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Offline October: Student-led social media blackout tells teens ‘Don’t post a story, live one’

This Aug. 31, 2017, photo shows flowers left on a wall at Clarity Commons Park as a memorial at Arapahoe High School for a student who took his own life in Centennial, Colo. Two young students from Littleton Public Schools took their own lives over a two day period concerning parents, students and schools. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via AP)

What started as an inspired response to tragedy by some Littleton middle and high school students – after two student suicides in just two days at the beginning of the school year – has grown into something remarkable.

On Oct. 1, about 150 students declared a monthlong social media boycott and deleted all social media applications from their phones.

They started living with each other as individuals again, face to face, instead of dealing with each other as streams of digital images, video clips, messages and icons.

What’s more, they challenged others to do the same, convinced that their dedication to the apps on their phones borders on addiction, and that social media is playing a part in their fellow students’ struggles with depression.

As of Thursday, more than 1,500 students at 240 schools and universities in 26 states (and seven countries on three continents) have joined them.

“We believe that social media plays a negative role in teenagers’ lives and is a factor in depression and suicide,” the Offline October website explains. “Teenagers have lost the art of talking face to face with one another.”

The organizers of the blackout do not naively believe that a 30-day break from Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and the like will be the end of teen suicide. But they know they are onto something.

Offline October organizer and Heritage High School junior class president Joe Roberts, speaking to The Denver Post, said, “We’re not saying social media causes suicide, because it doesn’t. But it’s definitely a factor.”

Research confirms Roberts’ intuition. Time magazine recently reported that a survey of 1,500 teens and young adults ranked Instagram as “the worst social media network for mental health and well-being.” While respondents praised the photo-based platform “for self-expression and self-identity,” it was linked by its users with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and “FOMO” – the Fear Of Missing Out.” Twitter and Snapchat didn’t fare much better.

Research also suggests that using more social media apps can make things worse.

A study published in Computers in Human Behavior in December 2016 describes a national survey of 1,787 young adults asked about their use of 11 popular social media platforms. Those who used the most apps (seven to 11) had more than three times the risk of depression and anxiety than those who used the least.

“These are virtual spaces, but they still create real emotions,” said Brian Primack, M.D., Ph.D., lead author of the study.

Of course, telling teens that overuse of social media may be bad for them is one thing. Having teens make that connection themselves is quite another, and that is what makes this effort so valuable.

The Offline October website is bouyant with the energy and voices of teens who are rediscovering a world of active, interesting peers they seem to have lost, and boasts a “bucket list” of activities to try instead of reaching for the phone.

What it is missing is any hint of a parental “told you so.” Or any hint of peer pressure.

Does the effort end at month’s end? We hope not. Offline October should become Offline November and then December. More kids in more countries should take the 30-day pledge, and then, a year later, sign on to do it again. Let them discover for themselves what they are missing. Or not missing, as the case may be.

Speaking of Snapchat, Roberts said it best. “I’ve realized I don’t need it in my life.”

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