Susan Reynolds has over 20 years of experience in digital wellbeing, youth leadership and mindfulness. In 2019 she co-founded LookUp to discover, empower, and mobilize youth leaders who are taking action to raise awareness and design a healthier, more inclusive, and responsible digital world. Susan leads workshops and facilitates panels to educate and empower Gen Z to find and implement their own solutions, and she’s spoken globally on the topic at conferences in Copenhagen, London, and most recently in Saudi Arabia.
In this conversation, we approach technology with a wide lens, exploring both the promise and the peril of the internet, as well as the ways that different age groups engage with it. Susan poses the idea that part of the teenage mental health crisis could also be viewed as somewhat of a spiritual crisis, the longing for true connection that they try to get from the interconnectedness of the internet, yet these avenues are falling short of helping people to feel deeply connected and fulfilled.
And the collective mental health status of our young people proves the power of the digital age—a conglomerate of apps that have captured and run away with their attention, self-awareness, confidence and peace.
Honestly, we don’t come to many conclusions here. We simply share perspectives, hers from the professional angle having had a long career in tech and education as well as a personal angle, with a deep spiritual sense that’s continuing to emerge and guide her more strongly in her work. She shares about the new book she’s working on, LookUp Live: The Book, a collection of stories about young advocates she partners with who are making a tangible difference in the lives of their peers and exploring what it means to be human in the 21st Century.
Bottom line: Young people are stepping up. Despite, and perhaps because of, the issues they’ve inherited, there has never been a generation with as strong an ethos of purpose and advocacy as Gen Z. They won’t stand for continuing to lose their friends to suicide and shootings. They won’t tolerate ignorance. They won’t accept policies that prioritize corporations over their own well being.
They are choosing to speak out, and that’s what Susan gets to witness every day in her role at LookUp, a perspective that allows space for the grief, anger of the situation yet an empowerment that leads to lasting change.
Help us spread the word and leave a review here!
This program is brought you by the Feathered Pipe Foundation and its kind supporting community, who has been inspiring positive change in the world since its inception in 1975. Please consider joining us with your kind donation.
Susan Reynolds (00:01):
She was a sophomore in college, and she said, You know, Susan, in trying to solve this problem, you just turn to us and tell us to put our phones down. You’re asking us to put our identity down. It’s a piece of us. She said, I’ve had my Instagram account since I was in sixth grade. It is part of my identity. And that was just this realization that, Oh my gosh, it’s not apples to apples. This is apples to oranges. We shouldn’t be telling students what to do. We should be asking them what to do.
Andy Vantrease (00:47):
Welcome to the Dandelion Effect Podcast, a space for organic conversation about the magic of living a connected life. Just like the natural world around us, we are all linked through an intricate web, a never-ending ripple that spans across the globe. Here we explore the ideas that our guests carry through the world, remember who and what inspired them along the way, and uncover the seeds that help them blossom into their unique version of this human experience. This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, whose mission is to help people find their direction through access to programs and experiences that support healing, education, community, and empowerment.
Susan Reynolds has over 20 years of experience in digital wellbeing, youth leadership, and mindfulness. In 2019, she co-founded LookUp to discover, empower and mobilize youth leaders who are taking action to raise awareness and design a healthier, more inclusive and responsible digital world. Susan leads workshops and facilitates panels to educate and empower Gen Z to find and implement their own solutions. And she’s spoken globally on the topics at conferences in Copenhagen, London, and most recently in Saudi Arabia. In this conversation, we approach technology with a wide lens exploring both the promise and the peril of the internet, as well as the ways that different age groups engage with it. Susan poses the idea that part of the teenage mental health crisis could also be viewed as somewhat of a spiritual crisis, the longing for true connection that they try to get from the interconnectedness of the internet. Yet, these avenues are falling short of helping people to feel deeply connected and fulfilled.
And the collective mental health status of our young people proves the power of the digital age. A conglomerate of apps that have captured and run away with their attention, self-awareness, confidence, and peace. Honestly, we don’t come to many solutions and conclusions here. We simply share perspectives. Hers from both the professional angle, having had a long career in tech and education, as well as a longstanding spiritual sense that’s continuing to emerge and guide her more strongly in her work. She shares about the new book she’s working on, Look Up Live: The Book, a collection of stories about young advocates she works with, who are making a tangible difference in the lives of their peers, and exploring what it means to be a human in the 21st Century. Bottom line is young people are stepping up. Despite, and perhaps because of the issues they’ve inherited, there has never been a generation with as strong an ethos of purpose and advocacy as Gen Z.
They won’t stand for continuing to lose their friends to suicide and shootings. They won’t tolerate ignorance. They won’t accept policies that prioritize corporations over their own wellbeing. They are choosing to speak out, and that’s what Susan gets to witness every day in her role at LookUp, a perspective that allows space for the grief and the anger of the situation, yet an empowerment that leads to lasting change.
I’m Andy Vantrease and you’re listening to the Dandelion Effect Podcast with today’s guest, Susan Reynolds.
We’re gonna talk a lot about teen mental health. We’re gonna talk a lot about technology and social media and how different, you know, your experience is with it, from my experience with it, from a 15-year-old today’s experience with it. So I think creating the context around like how much has changed in the past 25 years and, and doing that from the lens of your own life. I’d love to just kind of start there with your personal story and take you down memory lane a little bit about your upbringing, and your interest in education, and then we can move into like when you met the internet <laugh> and the rest unfolds from there!
