In a world of smartphones, new project wants to give Salem teens better tools to protect mental health

Liberty House Child Abuse Assessment Center. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Kelley Parosa wants to get more families talking about how they spend time online.

Parosa, who works to prevent child abuse at Salem’s Liberty House, said they too often see kids and teenagers struggling with depression or anxiety fueled in part by interactions with peers on social media.

While teenagers bullying or pressuring one another isn’t new, Parosa said the immediacy of online interaction can make it more challenging to cope.

“It doesn’t stay in the lunchroom or playground. It follows them home,” Parosa said.

Liberty House this week launched a campaign called “iRespect & Protect,” with a website, irespectandprotect.com, including quizzes, conversation topics and videos for kids, teens and parents.

She said the ultimate goal is to prevent youth suicide by helping young people understand “our unique worth as humans – all that we dream about, we’re worthy of our hopes and dreams.”

Parosa said that’s especially important now as families and kids are often facing greater challenges because of the social isolation and financial stresses caused by the pandemic.

“We are absolutely seeing the impact of the stress of mental health issues on families in ways that we had not seen before the pandemic,” she said.

The campaign grew out of conversations between Liberty House staff, child welfare advocates and law enforcement who were concerned about teen sexting and cyberbullying. They wanted better tools to reach teens and help them respond to pressure to share revealing photos, for example.

Many of the activities don’t tell teens what to do, but encourage them to think through the potential positive and negative consequences of online interactions or decide when a text should be ignored versus brought to the attention of a trusted adult.

“Children are on their phones from really young,” said Lisa Harnisch, executive director of the Marion Polk Early Learning Hub. “That’s just sort of how kids are wired these days, and I think it behooves us to have those conversations way earlier than most of us do.”

It was originally scheduled to launch early last year, but the Covid pandemic led Liberty House to put the project on hold and seek more feedback from young people.

Parosa said one theme they heard consistently was that phones and the internet themselves weren’t the problem. Teens were instead concerned about the impact online interactions can have and urged adults to talk about the issue in terms of mental health.

“This is not a cellphone issue. This is a mental health issue,” she said.

The site includes activities for teens to consider how they might respond to texts asking for answers to homework problems or expressing romantic interest. Some encourage families to talk about their values and brainstorm how their online interactions fit into those values.

The project was developed with input from more than a dozen Salem organizations including Salem Health, local schools and the Boys and Girls Club.

Parosa said they’ve also launched billboards and bus ads that read “You Have Worth” and are planning for in-school programs which are likely to begin in the fall.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.