Digital wellness movement sees Utah as 'testing ground.' Cox declares 'Phone-Free Fridays'

Half The Story, a nationwide movement that helps teens navigate digital spaces safely and effectively, sees Utah as a leader in the fight against Big Tech.

Half The Story, a nationwide movement that helps teens navigate digital spaces safely and effectively, sees Utah as a leader in the fight against Big Tech. (Fabian Sommer, Getty Images)

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SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to teens and their screens, it sometimes feels like fear outweighs hope.

Larissa May is trying to change that with Half The Story, a movement that teaches teens how to navigate digital spaces.

"Every child in America should be protected from the harms of social media," May said, "and have the agency to protect themselves in the digital world."

Half The Story was born out of May's own struggles with social media and her mental health. She knows teens struggle, too — that's why the movement doesn't promote a narrative where teens are victims but instead empowers them to change their relationship to screens.

Social Media U

May helps teens catch the vision with Social Media U, an in-school or after-school program that teaches about digital wellness. One thing the curriculum doesn't do is hit teens over the head with lectures about screen time.

"Screen time is only half the story," May said.

Instead, the curriculum shows teens how social media companies and other apps use addictive features to keep them scrolling, playing and watching.

It also asks teens to practice "emotional granularity," or getting specific about the emotions they feel while in the digital world. If a teen — or anyone — feels angry, sad, gratified or numb while online, it's probably time to take a step back.

Plus, Social Media U shows teens how to change device and platform settings to make their media consumption mindful instead of mindless.

"We're figuring out how to take the fear out of the (digital) space," May said.

The hope isn't that Social Media U grads will ditch screens altogether. Instead, May wants them to work together to create policies that work for them and their classmates.

Teens lead the way

Half The Story puts a lot of trust in teens to choose how they'll use screens. After completing Social Media U, teens think up solutions that their school can implement.

Some kids have asked their schools to set aside a budget for social activities that are screen-free. Others want their schools to have designated spaces where they can hang out without their screens.

May turns to her teen advisory board to get a sense of what teens are most worried about or interested in when it comes to digital spaces.

Right now, she says teens are concerned about artificial intelligence and the potential it has to impersonate them. The tech has the ability to take concerns from the "old world" of social media, like cyberbullying and body image, and amplify them.

"People are now really losing control of their likeness," she said.

Even with these concerns, May doesn't think an out-and-out ban on phones in schools is really the right answer — especially if the ban doesn't involve some tech education.

"If we're merely taking phones away and handing them iPads, we're really missing this point," she said.

'Phone-Free Fridays'

"Our passion for digital wellness … really started in Utah," May said.

Half The Story is all over the U.S. and has even reached Canada and the U.K., but May says Utah is one of the most progressive places for digital wellness, largely because of pushes from Gov. Spencer Cox.

On Friday, Cox announced the latest in a string of social media initiatives: Phone-Free Fridays. He invites Utahns to ditch their smartphones on Fridays from June 14 to Aug. 15.

"We hope to bring awareness to the importance of going phone-free and setting aside time for activities not involving technology, and we encourage parents to collaborate with their children to develop proactive cellphone regulations together," Cox said in a statement on Facebook.

"Utah can really be a testing ground for the rest of the world to catch onto," May said. "Utah has more hope than most places."

In Utah, perhaps more than anywhere else, May hopes to help create communities where young people have a voice.

Utahns interested in participating in Social Media U or working with May can reach out to Half The Story and likely get funding from local investors, she said.

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Emma Everett Johnson covers Utah as a general news reporter. She is a graduate of Brigham Young University.


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