Susan Reynolds (04:42):
<laugh>. Exactly. I think one of the pinnacle underpinnings of my growing up is that I had a mom who was an educator and very involved in philanthropy. And my father was a real estate developer and also very involved in philanthropy. I also grew up in Oakland, California during the sixties. So if we think about just that backdrop of societally what was happening and sort of where change agency came from. But one of the things we did to play when we were young is we played school. I mean, I always had a grade book and I don’t know what I was recording, but I had a grade book. Then I also went to my dad’s office and had a business box and was recording and just playing on paper, on spreadsheets and grade books.
And I think those two worlds for me growing up, I felt like it was one or the other rather than how does one combine sort of education and business and making a difference in the world. And I do remember a pinnacle moment: You know, going to college in the 1980s, investment banking was what people did, and to veer off of that was scary. But I did have a conversation with my parents, like do I have to go into banking and make money, or can I do what I love and make a difference? Framing it like that is so polarizing in a sense. But I did end up going into teaching and became very interested in diversity and bringing in women’s history and multiracial history, taught about the civil rights movement.
And this is 1986. There is no internet. There is no access to anything digital. Actually, I do think I had my first Mac 128K with the floppy disks. And so I was creating curriculum with word processing. But there was no technology in education. And I felt so strongly that in order to create curriculum that was meaningful, I had to go outside of a textbook and use all sorts of different sources. So I became a real curriculum developer, and in teaching about diversity, I very quickly realized that really what I wanted to do was teach seventh and eighth graders to be social change agents. So exposing them to social change. And this is all reflectively looking back. When I started in 1986, there’s absolutely no technology. And when I left in 2006, we’ve had 10 years of Ed Tech. And it was in 1997 when I was working at the Fen School, a small private boy school in Concord, Massachusetts and was asked to come in as a curriculum developer to write the tech plan.
I literally had no idea how to do it. And so when I asked him, Well, how do we do this? And he said, go on the internet <laugh>. And this is what’s so striking, especially when I tell, you know, young people today: I literally was like, What is the internet? Like, what are you talking about? And sat down at a desktop and very slow and clunky, and, you know, the modem took a long time. But literally what happened to me when I went into this world, as a really divergent thinker, it felt like my brain met itself. I literally felt my brain speed up with the hyperlinks and the way that you could move, in mind-mapping and brainstorming and in different ways. And that really sparked a greater interest in what impact is this technology going to have on all of this, but especially for youth.
Andy Vantrease (08:49):
Yeah. And even the experience of you saying that your brain met itself, that also just speaks to how perfectly created this technology is for interacting with humans and how our brains react to it, and how we’re kind of hooked on it. It’s just so interesting, even in the early days for you to say, It feels like my brain met itself and then sped up.
Susan Reynolds (09:17):
I think that is a really important part because fast forward to when we’re starting to talk about youth mental health is this speed of reactivity to stimulus, to information, to this technological tool is a major force for this. But what was really interesting to me as I started to delve in and learned how to use the internet to research, I found books on Amazon, and then it would show me all the books that are interlinked with the book. You know, it was almost like Amazon knew me, and actually it did, but we didn’t understand what algorithms were then, right? But it kept showing me different books that if I was in the library, these would’ve been the books that I was looking for. But what was really interesting is Don Tapscott wrote a book, Growing Up Digital. I think it was published in 1995. And literally it was predicting the promise and the peril of technology. So I would say that for the past 25 years, part of my thinking around technology is looking at this dichotomy of the promise: To interconnect us, to have information accessible. But literally even then, and the rudimentary, if we think about what the internet was then, it’s power to addict.
Andy Vantrease (10:38):
Yeah. How do you think it was that he predicted that? Was he on the inside of the creation of the internet, or he was just looking at it and just had a prophecy of like, this is what could happen, or it seems like he is like, this is what is going to happen.
Susan Reynolds (10:56):
Well, what I recall is he had also written a book about the digital economy. So he is an economist, he sort of moves with the times. I mean, his recent work has been about crypto. So, I mean, he’s following this. Even thinking back to Atari and Pong and video games, we know those were addictive. And so I think some of the same, I mean, I’m just hypothesizing, but the same things around technology that was addictive before the internet… it certainly was, you know, internet games. You know, just playing pong. I don’t even know what year that was, but you could sit there for hours.
Andy Vantrease (11:39):
Yeah. Before we really get into kind of framing the challenges and the issues that we face today, I’m curious from your perspective, you were a teacher for 20 years in that space from ’86 to 2006. Can you remember back on the shifts that were taking place in students behavior, in children’s behavior? You had a chunk of time teaching pre-internet, pre-technology, and then you had a chunk of time teaching post-internet, and as it was in its infancy and as it was starting to grow, and like you said, be wired into classrooms and be woven into the curriculum.
Susan Reynolds (12:18):
Andy Vantrease (12:18):
Just kind of focusing on that 20 year period, before we get to where we are now, what types of things did you see shifting and changing in students behavior? Maybe attention span, maybe attitude, mood, confidence. Like there’s such a broad range of things that I think are affected by living in a digital age, but yeah, just curious to open that up and have some reflection.
