May/June 2023: “Unplug” for the Summer

Michael A. Marinelli, Ed.D. ‘76
Dear Friends,

Now that another school year is over, hopefully students’ summer schedules provide a break from the daily rigor of classes, sports and activities of the other nine months of the year. Hopefully, it is a time for students to have time to relax and recharge. 

In recent weeks, I have heard so many conversations around the serious negative impact social media may have on the mental health of our young people. While the U.S. Surgeon General’s most recent Advisory on “Social Media and Youth Mental Health” acknowledges that social media can be beneficial as well as harmful for young children and adolescents, the Advisory focuses on those factors that can lead to negative developmental consequences from social media use.

On Sunday, June 4, after coming home from Commencement Exercises, I watched two different segments on back-to-back editions of “60 Minutes” discussing the pre-pandemic trends of increased diagnosed depression, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety in teenagers. These diagnoses are now increasing at a higher rate, believed to be caused by the isolation of the pandemic which has accelerated an unhealthy amount of daily social media use. The CDC report states, 

Frequent social media use may be associated with distinct changes in the developing brain in the amygdala (important for emotional learning and behavior) and the prefrontal cortex (important for impulse control, emotional regulation, and moderating social behavior), and could increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments. As such, adolescents may experience heightened emotional sensitivity to the communicative and interactive nature of social media. Adolescent social media use is predictive of a subsequent decrease in life satisfaction for certain developmental stages including for girls 11–13 years old and boys 14–15 years old. Because adolescence is a vulnerable period of brain development, social media exposure during this period warrants additional scrutiny. 

While there continues to be more research around the impact of social media on children’s social and emotional development, we, as parents, students, and educators, should not wait for research, the government or private sectors to put in place safeguards, regulations, or other guidelines to manage the impact of social media on our young people. Pages 17 and 18 of the CDC report offer suggestions to parents and children about ways to manage social media use. In that same spirit of taking action to ensure the health and well-being of our teenagers, I propose that, with the summer break from school, we “unplug” from our traditional social media habits. Similar to the ideas presented in the CDC report for parents and children to consider, why not think about implementing some of the following habits for the summer?

  • No texting or email exchanges after 7 PM (or earlier, or after dinner, etc.).
  • Avoid looking at emails or text messages on Sundays. Make it a family day; go to Church, and focus on communicating with each other. (If someone really needs to speak with you if it is an “emergency,” let them know that they can reach you by phone.)
  • Go for a walk, jog, or run, and leave your phone turned off. (If you need a GPS tracker or some other safety precaution requiring your phone, perhaps silence your phone.)
  • Set meeting dates with friends to have coffee or lunch, and save some news to talk about rather than having continuous social media dialog as things occur.
  • Create “sacred family time,” so that everyone is present. Dinner would be a great time to share conversation without phones, computers, TV, or other distractions. Some families may be able to do this every evening and others, because of work schedules, may be able to plan times less frequently.
  • If you go on a family vacation, put “away messages” on your media accounts, letting people know that you will respond to them after a certain date or when you are able.
These are just a few ideas I share with you based on some of the things my wife and I did in raising our own children, and based on the experiences I had growing up in a world without the internet, which is different from the world in which we live now, I realize!

In my early grade school years, I remember summer Sundays starting with Mass in the morning, followed by pancakes for breakfast. Then, we had “free time” until our main meal around 1:30 PM, which often lasted two hours because my father and mother would ask each of my three brothers and me about our week, and my dad always started some philosophical conversation about any number of topics - current and historical events, family stories that had a moral lesson, and theological debates. After dinner, sometimes just my father and I (a perk of being the youngest), would go for long walks and sometimes get ice cream at the only place that was open on Sundays in those days, as most businesses were closed for the day. Other times, I played basketball with my older brothers and their friends who would stop by to play games of “Around the World,” and “Horse.” Working up an appetite, my mother would call us all in – friends included – to supper, which was often hot meatball sandwiches and maybe some other leftovers from dinner. I don’t remember being influenced by any media messaging, unless I happened to sit down with the Sunday newspaper. 

I believe those childhood days, and many others like them, helped me be a better communicator, able to relate to different people and situations. I was also surrounded, almost constantly, by a group of affirming people who loved and cared about me, and as a young person who was shy as a child, it truly helped build my self-confidence when I really needed it later in life as I went off to college and started my working career.

I believe that one of the significant negative influences of the internet is presenting or suggesting what “perfection” is or looks like, whether it’s a person’s physical beauty or intelligence, a “perfect” vacation destination, or the characteristics of the “perfect mate.” The list is endless. Perfection is for God. We are all imperfect, and we need to let our young people know that being imperfect is okay, and it is important to acknowledge, removing any tension, anxiety, or self-doubt about their own worth.

I realize that we are in 2023 and not 1963 or even 1993, when the internet was made available for public use and certainly not as sophisticated as it is today. Whatever strategies you might consider, particularly taking advantage of the summer break, I wish that we can all take advantage of “unplugging” in some ways. My hope is that, as an Archmere community, we can be a virtual and physical space where, like my childhood Sunday experiences, we can interact with empathy, support one another, and communicate effectively with each other.

Wishing you God’s blessings for a relaxing, safe, and enjoyable summer!

Michael A. Marinelli, Ed.D. ‘76
Head of School
Archmere Academy is a private, Catholic, college preparatory co-educational academy,
grades 9-12 founded in 1932 by the Norbertine Fathers.