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Jarett Benedict, 18, and Ameera Sierra, 17, say Nod has helped improve their social habits and well-being after three weeks of use. “I use it first thing in the morning for five or 10 minutes,” said Ameera. “I just think it makes you feel a lot better compared to social media.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Barely out of bed and still waiting for the fog of sleep to lift, Ameera Sierra used to start her mornings staring at an endless stream of selfies, tweets and Snapchat stories. It was almost a ritual for the 17-year-old: Roll over, turn off the alarm, grab the phone and begin scrolling, the glow from her screen the first light of her day.

And it came with a pang of loneliness, particularly as she saw effortlessly happy lives portrayed on social media.

“Sometimes when I see that and I’m not living that particular life, it makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong or that I’m more alone,” she said. Now Ameera, a senior at Mountain Range High School in Westminster, is carving out a new relationship with her smartphone, thanks to a new app aimed at providing Colorado teens with a sense of connection and support, free of the noise of Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.

For the past few weeks, the teen has has turned to a new smartphone app designed to help Colorado teenagers relearn how to talk to their peers, form meaningful friendships and navigate lingering feelings of loneliness amid a two-year pandemic.

The Nod app, which is being introduced this semester at Mountain Range and schools in seven other districts, gives teens a way to track their sense of well-being, hone strategies to improve their mood when stressed or discouraged and rebuild social skills like giving others compliments or having deeper conversations.

“Students feel a lot less confident in their skills because they haven’t practiced them as much or they’ve been so comfortable engaging in online learning or chatting with people over digital platforms,” said Stacy Stansbury, a school psychologist at Mountain Range High School.

Common social skills aren’t so common anymore

The app was originally developed for college students by Grit Digital Health, a Denver-based technology firm focused on mental health, and the nonprofit Hopelab of San Francisco, which serves as an incubator for projects that address the mental health of youth and young adults.

It was adapted for use by high school students with the help of the nonprofit Colorado Education Initiative, and rolled out to participating school districts through a $490,000 grant from The Upswing Fund for Adolescent Mental Health, which supports organizations addressing student mental health.

Social skills that Stansbury said were “common knowledge” when she was in high school — such as striking up a conversation to recommend something to a classmate or following up on something a peer said the day before — are “not so common anymore.”

The Nod app, largely aimed toward adolescents and college students, was introduced to Mountain Range High School in February 2022. The app allows users to to set social and emotional goals, as well as assess their emotional states using mindfulness and motivational psychology. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Even as teens can connect to one another instantly through their phones or social media platforms, they belong to “the loneliest living generation,” said Nathaan Demers, vice president of clinical programs and strategic partnerships and a clinical psychologist at Grit Digital Health.

He characterizes loneliness as “the gap between the relationships that I have and those which I desire.”

Loneliness among young people stems partly from a decrease in face-to-face interactions as technology has changed how people communicate — everything from the way friends stay in touch to the way people find out what time a movie is playing. Social media often doesn’t help. When a person simply scrolls through social media liking posts and leaving comments, they’re not truly fulfilling their need for connection, Demers said. Instead, they’re “social snacking,” meaning they’re feeling a sense of connection in the moment but one that quickly evaporates.

And loneliness among teens has grown exponentially during the pandemic. That places young people at a higher risk for other struggles, such as anxiety, depression, substance use, suicide and dropping out of school, Demers said.

The app encourages users to branch out and practice skills pertaining to five different focus areas — forming deep relationships, expanding social circles, connecting over shared interests, feeling more confident and exploring opportunities after graduation. For instance, for students looking to broaden their social circle, the app might direct them to smile at five people in a day or sit next to someone they don’t know in the cafeteria and start a conversation. 

Confronting overwhelming feelings instead of escaping them

Grit Digital Health and Hopelab discovered how much high school students could benefit from the Nod app after they opened it up to anyone during the pandemic and ended up attracting many high schoolers, Demers said.

Colorado Education Initiative helped recruit schools to take part in a pilot project. Their students’ feedback helped shape the app’s development, said Marcus Bratton, the nonprofit’s director of implementation and partnership.

The organization will again check in with users at the end of the semester and consider whether to make any other tweaks.

As students continue exploring the app, the hope is that it will help them develop skills to manage their emotions before significant depression, substance abuse, truancy or other challenges interfere with their lives, Bratton said.

The Nod app, through mindfulness and motivational psychology, “equips college students with science-backed skills to build satisfying social connections,” aiming to curb students’ symptoms of loneliness and depression during the pandemic. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“I hope that it inspires human connection for our young people,” he said, particularly as teens often struggle to feel understood, recognize they’re not the only ones facing loneliness and hesitate to exert themselves for fear of being rejected. 

Stansbury introduced the app to Mountain Range High School students toward the end of last month and said she’s found comfort in being able to equip students with a tool that offers them the same kind of guidance she or a school social worker would.

“I think you can see the increase in anxiety and depression and suicidal ideation that’s happening everywhere,” she said, “and sometimes it feels like you don’t have anything to recommend, and now it feels like we do have something they could actually use … that will teach them ideas and strategies of how to reach their personal and social goals while building their confidence and social connections.”

Senior Jarett Benedict has been using the app here and there to start his day with a focus on his mood, putting a name to his feelings and considering ways to improve them if necessary. For instance, when he said he’s between “stressed and unhappy,” the app will nudge him to think about “the small positives” that occur throughout the day or try to shift his perspective.

The app has helped Benedict, 18, develop more self-awareness and has improved his mental health and sense of confidence.

“I was stressing on my grades so much that it felt like that was really the only thing I could focus on all year long,” Benedict said.

“I use [Nod] first thing in the morning for five or ten minutes,” said Ameera Sierra, 17. “I just think it makes you feel a lot better compared to social media.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Ameera has also turned to the Nod app to start her mornings with a better grasp of her emotions, instead of visiting Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, which she said at times had created a “negative bubble in the beginning of my day surrounding how I looked in the morning.”

The pandemic transformed her from “an extremely extroverted person” to “an introverted overthinker” bombarded by news and social media posts about COVID’s grip on the globe, she said.

“Every morning just seeing negative things in any form of timelines that I was on was definitely a lot to deal with,” Ameera said.

She now uses the app to reflect on her behavior and try to shift her mood and mindset, taking five minutes to pause, listen and reflect so that she can be more cognizant of her actions throughout each day.

“It helps allow me to better understand my emotions and better grow as a person,” she said. “I can just be the best version of myself automatically right off the bat every morning.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...