There’s help in Kansas City to fight social media’s effects on youth mental health | Opinion

On Monday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, in an op-ed for The New York Times, called for mental health warning labels on social media apps and support for limiting its influence on young people’s lives.

I agree with him, and so do locals working with mental health and the community.

At first I was skeptical — I know I would scroll past a warning label without reading it, like the terms and conditions.

But this label is just a piece of Murthy’s entire 2023 social media advisory. It incorporates action plans for youths, their caregivers, policymakers, technology companies and researchers.

We also need more community initiatives on positivity and mental health discussions, for all ages in Kansas City.

Jeni Starr and Sondra Wallace’s podcast “The Power of Words” is a great example. The podcast is sponsored by Kansas City Public Library, where Starr is the manager of the Community Learning Specialist Team. Their podcast invites community members to talk about their mental health journeys and the words that inspire them.

“It’s not supposed to hit you over the head with, you know, mental health terminology,” Starr said. “We hope people just enjoy listening to it and have fun hearing it.”

Starr said that for the most part, their speakers “focus on words that can bring positivity.” Initiatives like this podcast are important because the false perception of perfection on social media makes mental health struggles feel isolating.

Murthy’s advisory reported that 95% of teenagers age 13-17 use at least one social media platform. He discussed possible harms from social media exposure, including depression and anxiety, among others.

TikTok, other platforms, offer unlimited content

I graduated high school in 2021 and I’ve seen anxiety and depression manifest in many people around me, especially during COVID-19. After March 2020, my social media intake increased — it was my primary source of breaking news in the world and entertainment — and my screen time averaged seven hours each day.

Social media, especially platforms such as TikTok, use an algorithm to match videos and posts to users’ feeds, customizing what they see and encouraging them to stay on the platforms longer.

The network spews back content similar to what users have seen because it thinks that’s what they want.

And maybe they do, but the ease and accessibility at which young people can consume content they want is not healthy. The amount we can access in one click should not be normalized, but at least it should be considered a safety concern as Murthy advocates.

Tim Deweese, director of the Johnson County Mental Health Center, agreed.

“We need to realize that social media is wanting to consume our time,” he told me. “The fact of the matter is that it is solely based to make money and to engage us in time.”

Deweese has worked with the mental health center for more than 25 years, serving kids in elementary school up to older adults with individual therapy and other services in the center. He said one of the areas he regularly focuses on is social media and technology use.

After working in this sector for over two decades, Deweese noticed trends in how social media became a large part of the mental health conversation and how community involvement created a support system.

“We’ve seen a huge decrease in youth suicide, in particular, in Johnson County. And I think part of that has to do with us talking with young people and listening to them,” Deweese said.

Although anxiety and depression symptoms have decreased since 2020, more than 20% of Kansas and Missouri populations are still experiencing them.

We need to implement more community initiatives to talk about mental health and generate positivity and boundaries. Whether it’s through a podcast or small group discussions, talking about mental health is an important part of creating a healthy relationship with a social media world.