‘I was just so isolated’: Teen applauds new program targeting social media’s impact on youth mental health

Program has presentations on online gaming, online grooming, social media, sleep hygiene

SAN ANTONIO – Evalyn Frers’ mental health started to spiral during the pandemic when the whole world was contained to her screen.

“I was just so isolated from just like talking to people other than my family,” said the 15-year-old Frers. Like, I didn’t have any friends during the pandemic — the feeling like you’re not pretty enough for social media.”

She withdrew, felt depressed, unworthy, and eventually suicidal.

Frers told some friends who thought or acted like she was joking. So, even though it was hard, she told her mom, Deborah Balli.

“She let me know about the cutting. She had been kind of hiding it, and her personality was completely different by that time,” Balli said.

She immediately got her daughter some help, which saved her life.

“It took me too long. That’s the part that I still regret, and I want to help others with that now,” Balli said.

Balli said the fierce mental health stigma doesn’t just affect the kids but also the parents.

“When we talk about our kids struggling, the stigma is that you’re a bad parent. We start taking it on ourselves and start blaming ourselves. It hinders us from really reaching them. When we really connected was when I stopped talking and started listening. I really listened to what she was going through,” Balli said.

Now, the mother-daughter duo wants to break the stigma of mental health by supporting initiatives like the new CHAAT program, which stands for Community Health Awareness in Adolescents and Teens.

CHAAT was created by Bexar County’s Center for Healthcare Services, which is connected to the state of Texas.

The move came after a compilation of events: the Surgeon General’s advisory warning about social media’s impact on kids, lawsuits against social media companies about kids’ mental health decline, and new evidence from the Yale School of Medicine confirming the detrimental effects of social media.

Bexar County and the State of Texas decided enough is enough, and they’ve created the CHAAT program to teach families about the reality of what’s happening.

“We’ve got a series of four presentations right now on online gaming, online grooming, the positives and negatives of social media use, and sleep hygiene,” said Delores Haines, Children’s Clinical director for the Center for Health Care Services.

Haines wants kids to think twice.

“‘Am I playing with another kid, or am I playing with an adult?’ And this person may be making friend requests. Teaching them that posting everything isn’t the best thing to do. And even if you delete a post online, it’s not really gone,” Haines said.

The program helps parents learn how to set boundaries.

“Use of parental controls that are on a cellphone or on social media sites. Respect the age limits of social media sites, because even TikTok has a lower age limit that you’re not supposed to have an account,” Haines said.

Haines said parents can even use the same apps.

“If there is a site that you know your child is on, you make your own account, and they have to friend you if they want to keep that account,” she said.

It’s especially important when it comes to video games.

“If you’ve got a child that is really interested in online gaming, investigate all of those games. Figure out what it is that the game is about. Are they playing with other players across the country, and how you can put controls on that?” Haines said.

Those boundaries are not just about what kids do on their phones but when they have it.

“Kids will often say, ‘Well, I need my phone in my room. I need an alarm.’ Well, get a traditional alarm clock. With cellphones, blue light is specifically designed to keep us aware and awake,” Haines said. “So if you have a teenager on their phone right before they go to bed, it is going to be harder for them to wind down and get to sleep.”

If parents want their kids to spend less time on their phones, Haines said they should lead by example and put their own phones down more often.

The CHAAT program also encourages families to look for signs of negative social media use.

“Every time you walk in the room, they switch screens. If their behavior is starting to change, if they’re starting to get a little bit more withdrawn, that could mean they’re potentially experiencing some bullies, or they’ve been exposed to material that they don’t want online. They may have a friendship going with someone that they don’t know,” Haines said.

Frers said the most important thing to learn is what to do if someone is in crisis.

“When your friend tells you that they are having suicidal thoughts, you need to take it seriously, and you need to ask them if they are OK,” she said.

Using the mental health tools she’s learned since her own crisis, Frers constantly checks in with herself and with others.

“I have a friend — they told me that they were struggling, and they needed help, so I told somebody. Then we helped her tell her parents about what was happening and get the right help,” Frers said.

It’s the kind of ripple effect Frers hopes the CHAAT program will create.

Anyone interested in the CHAAT program can request that CHCS bring it to their school, church, youth group, or even their family.

You can email CHCS here or call the main line at (210) 261-2427.

To report anyone in crisis, call (210) 223-7233.

About the Authors

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

Sal Salazar is a photojournalist at KSAT 12. Before coming to KSAT in 1998, he worked at the Fox affiliate in San Antonio. Sal started off his career back in 1995 for the ABC Affiliate in Lubbock and has covered many high-profile news events since. In his free time, he enjoys spending time at home, gaming and loves traveling with his wife.

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