Susan Reynolds (12:46):
So I was anti textbook, right? I mean, I think I wanted more control over what my students were reading. And I was also, even in thinking about this divergent thinking style I have, I had them do cooperative groups. I had them do Socratic seminars, you know, reading different excerpts and then coming together. And so it was easier to sit and read a book. It was easier to sit and read a xeroxed article. There were no distractions. You know, there may be internal mind distractions or physical distractions of people in the room, but there was no technological distraction. And I was very at the forefront of testing out these new technologies in the classroom. And one of the things that I started really early on was message boards and discussing the reading. So rather than going home with a chapter in the book with comprehension questions to answer, I started putting them up on the message board.
And I found that for some students, there was a lot more engagement on these message boards then having to write answers. So there was something about that interconnectivity. But I think the really interesting thing for me was that AOL IM, which is very similar to the texts that come in in that upper right hand corner. I was finding my students were distracted, and they weren’t getting their homework done. And I’d say something like, What were you doing last night? And somebody would joke, He was on IM all night. So I did a little experiment and I said, All right, well I’ll give extra help on IM. So I weaseled my way in there onto IM, and I was able to watch conversations going on. And this has been my experience all along with the development of technology is that I found myself drawn in.
Andy Vantrease (14:45):
Do you remember your screen name?
Susan Reynolds (14:49):
Actually, I don’t remember my screen name. I bet it was.. I was Susan Capetta then, so I’m sure it was, “Scapetta.” It was trying to enter into that world and doing a little bit of research, although I didn’t really think of it that way, but really watching attention spans deteriorate. So trying to figure out ways to engage, really watching where they were—and their attention was divided. Still no cell phones, nothing in the classroom, but I would venture to guess that the decline of the attention span and the drain on the brain in trying to do the homework and going off on your AOL back in the late nineties and early two thousands is incredibly taxing on the brain.
Andy Vantrease (15:43):
Right. I think it was AOL and Instant Messenger, and then MySpace came along at some point, which seemed revolutionary as well, because then there were pictures, and then you could see profiles of people you don’t know. So then it was like this second layer. It wasn’t just your friends, it was like this second layer of, now there’s the world or other people. I wanna keep weaving in your personal story here because I know that there were other really big pivotal moments in your life along your path. I’m curious, so you taught for 20 years. Tell me about the transition out of just like that formal space of teaching. Why? What that looked like and kind of what the next step on your path was.
Susan Reynolds (16:32):
Well, it’s funny, as I said, I was a curriculum developer and didn’t use textbooks. So I read all sorts of professional development. I had read this book about multi-genre literature, and there I am sitting in a workshop with the author of this book on multi-genre literature. She said, well, I was a classroom teacher for many, many years, but then I went back and got my PhD, and now I teach teachers, or, you know, I teach students to be teachers. And it was one of those ah-has. I mean, I don’t know who I thought wrote all these books that I was reading about <laugh>, you know, different methodologies to teach. She said, Well, I think you should be one of my students. Just come to Ohio <laugh>. I was like, Well, I’m married with two kids, so I don’t think I can probably come to Ohio and get my PhD.
But that’s when I started looking into PhD programs in Massachusetts. And so fascinated with young adult literature. And I think that’s my fascination with young adults in general. Simmons College had a course on a Master’s in Children’s Literature. And so I just for fun took young adult literature. And the interesting thing for me that happened when I was taking this course is I was reading three young adult literature novels a week, and all of a sudden a young adult narrative came out. Like I started writing as a young adult protagonist. And I think the interesting tie in to this was she—I say she, because it really did feel like a different part of me—but she really started interconnecting what it meant to live in the digital age. And she started going on sort of a spiritual quest.
And I’m writing in Amanda’s voice, but for anybody that’s written a book or a novel, I’m not gonna say it was channeled, but I’m gonna say she came from somewhere else. I think this was one of my first experiences with an idea of a spiritual or beyond-myself connection. I didn’t have a mindfulness practice. I didn’t have a spiritual practice. I didn’t really know anything about the link between quantum physics and a higher realm. And I was writing about these things, but I was also interconnecting the rapid nature of the internet. And I was envisioning how the internet was connecting us, not just to each other, but to some entity beyond. About what is this interconnectivity?
I sort of stumbled into meditation and yoga. My husband then left and I got a divorce and was taking care of my children and questioning everything again, and sort of what do I wanna do next? And the meditation and the yoga, all I knew was that it was essential. I didn’t even really know what it was essential for. I just knew that I needed to do it. In 2014, I found a conference that talked about Mindfulness in the Age of Digital Distraction. It was called Wisdom 2.0 in San Francisco. And probably some of your readers have actually heard of it or been to it. That’s how I know Dave Morin. I heard him speak, I think in 2015 or 2016. But all of a sudden, right, here are these two worlds coming together. And it’s almost as if I forgot sort of my exploration of what it meant to ive in the digital world. And here was Eckhart Tolle on stage talking about the iPhone. It was this window that opened up. And for me, not many people were talking about the impact it was gonna have on youth mental health. It was talking about youth, it was talking about learning. But people weren’t really talking about it the way that they are now, nine years later. But there was an escalating mental health crisis.
Andy Vantrease (21:10):
I think I remember you saying that you read something 2014, 2015, 16, that said, like, College students have never been as anxious and stressed and isolated and self-harming as they are now. And you think back on that, and you think of the reality now in 2023… I’m just curious of really starting to frame this up. What is some of the causative data and what are some of the statistics that you feel comfortable sharing that can just start to give us a picture of like, what are these young people facing?
