As Teens Flock To Online Activism, New Challenges For Mental Health

By Nhi Huynh and Emi Glass
Worcester, Mass. and Kettering, Ohio

Racism has always been prevalent in American society and institutions. In May of 2020, national attention turned to combating police brutality after the murder of George Floyd. The video footage of Floyd’s death, along with the tense political climate associated with the pandemic, sparked some of the largest protests in American history. 

Around the same time, many conservative leaders began to refer to COVID-19 as the “China virus,” despite this being overtly racist rhetoric. Asian-Americans felt the devastating effects of this discrimi-nation, evidenced by a drastic rise in hate crimes. Protests swept the nation again in spring of 2021, in re-sponse to a tragic series of shootings in Atlanta, where six Asian women were killed. 

Due to risks associated with large gatherings during COVID-19, protesters took to both the streets and social media to gather support for a multitude of justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate. As these movements gained traction over the past year, young people emerged at the fore-front. Youth organized and led pro-tests in their communities, but their activism didn’t stop there. 

Young people across the country also amplified their voices online, using apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter to spread information about issues they care about and en-courage others to take action. Youth especially see the value in sharing their opinions on serious matters on-line and using their digital platforms to inform the masses. 

“Everyone can share what they think and feel. I feel like it has escalated, it has brought more light to issues that wouldn’t have gotten a lot of atten-tion,” said Julia, 17. 

However, as issues like systemic racism, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and police violence trend online, teens often report feeling pressured, or seeing others being pressured, into posting about issues they aren’t entirely familiar with. 

Tryphena, 17, recounts feeling pressure from peers to post about a conflict she wasn’t completely edu-cated on. 

“Some of my friends say things in their stories that are like ‘if you don’t post this then it means you don’t care,’ ” she said. “I’m just not sure that I’m the right person to speak out about this right now because I’m just not fully informed.” 

The negative effects of online activism on mental health don’t stop at peer pressure. As conversations surrounding COVID-19 death rates, police brutality, and the Israel-Pales-tine conflict gained widespread at-tention, discussion of tragic events often led to graphic and upsetting images in online spaces, sometimes without any warning. Constant ex-posure to violence and disturbing images, even when it’s online, has been proven to have negative effects on mental and physical wellbeing. Elina, 17, explained how the con-stant exposure to negative news im-pacted her: “When covid started and [the media] were saying all the death rates, it honestly caused me to turn off my phone.”

As the world faces the second year of the pandemic, it’s clear that on-line activism isn’t going anywhere, at least not in the foreseeable future. Young people will continue to be politically active on social media, which makes it imperative to find a balance between speaking out on important issues and taking care of oneself. With so much of young peo-ple’s lives being spent on the inter-net, it’s necessary to be able to take a break from online responsibilities periodically. In fact, taking breaks from social media when needed has been proven to have positive health impacts, such as improving quality of sleep and reducing anxiety. 

If you begin to feel stressed and fatigued by the onslaught of negative news, taking a break from social media could be a beneficial decision. Implementing time limits on certain apps, turning off notifications, and scheduling time away from screens can all help manage social media-induced stress. 

Regina, 16, considers herself to be an online activist. She shared advice for others her age who feel over-whelmed and stressed by politics on social media. 

“It comes down to your limitations. … It’s OK to realize that you’re going to need time off an app. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person.”

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