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A new warning: How social media is impacting kid and teen mental health

Mentors with the Chrysalis Foundation know firsthand the perils of social media, and how apps can grab the attention of American teenagers.

IOWA, USA — For three mentors at Chrysalis Foundation for girls and women empowerment, social media is a big part of their lives.

Alexandra Bylund grew up as a ballet dancer and has had to navigate body expectations.

“My parents have restricted social media from my life as long as they could, and I really fought to get Snapchat, and I actually got Instagram without them knowing. They found that out like a month ago.”

Fatu Sesay, another mentor, recalls how much she wanted to feel connected with her friends through social.

“I kinda wanted it really bad because I saw most of my friends had it as well and wanted to fit in.”

K Rianto, Alexandra and Fatu have all navigated chat rooms, filters, cyber-bullying, unrealistic body image and the pressure to find their value based on likes.

Rianto has struggled with what society says is ideal beauty.

“I'll see someone that I look up to and looking through the comments and everyone’s like, 'Oh she's so pretty,' ‘Her skin is so fair,’ ‘She's so skinny."

It’s these types of comments that have had her asking herself, “Why does this hurt me so much?”

Sesay has felt the same.

“I sometimes catch myself comparing and sometimes I’m kinda like, ‘Wait. take a moment. What is happening right now? It’s just media.'"

These teens are part of a generation growing up with phones and endless social media in their hands.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, 95% of American teens 13 to 17 years old use social media –– and one-third of them use it almost consistently.

The dopamine effect of kids staying online is equivalent to using drugs.

The report says that when kids spend more than three hours on social media, they are at greater risk for depression, as their brains are still developing.

Terry Hernandez, the executive director for Chrysalis, says that since the pandemic, quarantine isolation caused many teens to seek social interaction through social media.

“If you think about being locked in with your family, not being able to see friends, to have conversations – when you're looking online or trying to talk to people online, or looking at images that might not give you positive messaging – but you're constantly looking for validation," Hernandez told Local 5. "Kids are not learning to have one on one conversations, nor are they learning to write conversations. They’re using vernacular of online texting talk.”

The reliance on social media makes it hard for girls to discern what is real and what is filtered and photoshopped, according to Hernandez.

Rianto knows how hard it can be to pick herself up mentally after feeling inadequate.

“Sometimes when you consume so much negative media, that can just have a toll on you. I'll just have days I'll feel bad about myself. Some days I just want to go home and sleep.”

Brooke Findley, senior director of strategy and impact, says girls are also especially vulnerable to the dark side of apps.

"Simply being a girl is a huge risk factor for so many of those social problems and things like sex trafficking, abuse, unhealthy relationships, and poverty," Findley said.

Chrysalis supports girls from diverse communities with social media workshops, helping them to understand mental health and how to seek out healthy relationships.

It's an approach Rianto appreciates coming from a culturally-mixed family. Her father is Chinese and Indonesian. Her mother is Hmong.

“That cultural divide especially for BIPOC people like on my dad's side, we don’t really talk about it. But my mom was born and raised here in the US. So her views are a lot different culture wise and so I know she’s been a really big pillar of support for me.”

“Social media isn't all bad and it's not going anywhere," Findley adds. "So let's look at how you can have a healthy relationship with social media.”

She encourages girls to focus on managing emotions. 

“Do I care about who I am? And am I in charge of my feelings, my body and communication?" Findley said. "And by having that solid foundation in knowing who you are and liking who you are, that will go so far with whatever life is going to throw at you.”

Hernandez reminds girls to appreciate their bodies. She's seen girls at increasingly younger ages ask their parents for plastic surgery.

Together, they navigate boundaries online with the women at Chrysalis, making it work uniquely for each of them.

Bylund has focused on mental health and yoga pages with body-positive messaging. 

"It’s a lot more of women trying to heal their unhealthy relationships with food and their body across generations."

And when your social media makes you feel bad about yourself?

“Everyone has those days where you’re not feeling so great about yourself, but I think it really helps that I have someone who’s always there for me, someone who’s like a constant support," Rianto said. "Don't base your own values on what the world wants to see, just stay true to yourself."

You are enough.

Sesay adds, “It’s never going to be easy and self-love is an ongoing journey.”

Leaders with Chrysalis advise parents to watch for warning signs that your teen may be struggling with how social media affects them:

  • Pay attention to who your child is talking to online.
    • Who they’re looking at, and what sort of impressions they have so you can talk to them about what a young girl might think about herself. 
  • Watch for girls to be a little more closed in, not wanting to participate in face-to-face conversations.
  • A girl who is experiencing depression and anxiety might not be as engaged in a group or might be afraid of talking to girls in a group.
    • Chrysalis will include them in a smaller group so that they can have an opportunity to share what they’re thinking and then the mentors can follow up with what needs to happen to support their inclusion and development. 

As for improving social media use, Chrysalis mentors suggest:

Delete your Instagram, and get a new account.

Once you have your new account, then start subscribing to channels that meet the life goals you want. If you want to feel happier more often, subscribe to a comedy channel. If you want to work on yoga or art, subscribe to yoga channels because then your feed is no longer about pressure to be thin, or to cut calories.

Delete all of your social media and try to focus on yourself or talk to someone and get help.

If someone blocks you, don’t take it personally. Cancel culture is a part of today’s world, so it’s important to not base your self-worth on what can feel like rejection via social media.


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