Susan Reynolds (21:48):
It was the Stanford Provost, I forget her name, but she wrote that sentence that I read, and it literally gripped me around the neck. And I thought, Wait, what? What do you mean that college students have never been more? And again, this was after going to this Wisdom 2.0 Conference. So I went back, I was like, Well, I wonder what all the research is saying about technology and living in the digital age. And Instagram came out in 2010. The “like” button on Facebook really started to change things, and nobody was really talking about it. And if they were talking about it, they were arguing about it. You know, “it’s not causative data, it’s correlative”. But then it was really Frances Haugen who blew the whistle at Facebook and exposed Facebook’s internal research that was direct causative data, showing that one in three teenage girls using Instagram had lowered self-esteem and body image issues, dysmorphia.
And that, I feel, was pinnacle. The other statistic—and this is a pretty old statistic—I think I came across this in 2016, and I don’t have the specific dates, but in a 10-year period, the incidences of 10 to 14 year old girls self-harming, meaning cutting, had increased 189% starting in 2010. Which comes into this whole notion of what does it mean to live, you know, in a world where likes and followers are quantifying who you are. It’s actually called “quantified popularity.” The really concerning—well, no, it’s all concerning—but concerning data that came out from a CDC survey very recently was that three in five teenagers have contemplated suicide. That is just saying systemically, societally, something is very wrong. And one in five LGBTQ teens has attempted suicide.
Andy Vantrease (23:51):
Mm Gosh. That makes me wanna cry.
Susan Reynolds (23:53):
I know. I mean, I think on the flip side of this, I would say that mental health advocacy and the recognition globally of this as an issue we must tackle systemically. California passed the age appropriate design code, which puts stipulations around technology companies, social media companies, on how they can design social media for youth under 18. And yes, it needs to be enforced, but what it’s also sort of catalyzed is many more states—I think it might be up to 25 states—creating their own types of bills. Now, there’s conflict around these bills, because if you take social media away completely, the positives of social media, particularly for LGBTQ+ and marginalized students who find outlets and a voice, you take that away. So again, it’s becoming educated on all the nuances and saying, How do we mitigate the harms and optimize the positive?
Andy Vantrease (25:07):
Right. You just touched on something that I would maybe even say on like an intrinsic level, we know that the interconnectedness is true, and in some way the internet allows us to try to feed into that, to try to connect into it, something like that. But it’s falling short in a lot of ways, and that’s why we’re left hungry. I wonder how much of this piece of the mental health crisis in teens and in people in general, has something to do with a lack of… I mean, I’ve talked to people about how like, you know, religion for such a long time was kind of the foundation of how people connect with, like, there’s a bigger thing going on here. It’s not just like what your face looks like and who your friends are and whatever. And that has really shifted and evolved over time. And so I think some people would say that the mental health crisis and the crises that we’re facing of all kinds is a spiritual emergency.
Susan Reynolds (26:17):
And a spiritual deprivation as well. Because this spiritual question is woven in every conversation I’ve had with many of these youth. We do get into talking about spirituality.
Andy Vantrease (26:30):
Susan Reynolds (26:31):
Yeah. They haven’t written it necessarily, but I come over here into this, you know, have you practiced mindfulness? Do you have a religion? Do you have a this, do you have a that? Do you believe in higher power?
Andy Vantrease (26:45):
And are they receptive to it?
Susan Reynolds (26:47):
Andy Vantrease (26:48):
When you’re asking these questions, what’s coming out? What are they…
Susan Reynolds (26:53):
Well, the first one was Anastasia who talked about, Well, I believe in the law of attraction and all that manifesting and all that hippie-dippy stuff. So, you know, I’ve had great conversations with Anastasia and the way that she gets stuff done, I was like, Oh, yeah, she’s being supported here. Like, you can tell those that are being supported with what they’re doing.
Andy Vantrease (27:14):
Susan Reynolds (27:16):
I was at a memorial for a 57-year-old friend of mine who was a yoga teacher, and beloved at Spirit Rock, just beloved and a teacher there. And she took her own life, and it made no sense to me. It made no sense. I think what they said there was Jack Kornfield and Tara Brock and others in the sangah were like, Mindfulness is not enough. We need to look at what’s going on at the intersection. And so, JW Brick is actually having a Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit that a lot of these teachers are speaking at: John Kabat-Zinn and Jack Kornfield and Tara Brock, along with real mental health practitioners, you know, the head of the American Mental Health Association and NAMI. But I’ll send it to you cuz I’m really, really fascinated to hear this intersection.
Andy Vantrease (28:15):
How they’re bringing it together, yeah. Because my first thought in that is of just community. What is it that makes this world more appealing to stay in than to leave it? I mean, that’s not a way that people talk about suicide and talk about people taking their own lives. But you have to beg the question, like, Why do people wanna leave this world?
Susan Reynolds (28:41):
Andy Vantrease (28:42):
And why are these young people not feeling like it’s worth it? That’s a massive question. And it’d be interesting to see if somebody could study that, and what are the pieces? I mean, people study happiness and they study relationships and community as like the pillars of longevity and happiness.
Susan Reynolds (29:04):
And, you know, the tribe and the face-to-face without the technological interference. With youth, I always watched, you know, sort of the earthy crunchy kids who were backpackers and, you know, sort of hearty that way. And just more content. We’re supposed to be in nature. We know that.
