I’m a teenager who spent hours a day on social media. This is how I reduced my screen time. – Chalkbeat Detroit | Directory Mayhem

In First Person, Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others who think and write about public education.

A typical day for me looks like this: I walk back and forth from the tiny kitchen to the large dining room while heavy slabs test my hands and my fingertips touch their edges. I hold everything together for a few seconds, waiting for the moment when I can finally put the dishes on the table. I smile politely and prepare to repeat this transaction over and over again.

I watch dozens of dishes that whet my appetite satisfy others.

Teenage girl wears a pink blouse and a white headscarf.

When my waitressing shift ends, I start what I like to call my “second shift,” or the time I have after work. Recently I’ve spent this time building good habits for myself that I needed but haven’t wanted to admit for too long.

My second shift used to look like this: scrolling through Instagram and TikTok, whet your appetite for more and more. I wanted a prettier, more expensive wardrobe with fabulous long dresses; I wanted to fly to Casablanca on a whim; I wanted to live in a spacious house with room for a desk so I wouldn’t have to go to the library to study. I wanted my life to miraculously transform into the glamorous lives of those I follow online. I wanted a piece of the sweeter cake.

I went to bed at 3am with envy and disappointment. Notifications alerting me that my screen time had increased didn’t stop me from repeating the same routine.

I discovered my friends shared the same screen time obsession. “Instagram posts always show me things I should ‘fix’ on myself by trending makeup tutorials or workouts,” Fatima Alhussani, a friend from Dearborn, Michigan, told me.

Another friend, Mauria Muthana, described her struggle: “I know social media keeps me from thinking about healthy ways to reduce stress, but I just keep scrolling.”

I knew I wasn’t alone, but that didn’t solve anything. I needed help, but for me (and many other teenagers) asking for help triggers a wealth of anxiety. And because I come from a culture where talking about mental health isn’t normal, asking my mom directly for help seemed impossible.

Her youth in the farming village of Ain et Tiné (pronounced i-nee-ti-nee) in Lebanon contrasted with my waitress summers in Detroit. I already knew that this created boundaries between us. But now I wanted to understand and integrate my family’s sometimes confusing Lebanese customs alongside my own long-established American ones. Instead of asking my mother directly for help, I asked for stories. I wanted to bring out the differences between her life at 18 and mine.

Every day she, my aunt and her mule woke up at 5am before sunrise. Your mission: a 2-mile walk to the local well to collect 8 gallons of water. My mum and aunt carried 1 pound bottles on their heads and two 5 pound bottles on each arm. They left early in the day to avoid hot weather and long, intrusive crowds, my mother told me in Arabic.

This was just one of the many struggles she faced while living in poverty.

She told me that she spent the rest of the day cooking, cleaning and feeding the barn animals, and these tasks weren’t easy either: for cooking, she had to fetch ingredients from the farm, which mainly consisted of figs, beets and bulgur. Every other ingredient had to be paid for with small sums of money raised by selling their own products.

“Didn’t you feel trapped by this hard work, this struggle for survival?” I asked her.

“Yes, the work frustrated me at times, but I realized my family needed my help, so I had to help. My mother, my father, even my friends, they all lived the same life as me, did the same work,” my mother said.

My “second shift” used to look like this: Scrolling through Instagram and TikTok, whet your appetite for more and more.

It struck me that her routine back then included a lot of things that mine didn’t have. Aside from a tireless amount of work, she was surrounded by people who lived the same lifestyle and felt the same when doing the same work. I realized that this may be why mental health issues have become taboo in our Lebanese culture: in communities where everyone faces similar struggles, it can seem selfish to talk about the fact that they are more or fight differently than others. This helped me see that parts of my culture that I didn’t “like” were actually just parts I never really understood.

My mother told me that after her first shift she knew exactly how to spend the second. Whenever she felt lonely, she would invite her friends to have tea and walk around the village. When she was feeling creative, she would draw the birds flying in the sky above her. Whenever she felt unsafe, she brushed her hair and painted her nails. If she was energetic, she would visit her aunt, who owned the first television in the village; There she was able to follow a training program on the fitness channel.

It was then that I realized that I should learn to recognize just like my mother I needed all day. My habit of reaching for my phone when I couldn’t deal with my own emotions left me aimless. It was time to change.

Now I’m starting my second shift by finding out how I’m feeling, changing or strengthening that feeling and practicing gratitude for myself and Allah.

It’s easier than I thought: when my first nine-hour shift of the day depresses me, I challenge myself. Instead of thinking, “I to have to do this,” I try to appreciate my role as a bridge between hungry guests and a kitchen staff busily cooking, and I think, “Me receive to do this.” When my space feels messy, I clean. When I regret the cheeseburger I devoured for lunch, I make a salad for dinner. When I’m grateful, I pray. When I’m proud of myself I feel like I’ve mastered the day well, I write down a plan so that the next day goes even better.

What I learned from my mother is that chasing after our desires may not satisfy us as much as we hope – that doing what excites you in the moment is not as important as doing what what is important. Yes, I enjoy watching TikToks more than serving tables or making my bed, but serving tables pays off, and making my bed makes me feel productive, so I prioritized that. For my mom it wasn’t like walking 2 miles to get water but it has kept her family healthy so she made that a priority.

Intertwining my two cultures with my mother’s help has brought me closer to the understanding that striving for what makes us healthy physically, mentally and spiritually helps us to balance the best and worst parts of life.

Sarah Hachem is a freshman at Wayne State University who joined Detroit writing room Camp in hopes of breaking her writer’s block and rediscovering her enthusiasm and confidence in writing. In her free time, she seeks new ways to express herself, often through journaling. Aside from writing, Sarah finds joy in painting, cooking, baking, Pilates, watching K-Pop compilations on YouTube, and reading.

A version of this story was first published by the Detroit Writing Room Journalism camp in partnership with Coaching Detroit Forward. It is reprinted here with permission.

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