You Are Cordially Invited to Larissa May's Digital Oasis

Written by Erica Sloan
Photography by Tim Gibson

It took a near-fatal incident in 2014 for Larissa May, then a sophomore student at Vanderbilt University, to even realize she was hooked on a dangerous substance. To be clear, the “drug” in question wasn’t the typical type you might expect to find on a college campus—it was her phone. Or, more specifically, her Instagram account, where she was growing a rapid following as a fashion blogger. May had become so invested in gaining likes and followers that she was spending upwards of 10 hours a day posting and scrolling, well before anyone knew the mental-health destruction the habit could wreak.

Before long, May had created a well-manicured façade of herself. Today, it’s a familiar plight of influencers across social media, but in 2014, it was still just a highly alluring trap. Online, May’s personality and street style were adored by her 13,000-plus followers. But in real life, she felt emotionally alone, battling an eating disorder and debilitating depression—and was soon physically alone, too, when her declining mental health prompted her roommate to move out. “All I really had was my phone and myself,” she says. Eventually, her depressive thoughts turned suicidal, and a residential advisor took her to the campus Psychological Care Center.

Though it’s hard to believe today, in 2014, social media was largely viewed as a positive innovation, a helpful way to stay connected with loved ones. Instagram had only recently become popular, and Facebook still felt communal, with inside jokes written publicly on friends' walls, “poking wars” breaking out between crushes, and entire photo albums devoted to a single event being uploaded. TikTok wasn't even a nugget of an idea, and we were all still grappling with whether being an “influencer” could be a capital-J job.

For May, the novelty around social media was the allure. Here was an opportunity to “build a unique skill set and have a voice in the room while still being in college,” she says of her initial draw to Instagram. As one of the first members on the influencer-monetization platform RewardStyle (now LTK), she was quickly earning money by forming brand partnerships that would also land her entry to fashion shows worldwide. Technically, May was using social media to connect, just as she does today (because, yes, she still has an Instagram account, with more than 17,000 followers at time of publication). The main difference between then and now? She hadn’t yet learned about the dangers of social media overuse.

"Fear is the antithesis of true connection."

— Larissa May

Over the course of her daily outpatient sessions at the campus psych ward, where May would spend about a month speaking with school psychiatrists, she was never once told how bad social media could be for her mental health. “They told me to focus on my physical wellness, my sexual wellness, and my sleep wellness,” says May, “but there was no digital wellness.” In fact, she remembers being struck by how little her phone use entered the mental-health conversation back then.

It may be difficult to imagine now, but in 2014, people weren’t yet glued to their devices 24/7 as they are now, and social media wasn’t yet a cornerstone of culture. “I was doing all the healthy things I was told to do,” May says, “but it was all while I was still on my device, scrolling and trying to get followers.”

As we now understand, May had fallen victim to the intoxicating drug of social-media fame. It was a “magnifying glass for my brain,” she explains. “It made the lows lower, and the highs higher.” May’s first-hand experience with the duality of social media—as a powerful force for both success and destruction—is what inspired her to launch #HalftheStory in 2015.

#HalftheStory initially started as a storytelling movement for young people to share the half of their story that wasn’t represented online—the candid, earnest, vulnerable parts that they didn’t reveal to their followers. The movement quickly went global, and May found herself using Google Translate on Skype to capture people’s stories in different languages, while also coordinating country-wide meetups to get teens talking about the effects of social media on their mental health.

What emerged was a strong community of young people connecting over the very thing that was causing their disconnection: social media. In 2018, May incorporated #HalftheStory as a nonprofit dedicated to “helping young people reframe their relationship with tech,” she says. Over the following years, May would become a well-known voice in the conversation around the mental-health impacts of tech, landing speaking gigs at schools and education departments nationwide. She would also work with researchers to develop the educational programming that is now the core focus of #HalftheStory: giving young people the tools to “connect the dots between their emotions and their digital habits,” says May, and learn to engage with tech in a way that promotes—rather than stymies—connection. 

After all, if teens are going to continue to have open access to a tool as potent as social media, May believes they also need to understand exactly how it can affect them, just as it did her.

Social media on the brain

If, a decade ago, warnings about tech use were little more than a whisper of concern, they’ve since risen to a rallying cry. Seemingly every second article and news segment warns of the dangers of Big Digital, including the algorithms that are running (and ruining) our lives, the social platforms that are tricking us into a false sense of fulfillment, and the general reliance on technology that’s disconnecting us from our real-life relationships.

In reality, though, social media is not inherently bad—at least, when it’s used in moderation. The real danger is in its overuse or misuse, particularly because social media, like any feel-good drug, can trigger the reward center of the brain in what is often called the “dopamine feedback loop1.” It goes like this: You’re feeling bored or depressed or anxious, so you reach for your phone and start scrolling. Temporarily, you feel better. You’re occupied as you read comments or posts from others in a way that simulates social connection. Maybe you post a cool picture or video of yourself and get the instant dopamine rush of likes or views rolling in.

But then there’s the inevitable come-down: The likes dwindle; a stranger’s video gives you FOMO; the ads start to make you feel bad about your face, your body, your social life. You log off feeling worse than you did at the start, and before long, you’re tapping back in to chase that original high. “Every time I went on my phone [in college], it was like my pacifier,” says May. Whenever she was anxious or depressed, she would click into Instagram and post a glowing selfie or a picture in a chic outfit—anything to elicit enough likes to numb the bad feelings for a while. “Others have their nicotine vape pens,” she says. “I had social media.”