I do think it’s needed, that community. Kate, who is my program manager at LookUp. When we were going through the interview process, she would talk about that she suffered, struggled with her own mental health issues and how rewarding it is to have a job where she gets to apply that and work towards the betterment for others. And when I finally asked her her story, you know, she was raised by fundamentalist Christians and she was raised by the church, but they dismissed her mental health questions and depression and just told her to pray. Her whole process has been unlearning religion and growing into spirituality. And she took a mindfulness and communication class and had one of those
Andy Vantrease (30:22):
Susan Reynolds (30:22):
Or Kundalini awakening or something during a class meditation.
Andy Vantrease (30:27):
One thing that has been so powerful to read about even just preparing to talk to you and to learn a little bit about your organization was just the inspiration I’m finding in young people using their own experiences of having challenges with mental health to then turn around and start organizations, start campaigns, start programs that are helping their peers. And I think it’s one thing for older people to say, okay, we’re gonna step in and, you know, tell you what to do. But it’s a whole other thing—and I think it’s received in a completely different way—when it’s a 15-year-old saying, Hey, this is what I’ve been through. I was self-harming, or I was having these thoughts, or, you know, I was crippled with anxiety and I’ve sought help for that. I’ve changed it. And now I see around me in my school or in my peer group, I see other people that are really suffering and I wanna help. And it seems like that feels so powerful, the ways that these people are showing up for each other. And I know that that’s like how you built the structure of your organization. I’m just curious to hear the beginnings of LookUp and why you felt like that structure was more impactful than perhaps something different.
Susan Reynolds (31:57):
I started with something different, very personal. I was a yoga teacher and the minute I got out of a yoga class, or the minute I stopped teaching, I grabbed my phone and checked my phone and I was like, Wait a minute, there’s something off here. Also part of my lived experience as well is I have a younger daughter who grew up with crippling anxiety. And so I called myself eventually an emergency parent—wrong thing to do. You don’t wanna be an emergency parent, right. You wanna help build resiliency. And I started a blog that started out Confessions of a Tech Addicted Yogi. And it was really humorous. I mean, I was poking fun at myself, but I was weaving in research, so that you could have links to click on, you know, what I was talking about.
As I moved along with this, I started doing more research about youth, and a friend said to me, Oh, you gotta come speak to my school. And so, you know, there I am back in schools talking to parents and teachers about what parents and teachers should do for youth. Very sort of traditional. What I realized is if I went in front of a group of students and started talking about technology, the defenses went up, they tuned me out. And immediately in their mind is, You’re gonna take my phone. Even if I’m talking about, Let’s talk about all the wonderful things about the iPhone and let’s talk about all the wonderful things about social media, it didn’t matter. Because look at me: I’m a mom, right? I’m representing moms, and I’m gonna come in and I’m gonna take your phone away.
But it was really sitting and speaking with… she was a sophomore in college and she said, you know, Susan, in trying to solve this problem, you just turn to us and tell us to take, put our phones down. You’re asking us to put our identity down. It’s a piece of us. She said, I’ve had my Instagram account since I was in sixth grade. It is part of my identity. And that was just this realization that, oh my gosh, it’s not apples to apples. This is apples to oranges. And so we, we shouldn’t be telling students, you know what to do, we should be asking them what to do, but first, what are your pain points? Right. Because their pain points we’re very different than my sort of saying, you know, especially if we go back to 2014 or 2015, oh, I’m addicted to Facebook.
Okay. But how is that impacting who you are and how you believe, you know, your identity to be and how you interface, you know, centrally interface with your friends. I mean, that, that, that’s very different. And so it was really with that recognition. And Julia Gildahouse was a junior in high school, and she talked about how she went to a high-powered school and they had so much work to do during the week, and they were all on Instagram, but they didn’t wanna miss out on anything. So what would happen if they all took a break together? And so she sort of created the LookUp Challenge, which is very similar to other detoxes. But what was really interesting is she asked these friends, you know, Will you take a week off social media with me and test out this. We’ll call it the LookUp Challenge. And they said, No. You go ahead and do that, but it’s too scary.
The fear is that I won’t exist. I’ll be invisible. Not only will I miss out, but then I won’t be able to, you know, wish my friend happy birthday or comment on her post. And so this whole peer understanding of how you live with social media. I mean, if you don’t like somebody’s post, it’s really a snub. It’s not like, you know, I was busy doing my homework. It’s like, Why didn’t you post? What’s wrong? Are you mad at me? Why didn’t you answer my text? I mean, it’s like this immediacy. And again, if we think about, you know, the way life is ramped up and it’s just is so much quicker.
But that was really, I was like, all right, there’s a different modality. And no one at the time—this was July 2019—nobody was really out there engaging youth innovation or youth solutions. LookUp provided up to $2,500 in seed grant money to develop your solution, whether it was an innovation or a campaign or advocacy, and provided a mentor and we were creating a cohort program. And of course then the pandemic hit. I’m not quite sure how we were gonna create a cohort of shared experiences before the pandemic, but since the pandemic, that’s really what we’ve been able to do.
Andy Vantrease (36:48):
Well, I’m sure it also heightened the need for it. Like, yes, we can now do it digitally, and also everyone’s doing everything digitally, so now we’re really seeing the problem. When the social dilemma came out in September, it had been like six months—at least in the US—of the pandemic. I remember watching that and thinking, Did they plan for this? It was so well timed to be received in the way that it was.
