Millennials may have been the first generation to come of age online, but their Gen Z successors have truly grown up with it — and hardly ever log off.
A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 95 percent of teenagers have access to a smartphone; 45 percent say they use the internet almost constantly. For many of them, social media has been a space for self-expression, entertainment and connection.
But as social media use has risen among teenagers, so have rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. Though the relationship is not directly correlational, there is evidence that some platforms have exacerbated young people’s mental health issues; for instance, internal research documents from Facebook, leaked to The Wall Street Journal by the whistle-blower Frances Haugen, showed that Instagram worsened body-image issues for one in three teenage girls.
A March 2022 study published in the scientific journal Nature found that the relationship between social media use and mental health varied by age, but that there were two windows where social media use was more likely to have a negative effect on the well-being of adolescents: at the start of puberty and again around age 19.
Emma Lembke, a rising sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, experienced those negative effects firsthand. That’s why she started the Log Off Movement in June 2020. The project aims to spur dialogue among young people who are feeling the adverse effects of social media and want to adjust their relationship to it.
In a phone interview, Ms. Lembke, who is 19, spoke about the movement she started, the upsides and downsides of social media, and how she has worked to loosen its hold on her well-being. The interview has been edited for clarity.
What was the first social network you joined?
I joined Instagram when I was 12.
What was the experience of being on social media like for you?
I was spending at least six hours a day on these apps, just mindlessly scrolling, absorbing all of these unrealistic body standards. That down the line resulted in disordered eating. It just became this horrific loop of going on these apps, specifically Instagram, feeling worse about myself, but feeling as though I could not stop scrolling because it has this weird power over me. Social media served as a tool for amplification of negative attributes and feelings that I really didn’t want to have.
Many recent news reports have highlighted the negative effects that social media can have on young people and self-esteem. How did those stories play into your thinking about the project?
The first article I read that really launched me into it was How Smartphones Destroyed a Generation. I found study after study showing the possible correlation between increased rates of anxiety, suicide rates and eating disorders tracking alongside increased rates of usage.
What other factors fueled your decision to start the Log Off Movement?
The most powerful thing to me was not the studies. It was the fact that personal stories were not being told and there was not an epicenter where people could come together and say: “Here’s my personal experience.” “Here’s how I was harmed.” “These were the accounts that made me feel worse about myself.” I knew that was necessary. The genie’s out of the bottle.
As members of Gen Z, we understand that there are positive attributes and there are negative attributes to social media, but right now, in its current usage, it can be really harmful.
How does the Log Off Movement address these issues?
Through our podcast, a leadership council, an educational curriculum on how to use online spaces safely and blogs, we are discussing ways we can move forward with technology and allow it to become a tool again rather than a controller.
What we are asking for teens to do is to be comfortable talking about their experiences so that we can educate legislators to understand a Gen Z perspective, what we need from technology, what privacy concerns we’re having, what mental health concerns we’re having. We have an advocacy initiative through Tech[nically] Politics, which pushes for laws that help ensure teens have a safe online experience, specifically the California Age Appropriate Design Code Bill.
Your website says that you intend to promote healthy ways to exist on social media, rather than asking people to log off entirely. What does healthy engagement with social media look like?
I know that for me, I can’t just log off completely. Healthy use of social media would be any interaction where the user feels as if they are benefiting and that their health is not being harmed. It’s mentally logging off for a second and reflecting upon what makes you happiest and why you’re on social media. If you don’t benefit at all, then I will say the healthiest kind of existence on social media and the healthiest habit is to log off.
Having some digital presence can feel inevitable in the current day and age. Yet it doesn’t have to be all-consuming. How have you adjusted your own relationship to social media? What methods have worked?
Whenever I go through a stressful period with exams, I delete Instagram. I know that in periods of stress, I’m going to lean towards mindlessly using it as a form of coping. Another thing that’s worked for me is Grayscale, which makes the phone appear only in black and white.
I always suggest Screentime Genie, which provides solutions on how to limit screen time. I use Habit Lab for Chrome, which helps you reduce your time online. It creates a level of friction between you and addictive technology.
Are there any apps you particularly like?
BeReal is my favorite. At one point in the day, you’re going to get a notification that just says, “It’s time to be real.” And you take a photo of whatever you’re doing. It feels like a genuine moment of someone’s day.
What feedback have you gotten from other teenagers?
One spent six hours a day on social media and said her eyes were hurting. Getting off, she said, she can now see better. It just feels like the world is much more clear, both in a mental and physical way, to her.
What changes have you seen in your own mental health as a result of limiting your social media consumption?
I still deal with my generalized anxiety disorder, my O.C.D. But I can tell you significantly, the symptoms, especially around my body image, really decreased.
What’s your ultimate goal with this effort?
I really just hope that it results in a kind of pivot prioritizing the well-being of users in these online environments. Technology is baked into the DNA of our generation. It’s working to push towards regulation, so that more systematic change can occur where individuals can feel better protected and find healthier habits.