, where they felt isolated.
Social media presents an often falsified or inaccurate depiction of how other teens are faring in the pandemic, which many teens said compounds the difficulty of validating personal challenges.
Teens are aware of this. “In such a tumultuous and challenging time, people want to present their lives as being great when in reality we are all struggling,” said Krevat.
However, the challenges are still real. Luis Wallace, a 10th grader from Ward 8, described how social media made him doubt himself. “For the longest time, I struggled with body issues and hated my skin color and certain aspects of myself,” he said. He would compare his appearance to others in photos on social media, forgetting that some of those pictures were older, or digitally altered to improve their appearance.
“Being on social media can bring up a lot of triggers because everyone on social media is perfect—they have the perfect body, the perfect things,” he said. Wallace said he spent time wondering, “Why don’t I look like these boys and girls on social media?”
That was when he decided it was time to back away from his social media accounts.
Reducing their social media use is not the only way teens are focusing on their health. Whether through exercise, journaling or establishing routine, teens have been reevaluating their lives to determine what works and what doesn’t work.
A Focus on Health
“I have become much more mindful of what good mental health looks like and what taking care of myself looks like,” Juliette Krevat told me. “I have learned to be much kinder to myself because I have to be.” Without the structure of school, Krevat needed to learn to shape her own days and to establish routines which supported her health.
Krevat was extremely exercise adverse pre-pandemic, but she fully embraced it over this past year. Starting with push-ups every morning and evening and Chloe Ting on-line workouts, Krevat progressed to rigorous bike rides and yoga each day. Krevat’s focus on physical health has helped her stay afloat.
“I feel like, in times like these, it is easy to feel like you’ve lost control of your body as well as the things around you, and it’s nice to feel myself getting stronger, physically and mentally throughout these challenging times,” she reflected. “It’s so weird because it is such an unhealthy and scary time, but I’m much healthier than I used to be.”
Not only have teens focused on maintaining healthy bodies, they are identifying new techniques and tools to keep their minds healthy. Capitol Hill resident Maeve Kelly-Mavretic approached her mental health from a more academic standpoint. She paired her deletion of social media with study of Eastern philosophy.
Kelly-Mavretic took a Buddhism and psychology course with a Princeton lecturer through Coursera (an online free platform for college lectures) to help her understand a new approach to self-care. “I have had a lot of time for self-reflection in the past year,” she explained.
She has tried to find ways to stay grounded in the present while also maintaining hope for the future. As part of that, she keeps a monthly scrapbook, knowing that these difficult months will someday become a blur. Like many of us, Kelly-Mavretic feels like she is living a memory and knows that she will always look back on this time.
“I do want to forget the year but I’m not going to want to forget it in 60 years when I want to tell my grandchildren about it,” she reflected. “It’s a weird balance between wanting to pass the weeks away and also savoring everything that is going on right now. I anticipate looking back on this time with fascination, but I am ready for this chapter to be over.”
Finding His Voice
Luis Wallace solidified his identity through his youth activism over the past year. That identity is key to his mental health.
According to the National Alliance of Mental Health, there is a direct relationship between self-esteem and mental health. Establishing a strong self-identity, and with it, positive self-esteem, is a particularly challenging effort for teens right now because extracurricular activities have been eliminated. It’s no longer as easy to define oneself as a musician when there is no orchestra or an athlete when there are no teams.
“Surprisingly, [the pandemic] has helped me find a new confidence in myself that I didn’t know I had,” Wallace explained. He protested with the Black Lives Matter movement this summer and came to realize that his voice mattered. He said that COVID taught him a lot about others, and about himself.
“It taught me that politics is very, very important, especially living in a city like DC,” Wallace said. “It taught me that I have a lot more power in my voice and that my voice means a lot more than I think it does.”
“It showed me that being a youth activist does matter and everything that I am doing does have a purpose.”
Wallace is using this year to transform himself into the person he wants to be. He told me the message that he is giving to himself:
“It’s a new year. Find this confidence. Get this confidence. When you go back to school, you want everybody to see this confident Luis that they had never seen before.”
Wallace recognizes that in solidifying his own identity, he can help raise others up as well. “I have to embrace who I am in the moment and as I always say ‘Self-love is the best love!’ Because if you don’t love yourself, how can you love somebody else?”
Sarah Cymrot is a 16-year-old from Capitol Hill who occasionally contributes to the Hill Rag. She is the co-host of My Life’s Work podcast and attends School Without Walls High School. You can reach her at email@example.com.