I am a teen who spent hours a day on social media. Here’s how I curbed my screen time.

Stories about my mom’s adolescence in Lebanon provided just the perspective I needed.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

A typical day for me looks like this: I pace back and forth from the tiny kitchen to the big dining room, while heavy plates test my hands and my fingertips clutch their edges. Securing everything together for another few seconds, I anticipate the moment I finally get to release the dishes onto the table. I smile politely and prepare to repeat this transaction over and over again. 

I watch as dozens of dishes that tempt my appetite satisfy others.

When my waitressing shift ends, I begin what I like to call my “second shift,” or, the time I have left after work. Recently, I’ve spent this time building good habits for myself that I needed, yet for too long, refused to admit.  

My second shift used to look like this: scrolling through Instagram and TikTok, feeding my appetite for more and more. I wanted a prettier, expensive wardrobe, with fabulous long dresses; I wanted to fly to Casablanca on a whim; I wanted to live lavishly in a house with room for a desk, so I didn’t have to go to the library to study. I wanted my life to miraculously change into the glamorous lives of those I followed online. I wanted a slice of the sweeter pie.

With envy and disappointment, I’d head to bed at 3 a.m. Notifications alerting me that my screen time had increased didn’t stop me from repeating this same routine. 

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

Another friend, Mauria Muthana, described her struggle like this: “I know that social media keeps me distracted from thinking of healthy ways to de-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 evokes an abundance of anxiety. And because I come from a culture where mental health conversations aren’t normalized, directly asking my mother for help seemed impossible. 

Her youth in the farming village of Ain et Tiné (pronounced i-nee-ti-nee), Lebanon, contrasted with mine waitressing during the summer in Detroit. I already knew this created borders 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 directly asking my mother for help, I asked for stories. I wanted to identify the differences between her life at 18 and mine.

Every day, she, my aunt, and their mule awoke at 5 a.m., before sunrise. Their mission: a 2-mile walk to the local well, to round up 8 gallons of water. My mother 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, pushy crowds, my mother told me in Arabic.

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

She told me she spent the rest of the day cooking, cleaning, and feeding the barn animals, and these tasks weren’t simple either: To cook, she needed to pull out ingredients from the farm, which mostly grew figs, turnips, and bulgur. Every other ingredient needed to be paid for with small sums of money they mustered by selling their own produce.

“Didn’t you feel trapped by that hard work, that struggle just to survive?” I asked her. 

“Yes, the work frustrated me sometimes, but I realized that my family needed my help, and so I needed to help. My mom, my dad, 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, feeding my appetite for more and more.

I noticed her routine back then included a lot of things that mine didn’t. Apart from a relentless amount of work, she was surrounded by people who lived the same lifestyle and had the same feelings when they completed the same work. I realized this might be why mental health-related topics became taboo in our Lebanese culture: Talking about struggling more or differently than others can seem selfish in communities where everyone faces similar battles. This helped me see that parts of my culture I didn’t “like,” were actually just parts I never properly understood. 

My mother told me that after her first shift was over, she knew exactly how to spend the second. If she felt lonely, she invited her friends to drink tea and walk around the village. If she felt creative, she would draw the birds that flew in the sky above her. If she felt insecure, she would brush her hair and paint her nails. If she was energetic, she would visit her aunt, who owned the first TV in the village; there, she could follow an exercise routine on the fitness channel. 

I grasped then, that just like my mom, I should learn to identify what I needed throughout my day. My habit of reaching for my phone when I couldn’t handle my own emotions was leaving me feeling purposeless. It was time to change.

Now, I start my second shift by identifying how I’m feeling, changing or empowering that feeling, and practicing gratitude for myself and Allah. 

It’s simpler than I imagined: When I feel depressed about my first nine-hour shift of the day, I challenge myself. Instead of thinking, “I have to do this,” I try to appreciate my role in bridging the gap between the hungry diners and a kitchen staff eager to cook, and think, “I get to do this.” When my space feels messy, I clean. When I regret the cheeseburger I gobbled for lunch, I make a salad for dinner. When I feel thankful, I pray. When I feel proud of myself for handling the day well, I write down a plan so the next day goes even better. 

What I learned from my mom is that chasing our cravings might not satisfy us the way we hope — that doing what excites you at the moment isn’t as important as doing what matters. Yes, I enjoy watching TikToks more than serving tables or making my bed, but serving tables pays, and making my bed makes me feel productive, so I’ve prioritized that. For my mom, walking 2 miles to fetch water wasn’t what she enjoyed, but it kept her family healthy, so she prioritized that. 

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

Sarah Hachem is a Wayne State University freshman who joined the Detroit Writing Room camp in hopes of breaking her writer’s block and finding her excitement for and confidence in writing again. In her free time, she searches for new ways to express herself, often through journaling. Besides writing, Sarah finds joy in painting, cooking, baking, pilates, binging K-pop compilations on YouTube, and reading.

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