Critical to May’s story is that she was 17 when her dependency on social media began. The age may seem old enough, considering much of Gen Z and Gen Alpha have had access to technology since they were born, but research shows2 the dopamine feedback loop plays an especially prominent role in an adolescent brain—i.e., a brain younger than 25.

“It’s not about becoming a little less lonely; it’s about becoming actively more connected.”

“Because the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for self-regulation—isn’t fully developed3 until age 25, the reward center of the brain is what takes precedence,” says May. We also know that the adolescent brain is especially sensitive to social acceptance and rejection4. Combine the two, and you've got a brain that’s not only primed to seek positive feedback, but is also lacking in impulse control, making it the perfect target for any technology company looking to get its users hooked on that dopamine feedback loop.

In the context of this vulnerable brain, it’s no wonder teenage social media use can quickly devolve into misuse, spawning dependency in cases like May’s. But where actual drug use has led to the development of warning labels and billboard help hotlines, problematic social-media use has largely become normalized—a reality that May hopes to change with #HalftheStory.

Wielding the brain over social media

The fact that #HalftheStory initially took off as a storytelling movement on social media, connecting young people on the topic of tech’s emotional impact, is the irony at the center of May’s work: She’s using social media to warn about the dangers of, well, social media. But the contradiction also proves her point. When used with care and in moderation, tech can be a supportive supplement to our lives, not a harmful escape from real feelings and connections. 

While #HalftheStory developed into a community in its own right, with young people connecting over their struggles with mental health and social media, May became focused on ensuring the next generation didn’t wind up facing these challenges in the first place. That didn’t mean calling for the eradication of tech; not only would that be unrealistic, but also, it would ignore tech’s connective function. Instead, she wanted to equip young people to be better tech users. 

After years of pilot programs, #HalftheStory launched Social Media U in late 2023, as a quarter-long educational initiative tackling emotional resilience habits in the digital age, now serving seven school districts and more than 12,500 middle- and high-school students. Developed and tested in partnership with digital well-being researcher and doctoral candidate Rachel Hanebutt, the framework for Social Media U focuses on helping teens engage with tech in an active, mindful way, and build the emotional awareness skills to identify when it’s time to disengage—the very digital-wellness toolkit May once so desperately needed herself.

Social Media U is naturally connective in that it occurs both in classrooms and on Zoom, where teens can positively and productively engage with one another. But it’s the programming itself that teaches them how to use tech as a means to build new connections with others in their life, both online and off.

“[Social Media U] leans into play and creativity, rather than fear,” says May, “because fear is the antithesis of true connection.” Students aren’t shown slides about the dangers of algorithms and tech addiction. Instead, they’re led through mindfulness activities that help them understand, in real time, the effect social media can have on their emotions, even when they might not realize it. As they gain awareness of the full spectrum of feelings that can arise with tech use, students also learn to identify when an online interaction is positive or negative for them, and when to remove themselves from the negativity and connect with someone IRL instead.

Problematic social-media use has largely become normalized—a reality that Larissa May hopes to change.

Students in Social Media U are also shown how to use tech more actively to seek out community (like, reaching out to a group of friends on Discord when you feel lonely), as well as how to find your own “digital oases,” as May calls online spaces that boost your mood and enhance your connection to yourself (hers, for example, is her Pinterest gardening board). She believes that when young people have the emotional aptitude to take control of their own tech use, they’ll be less likely to succumb to the same dopamine feedback loop that once nearly took her life. 

Even more than that, they’ll also be better equipped to achieve “digital flourishing5,” which is a measure for a person’s positive engagement with social media, including how good they feel during and after being online, and how much they’re truly thriving in their digital interactions (rather than using them for escapism). The model is built on a handful of metrics that encompass the positive effects of social media to help give individuals insight into their own tech use. “What we’re aiming for isn’t just less digital sickness; it’s digital flourishing,” says May. “It’s not about becoming a little less lonely; it’s about becoming actively more connected.”

The power in raising a future generation who understands how to achieve digital flourishing can’t be understated; at least half the story with tech, as May sees it, is in how you use it. But she also knows that Big Tech will need to meet her halfway, and it’s why she plans to work with tech companies “to create new features that increase emotional agency for young minds,” she says. An example: Instead of sending a “like” to someone else, perhaps you could privately rate whether a piece of content made you feel good or bad, and customize your algorithm through emotional responses. “What if we could have control over the content that we’re seeing, rather than letting tech flood our feed with things that it thinks we want to see?” she muses.

If May had been given that kind of control over her own Instagram feed back in 2014, she might not have gotten sucked into the doom-scrolling that would ultimately disconnect her from her community, her friends, and herself. She might have had the agency to opt out of the damage to her mental health, and to opt in—earnestly and vulnerably—to the digital connections she was building online.

But so long as we can’t control the algorithms, May is committed to helping young people better control how they personally engage with them—not only to avoid the social-media dependency that once gripped her, but also to harness the connective powers of social media for good.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
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  2. Casey, B J et al. “The adolescent brain.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences vol. 1124 (2008): 111-26. doi:10.1196/annals.1440.010
  3. Arain, Mariam et al. “Maturation of the adolescent brain.” Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment vol. 9 (2013): 449-61. doi:10.2147/NDT.S39776
  4. Somerville, Leah H. “Special issue on the teenage brain: Sensitivity to social evaluation.” Current directions in psychological science vol. 22,2 (2013): 121-127. doi:10.1177/0963721413476512
  5. Janicke-Bowles, Sophie H., et al. “Digital Flourishing: Conceptualizing and Assessing Positive Perceptions of Mediated Social Interactions.” Journal of Happiness Studies, vol. 24, 3 (2023): 1013–1035. doi.org10.1007/s10902-023-00619-5