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An initiative to ditch social media for a month that started with Littleton Public Schools students has gone viral, with thousands of youngsters around the country and the globe joining in the effort to get reacquainted with the world beyond their phones.
The effort, dubbed “Offline October,” followed back-to-back student suicides near the beginning of the school year. A group of concerned Heritage High School students brainstormed the initiative, which they say is intended to get kids to back away from the false perfection their peers portray online, which they say can be damaging to self-esteem.
“After these tragedies, we figured there must be something we can do,” said Kade Kurowski, a 15-year-old freshman at Heritage who was among the group that spearheaded the initiative. “We can't make it stop, but we think going offline might be a way to help.”
The group created a website and sought pledges from students to swear off social media for all of October. The site racked up pledges from more than 1,600 people in 240 schools in 26 states and seven countries.
On Oct. 1, students deleted Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other apps from their phones.
Connecting by disconnecting
As the kids' profiles went dark, some, like Littleton High School senior Kellie Roth, 17, weren't sure they could stick with it.
“I wasn't expecting to make it through the whole month, but I ended up really liking it,” Roth said.
She said she typically spent her last hour before bed and her first hour after waking up on social media, but before long, she didn't miss it.
“I realized how much people use social media,” Roth said. “I went to dinner with some friends, and they were sitting on their phones, and I was just sitting there with nothing to do. I realized how little people really talk to each other. I really preferred not having it, because we actually talked instead of snapping or texting.”
Roth said she felt a little left out at times, because friends who weren't participating would often talk about something they'd seen on Snapchat or Instagram.
“But in the end, I realized I really didn't care,” Roth said.
Kurowski said his life improved after ditching social media — he was able to focus on homework better, and he and his brothers spent more time outside playing basketball.
“It honestly felt a hundred times better than sitting there and opening Snaps,” Kurowski said.
“My birthday was in October,” Kurowski said. “I was afraid I'd feel like I was missing out on everyone sending me birthday wishes online, but it was honestly one of my better birthdays because I had the most people come up to me face to face — even people who don't normally talk to me — to wish me happy birthday.”
Kurowski and the other organizers held weekly events for kids who had taken the pledge. One weekend, they met up to play sports in the park. On the last Saturday of October, they watched the sun rise at Red Rocks.
On the morning after Halloween, Kurowski looked at Snapchat for the first time in a month.
“I looked at it for maybe five minutes,” Kurowski said. “It just seemed kind of pointless. I deleted the app again, and I'm going to leave it deleted for now.”
Kurowksi's mom, Christie, said she was encouraged by the outcome.
“They learned the value of face-to-face interaction,” Christie said. “They also realized people only post the good stuff. Nobody posts their bad days.”
Christie said she ruminated on the impact of social media on young minds.
“Sometimes I'll go on Facebook and see my friends taking all these great trips, and I'd think wow, my life is awful.” Christie said. “But then I'm able to stop and say no, I have three great kids and a wonderful husband. My life is great. But can a high-schooler do that when they're looking at the parties their friends are going to, the vacations they're going on?”
Christie said she was unnerved after news of one of the two late-summer suicides had rocketed through students' social media accounts long before many adults had heard of it.
“I'm kidding myself to say they'll stay off it,” Christie said. “But I hope they're learning to use it in moderation. We know a kid who runs a lawn-mowing business on Facebook. They're very mature about it. I just hope they liked as much as I did that they actually came down and hung out for breakfast.”
After such a banner inaugural year, Kurowski said the kids would like to keep the initiative going.
Littleton Board of Education President Jack Reutzel said he was blown away by the results.
“It was a genius move by the kids,” Reutzel said. “I couldn't be more proud of them. From the stories I've heard, they were reintroduced to a bunch of other great stuff that happens when you're not on your phone. If administrators had come up with this, it wouldn't have been nearly as successful. Kids are really smart. We just need to give them the space and encouragement to do great things.”
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