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Washington University student helps teens deal with social media’s impact on mental health

Log Off's launch coincided with the pandemic, a year where so many were stuck behind a screen.

ST. LOUIS — Emma Lembke is a first-year student at Washington University and wants to create change for years to come. 

At a young age, she realized the impact social media had on her, especially from 5th to 9th grade. 

Lembke noticed a social media addiction and spent four to five hours on it a day.

"It was triggering my anxiety disorder, making my self-image much worse," she said. "When I reached my breaking point in 9th grade, I converted it into something that would help remedy the issue."

She created Log Off and it launched in 2020, after planning it for many years. 

The Washington University student created the platform that's made by teens for teens. 

  • Teens can tell their own stories and experience
  • They can interact and use resources
  • Do a digital challenge to feel as they're getting more control over their social media usage 
  • It includes a female initiative and a well-being initiative
  • It has its own teen leadership council
  • A blog and podcast

Log Off's launch coincided with the pandemic, a year where so many were stuck behind a screen.

It's a time tethered to more problems, too.

Advisory on Youth Mental Health

Just recently, the US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on youth mental health crisis, with COVID-19 adding more pressure to already existing stressors.

In early 2021, compared to the same time period in 2019, emergency room visits for suicide attempts in the US rose 51% for adolescent girls.

This comes in the heels after pediatric groups declared children's mental health crisis a 'national emergency' in October. The groups include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association, which represents over 77,000 physicians and over 200 children's hospitals.

SSM Health, including Cardinal Glennon, saw an increase in hospitalizations for children and adolescents related to mental health emergencies. It's an increase of 48.32% in 2021 compared to 2020.

Beyond that, some of Missouri’s pediatric health care providers — a group including St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Children’s Mercy Kansas City, and Mercy Children’s Hospital St. Louis — saw significant increases of patients in emergency departments with behavioral health needs vs. the same period in 2019.

These leaders even released this information last month, saying they are interested in joining policymakers and other key stakeholders to find solutions.

With the advisory, Dr. Murthy said there are several factors to the rising numbers. One includes teens being bombarded with messages from pop culture and the media.

When it comes to social media, Dr. Murthy said over the past two decades, more and more people have moved onto social media platforms, with the pandemic accelerating this trend. 

During the pandemic, the time teenagers spent in front of screens for activities, not related to school, more than doubled, from 3.8 to 7.7 hours per day.

Dr. Murthy said there are positives to social media, but also said researchers argue digital technologies can expose children to bullying, contribute to obesity and eating disorders, encourage children to negatively compare themselves to others, and lead to depression, anxiety, and self-harm.

He said technology companies must step up and take responsibility for creating a safe digital environment for children and youth.

In December, Instagram rolled out new teen safety features urging teens to take a break if they’ve been on the platform too long.

RELATED: Parents will soon be able to see how much time their teens spend on Instagram

Washington University Psychologist, Dr. Tim Bono, studies the science of happiness.

He said how social media can be a tool to connect, but it has some downfalls, too.

"They can lead us in social comparison, where we see other people highlight reel and we compare that during a distressed time for us or loneliness for us and further amplifies the distresses we are experiencing," Dr. Bono said.

Lembke takes action

Beyond Log Off, Lembke also created a youth lobbying initiative called Technically Politics to change digital regulation laws to ensure online platforms prioritize users' well-being over profit.

She's asking if any teens want to share stories with video testimonies to reach out, so they can push for regulation.

Lembke also offers tips on how to regulate time on social media:

  • Put levels of friction between you and these technologies 
  • Do a five-minute scroll and see if the people you are following make you happy
  • Ask yourself simple questions when scrolling - how does this image make me feel? If it's negative, you can unfollow 
  • Consider doing grayscale on your phone during exam season - everything is black and white and it makes you want to be on your phone less

Lembke advises parents to connect with their children.

"It is baked into the DNA of our generation. It can be a form of self-expression, so I think that it's really important talk with your kids and talk with the people around you in a really kind of a productive manner about social media having its positives and it can have its negatives," Lembke shares. 

Lembke said, in order to help her organization?

One way is to engage with Log Off, as a way to lift up.

"That's all we really want from people is to kind of start those conversations and to engage with us. If I can make one impact, that’s all that matters and that impact is going to be through conversation," Lembke tells 5 On Your Side. 

To start connecting with Log Off, click here.