As the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to shift work and school online, social media has only become harder to avoid. While staying online has helped everyone stay connected during the public health crisis, reducing physical interactions isn’t without its mental health risks, especially for young girls. 

Reports of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation have increased among young people overall, which correlates with the uptick in smartphone ownership, Adrienne Warren, director of programs at the organization Global G.L.O.W. told Global Citizen. Warren explained that while the mental health crisis among young people in the US predates COVID-19, there’s now “a perfect storm” of challenges.

"We were seeing this rise in rates, and then we hit the pandemic, which increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, disconnectedness at a really critical point in development in girls,” she said.

“This is particularly important with girls because girls report higher rates of depression as a result of exposure to social media.”  

Internet access has also allowed bullying to extend beyond the classroom and follow girls wherever they go, she added. 

As part of the Healthy GLOW program to provide girls worldwide with sexual, reproductive, and emotional health information, 15-year-old Los Angeles-based GLOW Club participant Brielle compiled a social media mental health guide to help her peers navigate the space. 

Global Citizen spoke with Warren and 17-year-old Nuri, another GLOW Club participant from Detroit, about the recommendations and more ways to help keep girls safe online. Read their tips below. 

1. Reflect on how you are processing what you see online.

Nuri noticed that after spending a lot of time on social media, she was putting too much attention on what other people were doing. 

“I used to use social media quite a lot, and I found myself always buried in someone else’s life and interests instead of my own,” Nuri said. “I used to see people striving and reaching for their goals and posting about it, and I did nothing but watch.”

Taking a minute to check in with yourself about the information you’re coming across while scrolling can make all the difference, according to Warren: “Just quickly, [ask,] ‘Do I do I feel less happy with my life as I watch this; do I feel fat because I saw someone who looked this way?’”

2. Limit the time you spend on social media and take breaks.

Teens in the US spend an average of seven hours and 22 minutes a day on their mobile devices, according to Common Sense Media. Another study conducted by the Child Mind Institute found that teenagers and young adults who spend the most time on Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms have a substantially higher rate of reported depression — from 13% to 66% — than those who spend the least time.

Warren explained that making an effort to stay physically active and maintain offline connections can help you detach from social media.

“I would encourage girls to take breaks on purpose and refocus on the real world and your real relationships,” she said. “There is research that's been done that shows that if girls spend a lot of time online — not just girls, this was actually for young people — if they also have meaningful relationships within their physical, real realm … they are part of sports teams, they have strong friend groups … it cancels [out] some of those negative outcomes. 

“During those breaks, focus on ways to become physically active because we can't separate physical from mental health. The more time you spend online, the less you're taking time to learn new things or practice new skills, which gives us that sense of accomplishment.”

3. Find real-life support to deal with negativity online. 

Having somewhere that feels safe to express feelings that arise from social media exposure has helped Nuri cope. 

“It may be hard to identify them, but we all have that one person or group of people who will make us understand that the negative comments are not worth shedding tears over,” she said.

Affinity groups online are also available for girls to talk about mental health, Warren said. 

4. Don’t compare yourself to how others present themselves online. 

It’s key to remember that people usually post their best selves online and to remain skeptical of the harmful body image messages that are perpetuated. 

“You're seeing people's highlight reels. They took 20 selfies before they decided to put that one up,” Warren said. “No one ever posts about their bad days. They never post before they look decent. This life online is not real. It's sort of a version of truth, but not all the way true. It's a little bit of an illusion.”

Nuri has found it comforting to remember she’s not seeing accurate representations of people’s circumstances on social media platforms. 

“When I start comparing myself [to others], I remind myself that my comparison is based on assumption. Yes, some people have lifestyles and looks that appear gorgeous and real, but I don’t get upset over that,” she said. 

5. Lean into the positive elements of social media.

Nuri appreciates how some young girls use social media to share information on important issues and represent solutions.

“It’s really about how you see social media; not about completely reducing the amount of usage on social media but maximizing the time spent on positive aspects,” she said. “It is about time management, how you are using it, and how beneficial it is. I do [follow] some accounts that send a positive message for girls and make me feel inspired and confident.”

6. If you notice friends behaving differently online, check on them.

Warren recommends asking friends how they are doing if how they are posting or interacting on social media seems unusual. 

“See if they are being isolated or secluding themselves. The most important thing is don't be afraid to engage because usually if someone really wants help, there are signs,” she said. 

“If you know family members, if you have any connection to caregivers in their lives, certainly reach out. Don't be afraid to call the National Suicide Hotline [in the US at] 800-273-8255. Never be afraid to engage and try to dig a little deeper and say, ‘Hey, are you OK?’”

7. Call on leaders to make social media a safer space for girls. 

Warren hopes to see governments investing more in large preventative mental health campaigns that engage girls and their families. 

“How do we message to young people something different, something that's uplifting and affirming?” she said. “And how do we protect them a little bit better? There's lots of opportunities to improve health, but we have to start being intentional.”

There is a chance to get everyone involved in protecting girls online, Nuri added. 

“Tech companies should strengthen security. Parents need to be aware of what their child is posting and not always think what they are doing on social media is shameful or bad. Influencers need to be more supportive of women and show it,” she said.

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