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These 3 Maine teens have limited their social media use — and say it's improved their mental health

Teenagers spend more time on their phones per day than the average adult spends at the office.
Business Wire
/
via AP
Teenagers spend more time on their phones per day than the average adult spends at the office.

Whenever he can, 15-year-old Elliot Morgan practices archery in his backyard. He says it's a good stress-reliever. But it wasn't that long ago that the Brunswick High School sophomore didn't have time for this new hobby. He was too busy scrolling Instagram Reels.

"There were times in the summer I would spend like four or five, six hours a day on my phone," he says.

When school started in the fall, Morgan found himself scrolling as soon as he woke up.

"I realized, you know, I'm starting to not work out as much because I'm starting to skip workouts because I'm on my phone," he says. "It was impacting my focus. My just, you know, general energy to do stuff."

Eva Dodge, 16, a junior at the Ecology Learning Center in Unity, used to spend several hours a day on Snapchat and TikTok. It was fun, she says — until she started comparing herself to the unrealistic beauty standards set by the stream of images.

"And it wasn't necessarily that they were negative all the time," she says. "But just this perfect standard that was put up, and me being like, 13, undeveloped, I was like, seeing that and seeing that wasn't what I looked like. And I think that really took a toll on how I was seeing myself and the people around me."

Hazel Goodwin, a 17-year-old senior at Brunswick High School, says she gradually ramped up her time on TikTok during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her freshman year, she'd stay up scrolling until three in the morning.

15-year-old Elliot Morgan practices archery in his backyard — but it wasn't that long ago that he says didn't have time for this new hobby. He was too busy scrolling Instagram Reels.
Patty Wight
/
Maine Public
15-year-old Elliot Morgan practices archery in his backyard — but it wasn't that long ago that he says didn't have time for this new hobby. He was too busy scrolling Instagram Reels.

"I would feel so miserable and sick to my stomach at the stuff I was seeing, but I couldn't put it down and I would just keep going," she says.

All of the things these teens experienced: lack of focus and sleep, negative body image and poor mental health are among the reasons physicians are concerned about social media.

"Our children have become unknowing participants in a decadeslong experiment," U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said in an advisory issued earlier this year.

"It's becoming clear that it's a key player in many drivers of unhealthy behaviors," says
Dr. Laura Blaisdell, the president of the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

She says social media apps are designed to encourage excessive use, and adolescents and young adults are more susceptible because their brains are at a critical period of development that makes it harder to resist temptation.

"These social media platforms are preying on that inability," Blaisdell says. "It's difficult for adults to put down our phones. But we do have the frontal lobe capacity that the ages of 10-25 do not."

And some researchers say social media may even alter brain pathways that make adolescents more susceptible to addictive behaviors. All of this makes limiting use more challenging — even for families who set firm boundaries.

"It really hadn't seemed like a problem in our house. And then it was a really big problem," says Hazel's mom, Alyssa Goodwin.

She's a pediatrician who's passionate about limiting social media use. So she was shocked when she discovered Hazel had bypassed parental controls and was spending five hours a day on TikTok. Goodwin says she suppressed her urge to freak out over the discovery.

"We were like, 'Can you just take a look and see? Just tell me what you think. Like, does this feel good to you? Are things going well?'" she says.

Hazel says she hadn't realized how many hours she was on social media. And she was miserable. So, she started cutting back. She'd toss her phone in the bottom of her school bag or under her bed so it wasn't within easy reach. After several months, she decided to delete TikTok altogether. That was two years ago.

"As soon as I got rid of it, I was like, 'Oh, my life is so much better,'" she says. "And I actually sleep enough, and I feel better. So I just never downloaded it again."

Dodge says she started weaning herself by turning off notifications. Then, this past summer, she spent six weeks kayaking and hiking — without a phone.

"The first thing I did when I got back was delete TikTok because I realized how much I did not need it, and how much time it was taking up," says Dodge.

She says she's now closer with her friends because they spend more time talking versus scrolling.

And Morgan says getting involved in school clubs has helped him reduce time on his phone. But he admits it's a constant battle.

"If I'm texting and someone's texting me, you know, it's almost they design it in a way so that you can just easily scroll while you're waiting for them to reply," he says. "So if I just text them and I put the phone down, it's kind of as easy as that."

All of these teens say that they now feel more independent and in control. And they say their motivation to change came from understanding just how much they were using social media and how it was affecting them.

The U.S. Surgeon General wants to ensure the impacts are better understood. He's urging tech companies to more transparently assess their products and share data with researchers. And he says policymakers should fund more research while also strengthening safety standards.