How many times have you picked up your phone today? Have you checked your inbox and your text messages? Did you make your way on to social media and scroll through your feed, refreshing the app just in case something interesting popped up? You’ve probably spent at least an hour or two on your device today—but that pales in comparison to the four-plus hours most of your students spend “liking,” scrolling, playing, creating, and sharing on social media and other digital platforms every day.
COVID-19 has only increased our overall reliance on technology. Shutdowns and social distancing have pushed us firmly into the digital sphere via virtual offices and classrooms. People have been turning to their devices to navigate the chaos while staying connected and informed, making the digital world more powerful and influential than ever. But what does this increased reliance on digital technology mean for our mental health and well-being? How can students learn to find balance, stay safe, and act responsibly online?
Digital Wellness: What Is It?
Digital wellness is a broad term that encompasses our digital habits and activities, and their impact on our mental and emotional health. At #ICANHELP, an organization that advocates for the creation of positive online communities, we believe in empowering students to practice digital wellness. We help them develop healthy technology habits by teaching them about digital citizenship—a practice that is essential for creating an online environment that promotes safety, positive self-expression, mental health, and balance.
The internet and social media can be toxic. According to a survey released by ADL, a leading anti-hate organization, approximately 53% of people on social media have been targeted by hate speech. However, digital spaces can be positive and powerful, too. At #ICANHELP, we aim to bring this positive aspect to the forefront for students and teach them how to engage responsibly and respectfully online.
So, how can you help your students to implement digital wellness in their daily lives?
- Encourage them to set time limits on app usage and designate certain times for social media use. This easy solution can reduce the amount of time spent on social media, allowing students more time to engage in more productive activities.
- Remind them to be mindful of who they follow on social media. Encourage them to fill their feed with users who share similar interests and values. On the flip side, unfollow accounts that make them feel bad or promote toxic behavior (bullying, harassment, body shaming, racism, sexism, etc.).
- Tell them to hide their phones! This may sound silly, but not having their device in front of them will limit the temptation to use it. Have them move their phones away when they’re doing an important task like studying or working.
- Remind them to be aware of what they say and post online. It’s tough to communicate tone and intent, and others may misinterpret what is shared or posted. Encourage your students to review something they are about to post and ask themselves, “Would I want my (grandma, parent, guardian, boss, teacher) to see this?”
- Encourage them to set intentions. Have students ask themselves: “What do I want to get out of using my device? Am I implementing practices that will help me use my digital presence for good?”
While it’s easy to get caught up in the negativity that floods social media platforms, digital technology can be used for good. By engaging thoughtfully and setting limits, students will be able to form healthier relationships with their devices while learning to use their online presence to make a positive impact on their friends and larger community.
The Power of Gen Z
According to a Pew Research study on social media, over 80% of U.S. adults ranging from 18–29 use at least one social media platform daily. This is a dramatic spike in usage compared to a mere 7% of users in 2005. As members of Gen Z have grown up, technology has advanced, and we have become more attached to our devices. With this, the influence and power that social media has on society has drastically increased as well.
I’ve grown up in a digital world and don’t remember a time when the internet did not play a major role in my everyday life. I began navigating the digital world at a young age, posting unedited photos of my life to Instagram for my few friends and watching One Direction music videos on YouTube.
Fast forward to 2020. As COVID-19 began to drastically alter society, I found myself being surrounded by the digital world more than ever, and I am not the only person to feel this way.
“When the pandemic hit, it was like my entire world became digital. My classes went online, social gatherings were online, any human interaction I had was through a screen,” says Lorena Ercoline, an intern at #ICANHELP. “As the world has begun to go back to normal, it is definitely hard to adjust to not using my device as much. I formed an attachment to it.”
Not only has the pandemic taken over the news, but so have other major social and political issues. Following the murder of George Floyd, a courageous woman shared her recording of the incident via social media. As people began to view the video, more and more users took to their platforms to express their anger and concerns. Shortly after the murder, the Black Lives Matter hashtag exploded, generating approximately 47.8 million posts across social media platforms. Activists used social media to organize marches and protests, share petitions, and educate people about institutional racism in America. As a result of these efforts, lethal use of force by law enforcement has decreased by approximately 15–20%, according to a preliminary report from a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Activists are raising their voices and forming digital communities to push for change and awareness around issues such as climate change, immigration, voting rights, and abortion rights.
Social media advocacy is a powerful tool to educate people and spread awareness, but long-term, meaningful change requires users to step away from their devices and go out into the real world. While we live in an increasingly digital-first world, it’s essential for students to take action that goes beyond the screen. After all, while reposting an image allows for information to be spread, that action alone isn’t enough to solve the problem.
What steps can you encourage students to take to avoid becoming a “slacktivist”? How can they take activism from the digital world into the real world?
Suggest they try implementing these few simple actions within their own community:
- Participate in a community service project (and encourage friends and family to join in, too).
- Facilitate a conversation among their peers and encourage discussion about any issues that are important to them.
- Contact their local elected officials and express any concerns.
- Donate to or volunteer with an organization that focuses on a cause that they are passionate about.
- Spread awareness within their community—they can even start an #ICANHELP club (tinyurl.com/icanhelpclub) at their school.
It is no secret that Gen Z has the power to enact change. In fact, students from all over America have taken the first steps in creating solutions to issues pertaining to mental health and digital wellness.
One of #ICANHELP’s student changemakers organized a mental health awareness event at her high school after several students from her school died by suicide. She worked alongside her school counselor to facilitate the event, which ended up being the most well-attended event her school had hosted that year. Her event influenced students to check on friends and classmates who may be struggling and raised community awareness about the importance of mental health.
In addition, one of #ICANHELP’s newest student board members began spreading positivity on social media when she created an Instagram account to highlight the positive features of students in her class. Her actions fostered a sense of community within her school, as students were able to easily connect with other students through the account.
With the entire digital world at your fingertips, you and your students have the power to create change as well. As an educator, you can encourage your students to use their presence in the digital world for good. Teach students how to implement digital wellness practices in their lives. Take action and spread positivity by encouraging students to do the same. Model healthy habits when it comes to using your device. All of us have the power and the tools to do this. Will you and your students take that first step?
Rebecca Grunski serves as a mentor for the Loyola University Maryland’s Student Leadership Corps and participates in service-learning work with the Adult Learning Center at the nonprofit Strong City Baltimore. She is currently working as a public relations intern for #ICANHELP, where she has developed a passion for mental health advocacy and awareness.
For more information and resources about how to empower students to become digital changemakers and use digital for good, visit icanhelp.net.