Teen Perspectives: Navigating Digital Spaces to Connect About Mental Health

April 16, 2021
4 min read
Written by Limbot

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted norms and created new stressors for people of all age groups. For many young people, it has stripped away outlets of joy and release — whether that’s the loss of high school classes, sports teams, or simply just time away from home to grow independently. In this shrinking world, technology allowed us to connect with others. But this connectivity can be both a lifeline and a strain on mental wellbeing.

To learn more about what this experience has been like for young people, we reached out to Lexi and Senti: two 18-year-olds who served as youth advisors through the Youth 2 Innovator (Y2I) program established by the Headstream Accelerator in 2020. They have been thinking critically about how the pandemic has shifted dialogue about mental health among teenagers — and how navigating digital spaces can be a piece of this puzzle.

Lexi, who uses she/her/hers pronouns, is a Bay Area local and advocate for purposeful tech usage for young people. Lexi finds her peace in the outdoors, whether surfing on the California coast or trail running in the Redwoods, and will be playing field hockey next year at Vassar College.

Senti, who uses ey/em/eirs pronouns, feeds eir soul through music and social justice work. Senti studies songwriting through the Berklee College of Music and works as the Tennessee state director for Generation Ratify, a youth-led feminist advocacy organization that focuses on causes including climate justice, criminal justice reform, and queer liberation.

For those like Lexi, quarantine invited a deep sense of self-reflection. Discovering new things about herself shifted many of her relationships, while talking through her experiences with friends helped boost her mood during the “high highs and low lows” of the past year . “At first, I didn’t really legitimize [those fluctuations],” says Lexi. “I thought that because it was never something that I had really gone through before, that it wasn’t real.”

Meanwhile, for Senti, the pandemic presented an opportunity to slow down and take steps to support eir mental health, away from the daily hustle and bustle of pre-quarantine life. “The pandemic has allowed me to gather all the resources I can, which maybe I wouldn’t have had time to do [otherwise],” says Senti, pointing to the utility of digital apps like Moody, Minddoc and Calm.

Digital tools like these make it possible for teens to explore mental health resources on their own time, on their own terms. Lexi points out that, though adults use technology and played a role in creating it, they can be quick to criticize young people for screen time. She feels it is crucial for adults to understand that teens can uplift their lives while navigating digital spaces. “There is a lot of miscommunication about what it means for us to ‘live’ on these digital spaces and what we use them for,” says Lexi. “It feels like there’s this idea from adults that if we aren’t checking our emails, or doing really important professional things, it shouldn’t matter — but I think that’s false.”

From Senti’s perspective, adults need to acknowledge the everyday necessity and ubiquity of tech with more nuance. “It’s not like we want to have a phone addiction,” Senti says. “Adults should have patience and understand that our phones are literally a world in a box, and not just a singular thing.”

Tech has also led to the growth of a vast digital landscape full of supportive spaces, such as community youth groups for young people to connect about mutual struggles and challenges. Both Lexi and Senti, who have facilitated group conversations in these digital spaces, have witnessed how such discussions can build a powerful sense of empathy. “Something I’ve found that young people always respond to, especially myself, is separating yourself from clutter and finding a group of people who really understand what you’re experiencing or maybe have experienced similar things,” Lexi says.

She’s hopeful that the pandemic has shifted dialogue around mental health, and that it will create new opportunities for understanding. “When it comes to people relating to other people, the pandemic gave everyone a baseline to connect on,” Lexi says. “Everyone was going through it. A lot of people were going through it a lot worse than others, but still, everyone had something that affected them.”

Senti hopes the pandemic will shift expectations around mental health and break down boundaries that preclude people from sharing how they’re doing with peers, teachers or other people in their life. “I hope that disorders and disabilities stop mattering so much,” says Senti. “When you ask how someone is doing, don’t let ‘good’ or ‘ok’ be the only acceptable — or expected — responses.”

Above all, this challenging year has reinforced the fact that people never fully know what others are going through. Whether those ups and downs are visible or not, it’s critical to “allow space for people having a bad day,” Senti says.