EVANSTON — Kids — and adults — need to get off their smartphones, screens and social media and stop “manufacturing life.” That was the message shared with Evanston High School students, staff and guests during a #SavetheKids presentation with TEDx speaker Collin Kartchner, of Pleasant Grove, Utah, on the morning of Thursday, May 23.
Kartchner, who also spoke at both middle schools and at a special parent event that evening, focused his presentation on the negative impacts of technology and social media in particular, noting increasing rates of anxiety, depression and suicide since the use of smartphones exploded in the past decade.
“Social media has caused a nationwide loneliness epidemic,” said Kartchner. “Phones and screens steal real connection,” he said, and “people end up being alone together” as they may sit in groups or at the same table but rather than speaking directly with one another they self-isolate by choosing to be on their phones instead.
Kartchner’s tale of how he became involved with speaking on the hazards of social media and technology usage is both interesting and comical. It all started with him creating an Instagram account specifically to make fun of Instagram posts. He began posting the most outrageous things he could think of to poke fun at the way people pose and set up posts to make themselves look a certain way.
His posts struck a nerve and his Instagram page exploded in popularity. He even had advertisers begin contacting him to post about their products, which didn’t stop even when his product posts were hilarious spoofs, such as consuming a product that made him throw up on camera.
As his page popularity continued to grow, Kartchner decided to use social media for good, raising funds for people impacted by Hurricane Harvey for example. While using social media for good, however, he also became increasingly concerned about the dark side of social media and technology usage, particularly among young people.
Kartchner became particularly concerned when he learned that tech creators in places like Silicon Valley don’t let their own children utilize the very technology they created because of its addictive nature. Kartchner said these tech folks know how addictive it can be because the algorithms used by social media pages and games are specifically designed to be that way to make money.
People will incessantly check their posts to see how many “likes” they’re getting or get upset when a post doesn’t receive what they feel to be enough. Kartchner said social media and games work like a dopamine pump, overstimulating the brain’s pleasure centers. He even went so far as to compare technology usage to cocaine usage for young people, sharing clips from news stories that came to similar conclusions.
Kartchner said social media impacts the brain’s frontal cortex, which is involved in reasoning and decision making, and which doesn’t fully develop in young people until the ages of 25-30.
The anxiety and depression come in when people begin comparing themselves to others. Kartchner said people constantly post smiling, happy photos, staging how they’re standing to make themselves appear thinner or only posting the “good” stuff, which makes others feel as though they’re inferior somehow. “People see these and think, ‘Why isn’t my life like this?’” he said.
Kartchner had some harsh words for parents in the modern age. “Parents are horrible examples,” he said, when they complain about the way teens and even younger kids are constantly on their phones while the parents themselves are on their own phones playing games or posting on social media.
He even went so far as to apologize to the young people in the room. “I’m sorry we did this,” he said. “We created the society you live in.” He said parents are giving their children the equivalent of a loaded gun by giving them smartphones but not teaching them about the potential dangers or limiting the time spent on them.
Kartchner said his four children are not allowed to use smartphones, tablets, etc., given what he has learned about them. He said he also limits his own screen time, putting his phone away in a drawer when the family gets home for the day.
Kartchner told the students, “This problem is not going to be fixed by adults. It has to be fixed by young people.”
The solution, he said, is to either use social media to do good or stop using it. He said one of the first steps is to look closely at every single person or group being followed on social media. “Ask yourself if following that makes you happy and unfollow every single account that doesn’t make you happy,” he said.
Unfollowing accounts is just one part of what he called “The Collin Challenge.” Other parts included sharing authenticity and positivity, showing people it’s okay to be real. He also encouraged people to do awesome things without sharing them in social media posts and to do something not so awesome, even fail at something, and do share it.
He also strongly encouraged real human connection, specifically through hugs. “Hugs dump oxytocin into the brain and help maintain proper brain balance,” he said, which helps people simply “feel better.”
Kartchner said science has shown people should have a minimum of eight eight-second hugs each day, and at that point he directed the entire audience to stand up and hug the person next to them while he timed the eight seconds. “Some of you will find this extremely uncomfortable,” he said jokingly. “You guys can do a fist bump with eye contact for eight seconds.”
A final part of his challenge was to simply get off social media. “Even for one week,” he said. “Take a week off and reset your brain.”
Although speaking on a serious topic that Kartchner obviously believes is a huge problem, he used so much humor and warmth throughout the presentation the students at EHS were laughing aloud and most could be seen paying close attention to his words. Following the presentation, several students approached the stage to take photos and shake hands with Kartchner; some were even seen wiping away tears.
Two freshman students were asked their thoughts on the assembly. “It was so true,” said Aysa Bork and Bethany Mendez, who said they remembered being young kids who didn’t care what was happening on social media. “It was life-changing,” said Bork. “I’m thinking I may toss my phone in a drawer for a while.”