Susan Reynolds (37:19):
Well, what’s interesting about that is it was set to come out much sooner, and it was all set to go. And I think they had been at Sundance Film Festival, and they were all lined up to go into different schools, and then the pandemic hit and they added the piece about the pandemic.
Andy Vantrease (37:36):
Okay, that makes sense.
Susan Reynolds (37:37):
And did a little bit more editing and then it came out. But when we first started it was just, you know, how might we overcome digital addiction and digital overload for tech life balance? I mean, it was like one issue. The next year or six months later we ran the next cohort new questions. But then also, How do we solve for social isolation and loneliness? I mean, that wouldn’t have even been a topic before the pandemic. And digital activism, because so much digital activism came out with Black Lives Matter, with George Floyd’s death. So that became a whole other category. And so I think what we’ve been able to do with LookUp is gear innovation ghallenge to different categories that are really relevant to what’s happening. Like last year was the very first year we did advocacy. Before Frances Haugen started testifying, you might say, Well, we need regulation. And it would be like, We do, but it’s never gonna happen. And two years later, it’s totally happening! And I think the other really exciting thing for me now is there are so many youth organizations, youth-led organizations working on this issue.
Andy Vantrease (38:51):
I watched, I think it was somebody that was supported by LookUp, I forget her name, but she was doing like “NoSo November,” a No Social Media November. And her story was just so touching. I mean, she was so transparent about, like, I am in high school in Colorado and I’ve lost several friends to suicide. I can’t not look at this. Like my life is being changed and I’m losing my people. Stories like that, I feel like just watching people step into action. And, you know, like I was mentioning before, just the peer-to-peer advocacy. Tell me of an example of someone that won the challenge, and then how are they, you know, they get the seed money, they get the mentors. Like, what does that look like for somebody?
Susan Reynolds (39:39):
Well, so the really fun thing for us is we have a partnership with Exposure Labs that created The Social Dilemma. So a new category of the last couple of years is the Storyteller Grant. We have a current cohort right now that’s going January to June, but last year we had two students who created their own documentaries, their own short form documentaries. Maddie Freeman, she was 2021. She actually created a documentary film to kick off NoSo November with Jeff Orlowski, the director of the Social Dilemma. Ryan Huh is at NYU and he found three artists, so a dancer, a classical pianist, and an electronic digital musician—asked them to take a month off social media and filmed what that was like for their creative process.
Andy Vantrease (40:49):
Susan Reynolds (40:50):
Really, really well done. Like 15 minute documentary called it Commercial Connection. So what’s really cool about Ryan is when I caught up with him, he said, Oh, I was just in Kenya with the executive director of Restart, which is a digital addiction rehab center. I think they’re in Seattle filming youth in Kenya around the issue of digital addiction and harms to mental health. You know, that was a trajectory of his life. And he said, I’m just sort of taking it one step to the next, whereas Maddie’s now a senior at Boulder, and she really wants to make this her career. Like she really wants to build out NoSo November, you know, she wants to bring it to more schools. She wants to speak about it. So it takes those different avenues. One question we have for Maddie is like, Okay, so what could it be?
Could you do it twice a year? Could you have NoSo November and then something in May? But the other interesting thing this year, and this is just my education around the mental health crisis in the digital world, like I would say in the last six months, spoke to several youth who were saying, you know, Susan, you can’t fare it all out. Like living in an era of climate change crisis and anxiety and hearing about it on social media all the time in such a negative alarmist, you know, catastrophe fashion is really impacting our mental health. So there is this group called Control Z about climate mental health, and they are creating a podcast in content that will sort of soften it so that you feel empowered to do something about it. Because if it’s so alarmist, it just causes anxiety and fear and paralysis.
Andy Vantrease (42:44):
Yeah. And I imagine that is maybe part of the reason why it’s so challenging to get the causative data. You know, you shared some of those statistics and yes, it makes sense that people are really suffering because of social media. And also there’s so many things happening right now. Like you mentioned the climate crisis. I mean, I’ve had conversations, you know, how many of my friends are considering not having kids because they don’t wanna bring children into this world, and now there’s a diagnosable condition of climate anxiety. The barrage of hearing about it all the time, and like scrolling through Instagram, trying to just look at your friend’s pictures, and there’s a news story of this happening and this happening, and if you’re turning on the TV, it’s just like, it’s all coming at us all the time. It’s not just that there’s filters on Instagram and now everybody’s comparing themselves to like, bots that have these beautiful eyelashes and, you know, thin faces and beautiful hair and all these things. And then they go look in the mirror and they’re a teenager <laugh>, like with acne, and they’re in their pajamas, and it’s like, yeah, that’s gonna make you feel like crap. It’s not just that you’re missing out if you’re not liking people’s photos. It’s not just that you’re getting the doom of maybe there’s only 50 harvests left in the top soil. It’s just everything. It’s everything.
Susan Reynolds (44:15):
You can’t necessarily blame social media, but social media can amplify anything
Andy Vantrease (44:20):
That’s happening. That’s a good point.
