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Denver-area students organize social media blackout

Movement draws attention to recent suicides

DENVER (AP) – Littleton students touched by recent teen suicides met this month to eat pancakes, play volleyball and soccer and delete every social media app from their smartphones.

En masse on Oct. 1, about 150 students kicked off a monthlong social media blackout by erasing Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the rest from their screens. Since then, the “Offline October” challenge has grown to include 1,600 people at 200 schools in seven countries.

“We’re not saying social media causes suicide, because it doesn’t,” said Joe Roberts, junior class president at Heritage High School. “But it’s definitely a factor. People can become jealous and depressed. People are posting these perfect pictures and perfect tweets.

“We’re saying you can just be real with people. Talk face to face. If you are depressed, just be open about it. You don’t have to pretend your life is OK.”

Roberts said he has spent more time hanging out with friends and calling them on the phone since he isn’t using Snapchat to communicate.

Teens who made the blackout pledge say giving up social media is like trying to break an addiction. “I’ve fallen a couple of times, but I’m trying to get back on it,” said one who contacted the Offline October organizers for advice. A survey of 400 teens participating in the blackout found that 50 percent had previously been spending two to three hours daily on social media and 50 percent said they had been depressed.

The core group of organizers, from Heritage and Mullen high schools and Goddard Middle School, refer people tempted to return to social media to a bucket list they created on their website. Cook dinner for your family. Write a letter to a friend. Play capture the flag.

After two suicides in two days at the start of the school year – an Arapahoe High School student and a Powell Middle School student – a group of about 25 Littleton teens gathered and said “enough is enough,” Roberts said. Many of them were friends of a Heritage student who killed himself last year.

They built a website with the catchphrase “Don’t post a story, live one,” and they spread the word about the blackout in September through texts and, of course, social media. They plan to make it an annual event, a break from worrying about keeping up Snapchat streaks (an unbroken daily conversation through messages and photos) and seeing who is hanging out together through the “snap map.”

Roberts, who runs a lawn service and counts tree-hammocking among his hobbies, is thinking about giving up Snapchat for good.

“I’ve realized I don’t need it in my life,” he said.

Roberts and founders Cason Kurowski and Chloe Schilling expect nearly everyone to return to social media come Nov. 1, but they are hoping they cut back and talk more “without hiding behind a screen.”

Multiple studies have found a correlation between social media and depression. While reducing social media usage is recommended, abruptly cutting off all usage is sometimes dangerous for teens who are depressed and would feel isolated, said Dr. Jenna Glover, director of psychology training for Children’s Hospital Colorado.

She recommends teens have only one social media account and do not sleep with phones in their bedrooms. Glover also advises that the entire family – parents included – adhere to daily screen-free time, such as in the evening and during dinner.

For help

Help for people having suicidal thoughts or for those who fear a person is considering suicide can be found from these sources:

Axis Health System: 24-hour hotline at 247-5245.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-TALK (8255).

RED Nacional de Prevención Del Suicidio: (888) 628-9454.

National Crisis text Hotline: 741741

Boys Town Hotline: (800) 448-3000.

Safe2Tell Colorado: (877) 542-7233 or online at https://safe2tell.org.

Colorado Crisis Support Line: (844) 493-8255. The line has mental health professionals available to talk to adults or youths about any crisis.

Second Wind Fund: (720) 962-0706. This is not a crisis hotline, but the fund is available to youths who face social or financial barriers to crisis counseling. The organization requires a referral by a school counselor or mental-health professional.