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By the time she was a sophomore at Vanderbuilt, Larissa May was a social media influencer in a serious mental health crisis.
"I almost took my own life," she tells TODAY.com.
The Resident Assistant at her dorm brought May to the college psych center, where she had to answer questions about her relationship with drugs and alcohol.
"But they never asked about the drug that was in my pocket," she says.
"I was spending more time on my phone than I was with my friends going to class, more than I was sleeping. Every single minute of the day was really consumed with my social media presence," she continues. "I would love being on the elliptical because I could workout and then also, you know, engage with people in hopes of growing my platform."
Once May was prescribed anti-depressants and started to rebuild her life, she realized that the story she was sharing with the world through social media — her glamorous life as a fashion blogger and college student — was consuming her.
May started wondering why we stress physical wellness, sexual wellness and nutritional wellness but not digital wellness.
"We're giving kids phones without any roadmap, at the most cognitively vulnerable time of their life. But we don't put them in cars without giving them Driver's Ed," she says.
May says she embarked upon a "giant adventure" to really understand how social media impacts young people, eventually creating an educational program (SocialMediaU) that shows middle and high school students the connections between emotional health and digital habits to transform their sense of self and relationship with technology.
Teens and technology
Through her educational programming and nonprofit organization, #halfthestory, May urges teenagers to learn more about how technology affects their minds, offering concrete tips on bringing mindfulness back into the picture.
Most tech platforms are designed with "no stopping cues," says May. They encourage us to keep going and going and going, mindlessly. "There are some great platforms and tools and ways that you can teach kids to hack their tech" to make mindless phone use less satisfying, May explains.
For example, #halfthestory’s website offers a quick and effective tip for reducing scrolling: Try gray scale. With color removed, our urge to scroll decreases.
At the moment, May is focusing her efforts on kids in middle school and high school, ages where she thinks she can make the most impact, and she urges parents to get involved.
Rather than tell teens that phones are simply evil, May suggests that parents can demonstrate "positively using technology and having it be fun, because there's just so much negativity around it." She also suggests that parents "lead with vulnerability" in openly discussing their own tech temptations and habits they might want to change. Many of the parents who approach May are often chained to their phones themselves, she says.
The next generation
"There is no difference between the digital and physical world for Gen Alpha," which includes anyone under the age of 12, May says.
"The moment that you have a baby and you're on a phone in front of them, that device is interfering with the attachment style of your child," she continues. Their relationship with technology "doesn't start as soon as your child has a device. Your children's digital wellbeing journey starts the moment that they see that blue light for the first time."
In the same way that you teach your child to pick up their shoes or hang up their jacket, you can introduce kids to good habits from a very young age.
May suggests modeling appropriate tech behavior, like avoiding texting while driving or putting the phone aside during dinner. You can even show them how you tuck your phone in for the night before you go to bed.
Help them build skills like learning to play or read independently so you don't fall into the trap of using technology as a crutch to keep them entertained, she advises.
May says, "People really underestimate the power of small habits that can really change the way or shape the way your child sees technology."