Student Spotlight: How An Arizona Teen Animated Social Media Addiction

A video essay for a high school English class made its way into a state lawsuit. Why the visuals resonated far beyond the classroom

By Marianna McMurdock | March 31, 2023

In late December, a classroom of seniors in Mesa, Arizona, fell silent. In February, hundreds of district administrators did the same.

They’d just watched a three minute, wordless animation — 5,618 frames hand-drawn by Red Mountain High School senior Mariana Myers.

A genderless, ageless figure downloads apps. Dopamine fires in their brain; they appear to float. They seek the feeling out more often, foregoing stretching for a morning scroll, isolating from friends to stay connected online. A chain appears on their wrist. They adopt risky behaviors like using their phone while driving. 

When they realize and break the chain, they fall into an abyss.

The black and white video essay illustrates in painful simplicity how social media addiction and fear of being disconnected, termed nomophobia, can impact young people. 

Researched and produced for her English class, Myers’s work found its way into a 111-page lawsuit in which her home district, the largest in Arizona, is suing TikTok, Meta, YouTube, Snap and Google for allegedly targeting and addicting young people through harmful product design. They are one of dozens. 

“You’ve got 250 people in a room and you could not hear a word and there were tears in people’s eyes,” said Mesa Public Schools superintendent Andi Fourlis. “That begs, let’s do something differently about this. So I have to answer that call.”

Myers told The 74 she drew inspiration from independent research, documentaries and real-life observations, of bullying, hate speech, addiction, eating disorders, and friends basing their worth off of likes.

She knew immediately that she wanted to attempt an animation, what she sees as the most powerful art form. 

“You can take any type of idea that you have in your head. It not only conveys an idea, but it can also convey things like movement, emotion, expression.”

A gymnastics coach for kids three through fourteen, Myers has witnessed youth of many ages grow dependent on their phones. Every water break, phones come out, and in-person interaction stops. 

They implemented a new rule: lock your phone in a box as you walk in for the three-hour practice. But some still found a way to keep their connection, hiding their phones in their lockers or deep in backpacks. 

“They just constantly needed… to check their social media in particular,” Myers said. “I would see them on Snapchat or Instagram, messaging friends and I’m like, you’re here to do gymnastics — you can go home and do that. But it was almost as if they couldn’t change that pattern.”  

The phenomenon is one of many she illustrated for the video essay, showing how the urge to connect online can drive isolation with peers in person. 

Particularly in the throes of a youth mental health crisis, experts suggest schools familiarize themselves with warning signs of youth behavior and make schools as affirming as possible. 

While Myers has not struggled with severe addiction, she knows the impact access to professional help can have. Long before she ever downloaded a social media app, she struggled with disordered eating and Tourettes.  

She attended a group for young people in recovery, many of whom pointed to social media as the cause or a contributor to their disordered relationship to food or body image. 

“No matter how subtle, or how purposeful it is, any type of subliminal messaging like that can end up being extremely impactful.”

Though some of her mental health struggles predated her use of social media, she faced the fear of missing out that many children experience as they see their peers’ lives played out online. 

She could see every time her former teammates, who she’d been very close with before getting a concussion, would hang out.

“I was very sad that I had been excluded from a lot… Because that was my team.” The posts became “a reminder that I wasn’t there anymore.” 

She decided at the time to take a break from social media, something she now does often.

Today, she is a self-described mom-friend and therapist for teammates, friends, sometimes family. She’s the sarcastic person many turn to when they’re in pain, mentally or physically. She has a locker full of braces for any body part, “because I’m amazing at getting hurt.”

Professional mental healthcare is a resource she wishes more of her peers had access to.

“Having somebody to talk to that was trained was very helpful,” said Myers. “I wish that was something more people could have, something that had less of a stigma around it… Addictions can be a scary thing.” 

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