Exclusive: Michelle Obama says technology is harming youth’s mental health

In her New York Times best-selling book, "The Light We Carry," Mrs. Obama writes about navigating hardships in troubling times and the power of friendships.

As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to an end, theGrio recently chatted with former first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, about the dangers of technology and how it can impact one’s mental health.

In her New York Times best-selling book, “The Light We Carry,” Mrs. Obama writes about navigating hardships in troubling times and the power of friendships.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – DECEMBER 02: Former First Lady Michelle Obama speaks onstage during the Michelle Obama: The Light We Carry Tour at The Fox Theatre on December 02, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Derek White/Getty Images for ABA)

In an exclusive interview with theGrio, the former first lady talks about isolation and friendships, particularly young people and their dependence on and love of technology. That reliance on technology can also drive them to feel alone and, in some cases, can lead to depression and suicidal ideation.

Watch a portion of theGrio’s interview with former first lady Obama above and read an extended Q&A below.

TheGrio: With the increase in technological advances, our young people are finding themselves more isolated than ever before. This isolation is more prevalent in our young people, who connect more with technology than people. The result is a negative quality of life that leads to mental health issues and even suicide. How do we reverse the trend of deepening isolation with our phones versus intentional moments with friends? 

Michelle Obama: Thanks so much, April. This is a very important question and a complicated one, as it’s no secret that the way young people are interacting with each other and the world as a whole has changed drastically over the past decade or so. And phones and social media are, of course, a big part of that. As always, parents can play a huge role here in helping their kids develop healthy patterns. And the best way to do that is probably by modeling it ourselves. If our kids see us glued to our phones, responding to text at the dinner table or scrolling through our feeds on social media, whenever we have a down second, they’re going to see that kind of behavior as acceptable.

So as parents, we need to be aware of how we’re acting too. But it’s not all on parents. We’ve all got to think about how often we’re using our phones. Of course, phones aren’t all bad. During the pandemic, it was one of the few ways that we could keep ourselves afloat with all the video chats and the phone calls, and the virtual movie nights. But now that the harshest lockdowns appear to be behind us, I think there’s a part of us that has just gotten used to sitting at home and scrolling. And that’s just not how we’re wired. Being social, actually interacting face to face is a real need for us as humans.

So I believe there’s got to be a way to find the middle ground, to embrace the good aspects of technology, but to set some boundaries for ourselves so that we can continue to maintain healthy in-person relationships too. And our phones can actually help with that because that group chat you’re in — those are your future dinner companions, your gamer community. You can plan to meet up with those who are nearby. There’s just so many opportunities to use technology to enhance our humanity instead of detracting from it. 

TG: The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was intense. We lived through varying forms of isolation during the lockdown. It ultimately made people face themselves. That can be a really hard task. What did you find in self-discovery during that time, especially as you were knitting to sustain yourself in moments of uncertainty? 

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 13: (L-R) Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama speak onstage during The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times – in Conversation with Michelle Obama at YouTube Theater on December 13, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images for ABA)

MO: Like so many of us, I really struggled with isolation at the beginning of the pandemic. The world locked down right as my book tour for Becoming was ending. So after spending so much time on the go — not just from that tour but from the decade before at breakneck speed in the White House and on the campaign trail — being stuck inside was really jarring. There were moments when I just didn’t know what to do with myself or how to keep myself grounded. And it wasn’t just the pandemic — we were dealing with other crises as well, including an overdue reckoning with race in America and a crisis of leadership from the Oval Office. 

With so much going on, it took me some time, but I discovered that the best way to cope with all these huge problems was to focus on something small. For me, that became knitting. It was just something I fell into in a moment of curiosity — ordering a set of needles for myself and watching how-to videos online. Growing up, my mother told me that I was the descendant of seamstresses, and that my great-grandmother, Mawmaw, actually used to travel around town and mend people’s clothes to support the family. So perhaps there was also a part of me that was drawn to knitting subconsciously.  

And once I started knitting — casting on and off and tying slip knots — it was such a powerful feeling. Knitting allowed my mind to rest. It helped me take my focus off the anxieties of the day and surrender to the task at hand. It showed me that I could add value to the world in new and different ways. Some days, I’m making a sweater; other days, I’m knitting a blanket. But regardless of the end product — for me, knitting is about the process. It reminds me that I can always build things and create things on my own terms. And that has been a beautiful lesson.  