Susan Reynolds (44:22):
It puts it on a loud speaker and I’ll age myself right, but through the pandemic, I just watched CNN all the time. Same thing. But there’s a different interaction and a different thing happening to your brain when you’re scrolling on Twitter, right, to get this news. And it’s impacting, and Twitter’s learning what you need and what you’ll click on. And if it’s more extreme and more dismal, it’ll keep your eyeballs on the screen. So there’s all these intricacies to what’s happening around mental health. And I do think the positive though, and people have have talked about this, that the stigma is so much less and the access to materials and resources and the safety and talking about it. Oh my gosh. We need yoga and mindfulness and breathwork and nature and, you know, and everything that happens on a yoga retreat. Everything that happens at Feathered Pipe and how to make that more accessible, but also comfortable because it’s hard to slow down out of the frenzy for all of us too, but particularly for the younger generations.
Andy Vantrease (45:31):
Yeah. I’d like to kind of offer up some what you’ve seen as far as, I guess if you can call them solutions, or if you can call them just helpful suggestions. It’s not a narrow issue, which means that the ways to help people is not gonna be like one thing and everybody’s different. Everybody operates differently. Everybody has different interests.
Susan Reynolds (45:57):
So awareness is key. Even if you don’t do it all the time. Awareness is key. It’s sort of like, we all know exercise is good for us. We also know that mindfulness and meditation is good for us. We don’t always do it, but at least we know it’s good for us. And there’s a piece to just being aware. Sleep deprivation can mask as anxiety or depression. At any age, from zero to 102, nobody should be sleeping with their phones or devices in the bedroom. Number one, you know, people will say, But it’s my alarm clock. You’re just like, Okay, buy an alarm clock.
Andy Vantrease (46:31):
Yeah, so sleep is the big one.
Susan Reynolds (46:33):
“Phubbing” is phone snubbing. And so we need human connection and interconnectivity so much. So do you need to have your phone when you’re when you’re with your friends? Now that’s a really hard thing because what we see with youth a lot is everybody has their phone out and they’re talking about..
Andy Vantrease (46:52):
Things on the phone, yeah.
Susan Reynolds (46:54):
Right. But definitely empathy and connection is much higher if a phone isn’t in view—and studying without your phone! A study that I’ve seen shown over and over again cuz it’s so powerful… It was done on your fluid intelligence, you know, which is your comprehension and your creativity, your ability to make sense and your memory retention. If the phone is in front of you, it is lower than if it’s in your back pocket or your backpack and lower than if it’s in the other room. So if you’re studying for a test and you really care about your academics and like really care that you wanna do well on something or preparing for a talk or whatever, put your phone in the other room
Andy Vantrease (47:36):
And it’s actually like incrementally further away?
Susan Reynolds (47:40):
Andy Vantrease (47:40):
That’s incredible. There’s such a pull. I mean, I know like when I go to work at a library or a cafe and I’m like, Okay, I need to do hours of editing right now, or hours of writing. I have to leave my phone in my car. I cannot bring it inside. You know, if I am like gonna meet somebody after whatever, I just say, Hey, I’m not bringing my phone in. And then we do this thing where we tell everybody we’re not gonna be available because we’re usually always available. But yeah, I mean, just hearing about that study just confirms that.
Susan Reynolds (48:15):
Well, and if we think about, you know, meditation, there’s no phone distracting us. It’s just our mind. And so if you think about the phone is an extension of that, you know, making it even harder to attend.
Andy Vantrease (48:28):
Yeah. Have you seen any programs, any of the things that have come across your table at LookUp that have mindfulness, meditation, yoga, nature therapy, have these things woven in? Like, is that on the radar for this age group?
Susan Reynolds (48:44):
Sruthi Kumar, um, it’s Go Yogi, she’s one of our innovators this year. And they’re all about bringing mindfulness and connecting it to the impact of social media into schools. Sereaha has Still Knowing, and so she’s really looking at the impact of spirituality connected to living in the digital world. She hasn’t really unveiled what she’s working on there. So there are definitely students who have come up with mindfulness. I mean, when we talked about, Maddie in NoSo November, one of the things she does is during that month she sends out newsletters and suggestions and sort of uses the language of self-care, but definitely spending time in all of those. Spending time in nature, practicing mindfulness, taking a bath with candles. I mean, all of these human ways to take care of oneself. And it doesn’t even have to be actual formal meditation, just spending some time in silence and stillness.
Andy Vantrease (49:52):
I wanna touch on this idea of solitude deprivation. I’m so fascinated by this because I’ve never heard this term before. And right when you said it, I was like, oh my God, yeah. I’m somebody who spends a lot of time in nature and like being in Montana, a lot of time in places that don’t have cell service and like away from my phone, I see the thoughts, even if I’m having an experience of this beautiful thing and I’m by myself, there’s a thought, Oh, I should take a picture and then I can share it with somebody. Or I wish somebody was here. Right. And I love to be alone and I love to meditate. You know, it’s like there’s still this strength of pulling away from that experience. And so yeah, I would just love like a brief introduction to solitude deprivation and what you’re doing with that idea these days.
Susan Reynolds (50:53):
I have to credit Cal Newport who wrote Deep Work, but he wrote Digital Minimalism. So he talks about this, that Gen Z is really suffering from solitude deprivation. And when he talks about solitude deprivation, he’s talking about always having an external stimulus. So solitude deprivation, you could be sitting in a coffee shop writing in your journal. He would claim that that is solitude. It’s not the background noise. It’s not actually being alone alone, but it’s being alone with your own thoughts and your own sense of self and your own internal sense of self. So without the external stimulation, and I think what’s happened with the phone, I mean yes, with laptops and iPads, but with that constant entertainment education communication tool with you, there’s external stimulus coming in all the time and algorithmic stimulus.
