The era of COVID-19 has left most Americans isolated at home with their own electronic devices, increasing the use of social media, especially among adolescents.
And the only school in the nation governed by a health-care system is doing its part to help its students navigate past the pitfalls of platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, where young users sometimes put up deceptive faces and bullying is common.
Providence High School, which is affiliated with the Providence hospital chain, recently became the first school in the state to form a partnership with Half the Story, a nonprofit organization that believes in digital well-being and encourages youth to share their lives unfiltered — their passions, hidden talents and struggles — to connect with others on a more human level.
“Social media use was relevant before the pandemic, and is even more relevant now,” said Providence Head of School Scott McLarty. Half the Story is “about empowering a young generation to have healthy relationships with social media that ends up supporting mental health and supporting causes and activism we care about.”
With the partnership, the school will integrate the work of Half the Story into the student experience and use Providence Health and Services as a research resource. McLarty hopes it will engage students to design their own curriculum “because it’s always more effective when students are able to drive their own learning and able to help teach each other.”
“Social media is not going anywhere,” McLarty added. “It’s going to be a persistent part of our lives and reality for years to come. It is absolutely critical for schools like Providence to provide opportunities to examine our relationship with social media and technology that enables it and finding healthy coping mechanisms. Social media can have effects over time, and we all need coping mechanisms.”
Developing a healthier relationship with social media is what inspired Half the Story founder Larissa May. Working on a fashion blog called Livin Like Larz while she was a student at Vanderbilt University took a toll on May, who hit a breaking point because of the pressure of producing content amid the rigors of her academic workload and suffered sleep deprivation and anxiety.
“I struggled with social media and how it intersected with my mental health,” she said. “When I hit my darkest days in college, I was depressed and lost everything. I also observed how technology was affecting men and women on my floor and at school.
“I didn’t really know what the effects would be. I had no idea. [Social media apps] were designed like slot machines in Las Vegas. It is going to be the cigarettes or Juul [e-cigarettes] of our generation. We don’t really know the effect it’s going to have.”
The difficult experience was the source of inspiration for May’s senior art project, in which she wanted to share a more human experience on social media.
“I wanted to have a more transparent conversation, so I quit fashion blogging and wanted to be part of the solution,” May said. “I drew the logo and began sharing with my campus, and then all over the world. … Half the Story started as that. It became a nonprofit a year ago with a greater goal to move beyond campaigning.”
As the organization continues to grow, so does its outreach, and it was only a matter of time for May’s work to intersect with McLarty’s.
“We have to take it back 10 years to know how that partnership came to be,” said May. “I actually had Scott as a high school teacher in Chicago. He was my theology teacher, and he was amazing. We had stayed in touch.”
McLarty reached out to his former student during the spring and asked her to speak to parents. It was such a success that he asked her to speak to incoming freshmen.
“I hope to do freshman orientations for years to come,” said May. “In a dream world, this partnership is hopefully the beginning of a bigger partnership with Providence Medical.”
Being able to work with a health-care system will help Half the Story build a solution designed by students that is approved by psychology.
“We’re ultimately going to find a way to work with the students and build a student research study and teach them how to get research so we can better understand the way kids understand,” said May.
May has developed workshops to educate Providence High students as well as parents. Half the Story recently collaborated with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and released “A Guide for Parents: Social Media, Screen Time and Emotions During COVID-19.”
“We all have to reset and have this dialogue,” May said. “It’s a window to a greater conversation. What a lot of people don’t realize is screens are the greatest coping mechanisms for people, hiding behind the screen and hiding emotions behind them.”
McLarty said May is committed to helping parents and students to better use a tool that has the power to hurt and heal and looks forward to future workshops and projects with Half the Story.
“Schools are in a particularly powerful and influential position to bring communities together and internal communities with outside organizations that have really relevant and informative expertise,” he said. “ … The reaction has been almost completely positive. There’s a recognition among parents that parenting has shifted during the pandemic, and they want to share ideas with each other and gain ideas from outside sources like Half the Story.”