Without that solitude, without that stillness in silence, without being able to know yourself, know your own thoughts, listen to your own thoughts, even if they are jabbering away at you with Monkey Mind. This is where I interconnected Cal Newport with Yuval Harari, who wrote Sapiens first, but his most recent book was 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, and his 21st chapter was on meditation. And he meditates an hour or two a day and is this amazing philosopher, and he ends this book literally saying that if we don’t make sure that we’re taking time for solitude, for contemplation, for quiet and stillness… what he says is we may not be able to in the future, like we may not be able to know ourselves. You know, he’s saying eventually our brains could change so much that we can’t know our own thoughts. I mean, sometimes he comes out with, you know, shocking predictions…
Andy Vantrease (53:00):
But back to where we started this conversation of the predictions of from 1995, right? How the internet was going to affect our species and affect the world. Most people never would’ve dreamed of that. Never could have imagined that. So all that to say like, we don’t know. That’s the point is like, we don’t know how this is affecting. And I think that, you know, the work that you’re doing and the work that so many other people are doing and you know, researching, it’s hopeful that there’s attention being paid to it, and that it’s taken as seriously as I think it needs to be.
Susan Reynolds (53:45):
Absolutely. And I think the other thing that brings me so much hope is, you know, Gen Z really cares about making a difference and solving some of these problems. And it’s sort of like if you don’t have sort of your passion or your cause or something you’re really working on, that’s a little unusual. And I don’t recall that ever being sort of the ethos of a generation of, you know, what are you advocating for? And as dire is some of the things they’re facing in the world, there’s also an empowerment. And I do think that part of that is living digitally as well, because you can create, you can use technology to campaign and advocate and it doesn’t cost any money. And you don’t have to go anywhere. I mean, so it’s really leveled the playing field in that respect. So I feel very, very hopeful as much as, you know, there’s times that it can be just really overwhelmingly <laugh> overwhelming of what these youth are facing.
Andy Vantrease (54:53):
Yeah. And I think the practices of yoga and the practices of meditation, it’s really, for me, it feels like even the ability to hold the both/and of this. This reality I think is made easier when we have these contemplative practices. It’s not just one thing. Nothing is just one thing. And so, like you said, the promise and the peril of it. I mean, more and more that’s just like how I see life, honestly. I mean, there’s so much beauty. There’s so much pain, there’s so much suffering, there’s so much celebration. Just kind of at the end here also being careful to not demonize these things because they are parts of our lives. And I have a handful of friends I could name off the top of my head that I’ve met through Instagram or through Facebook or somebody connected me with somebody and now they’re great in-person friends.
The way I stay connected when I travel. It’s the way I work. You know, we wouldn’t be doing this podcast if there wasn’t Zoom. So yeah, really being able to hold the complexity of it and just say, Yes, both things are true, and how can we listen to the people who are being most affected by it? How can we amplify their voices like you’re doing with LookUp Live and really just support people in the ways they need to be supported. Whatever that looks like for each age group: It’ll look different for me, it’ll look different for you. It’ll look different for, you know, the next generations. Is there anything else? Any kind of closing comments? Anything that we didn’t touch on that you wanna make sure you know, is given some voice just in this topic?
Susan Reynolds (56:39):
The other really exciting thing and, and I was talking about writing my young adult novel and Amanda… I have a book contract and I’m writing about these youth innovators and weaving their stories together, starting each of them with their lived experience, what their solutions are, and sort of how they’ve found purpose or advocacy or presence through this. And, you know, it’s all in their own voices and it’s sort of carrying it on that way. And so, there’s so many of these amazing youth leaders and just writing the book, I’ve met even more of them and you know, we can’t give grants to everybody, but I can give voice to so many.
Andy Vantrease (57:33):
Susan Reynolds, a woman of expansive ideas and creative thinking. I appreciated this conversation on many levels. First, because we weren’t too tied down with coming up with solutions in real time for this very multifaceted problem. We allowed ourselves to look at this from different lenses with which this reality can be viewed. And aside from stricter legislation—which is happening—I do feel like the solutions have to be innovative, deeply thoughtful, and created by the very people who suffer the most from these issues.
Secondly, we explored the potential spiritual nature of the internet, or at least broached the idea that perhaps there is something to this relationship between the interconnectedness of technology and the interconnectedness of all beings. This part of the conversation was admittedly a bit clunky as we both thought out loud, but I do wonder if that’s why these tools are so powerful, because it’s playing both on our biology as human beings, but maybe also on our deeper desires to feel the oneness and the unity with the world outside of ourselves.
To learn more about Susan Reynolds visit lookup.live, where you’ll find all the youth leaders she partners with and be totally blown away by the caliber of their ideas and passion for creating the world they want to live in.
A big shout out to Matthew Marsolek and the Drum Brothers whose music you hear at the beginning and end of this podcast, as well as Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who first turned us on to the phenomenon of the Dandelion Effect and how these ideas move throughout the world. This podcast is brought to you by the Feathered Pipe Foundation. Help support us by donating at featherpipe.com/gratitude or leave a review on Apple Podcast and rate us on Spotify. Also share episodes with your friends when you think they can be helpful. This is the most organic way that the show grows, and we even get to meet people at the ranch who first heard about us through a friend sharing this podcast. So keep the stand line effect going. And until the next episode, have a beautiful day.