TG: How do we protect our light or brightness amid the unexpected upheaval we’ve been living in? 

MO: This is really what’s at the core of my book and podcast. There are a lot of things we can do on our own, like knitting and focusing on small, achievable tasks rather than these overwhelmingly complex problems. We can develop practices for ourselves — choosing to greet ourselves and each other with gladness every single day. But I also want to be clear that we can’t protect our light all on our own. We’ve got to build and foster close relationships — the kind you can really lean on, the kind you can share all your mess with.   

I refer to my friend group as my Kitchen Table — these are the people who know me best, the people with whom I can just be completely and totally myself. These are folks who can tell when my light is flickering — and they know how to get it shining again. They’re a critical part of my support structure. And so, for anyone out there who might be in need of a little pick-me-up, I’m not sure there’s much better you can do than giving your friend a call — even if it’s totally out of the blue. I promise you won’t regret it. 

TG: During the 2016 campaign and the politically and racially charged atmosphere, you poignantly stated, “When they go, low we go high.” Do you still stand by that statement? Do you still think it works? 

MO: For me, going high is like a line in the sand. It’s meant to keep us accountable to our higher selves, to the values of dignity and decency we believe in. And here’s the thing about going high; It might not always feel like it’s working. It might feel like you’re letting the haters off the hook. But believe me, it works. It works. It works on a personal level because you’re choosing not to degrade yourself and dim your own light.

You’re choosing hope and going high works on a public level, too. It reminds folks that there is always a better way. It raises the expectations for others to go high, too, and over the long run, going high wins. We’ve seen that again and again and again. Now, of course, the folks who go low will appear to come out on top from time to time. But if we lead with goodwill, if we keep our eyes set on the horizon, if we stay true to our values, we’ll not only feel better about who we are as individuals, we’ll help build the world we hope to see. See, that’s why I’ll always stand by going high. 

PHILADELPHIA, PA – JULY 25: First lady Michelle Obama acknowledges the crowd before delivering remarks on the first day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

TG: Fear can oftentimes be crippling. What is your process to untangle fear so your light can shine? 

MO: Fear is always going to be a part of our lives. It doesn’t matter who you are — there’s no real way to avoid it. But I believe that we can familiarize ourselves with our fears. We can allow ourselves to get comfortably afraid. And once we do thatwe can set ourselves on a path toward overcoming them.  

For example, I was afraid when Barack first wanted to run for president. I was afraid of uprooting my girls’ lives and what it would mean to be in the spotlight. But then I had to step back and ask myself, what was I really afraid of? And the reality was, I was afraid of change. And once I really understood where that fear was coming from, I could address that truest fear. It didn’t mean I was immediately comfortable with the idea of moving across the country and away from their friends. But I was able to recognize that I’d weathered big changes in my life before. And while this change was on a scale I hadn’t experienced before, that’s all it was in the end: change. From there, the path forward felt a little less fraught.  

TG: What lessons have you learned during the COVID lockdown regarding your relationships with your children and former President Obama?  

MO: Oh, this is a good question. These past few years in general, I’ve gotten to see Barack and the girls in a different light. When we were all hunkered down at home because of the lockdowns, it was, of course, tough for my girls to be away from their classmates and school. But I was really grateful to have them with me during such a scary time — if any of you are parents, I know you can relate. Now that the hard part of the pandemic seems to be behind us, they are back to doing their own thing, pursuing their jobs and degrees, renting an apartment together in Los Angeles. And that’s what else I learned during the pandemic — that they’ll always be my babies, no matter where in the world they go. 

As for Barack, with the girls out of the house and the busy life of the White House behind us, we’ve been able to reconnect and really fall into a wonderful rhythm together. Sometimes it feels like we’re back in that first summer when we met. It has been wonderful in so many ways, and I am so grateful to have him as my husband.  

TG: What would you tell your younger self about that special light you have continued to carry in spite of — or especially after meeting adversity — that has subsequently made you stronger and wiser? 

MO: I would say: Hey Miche — you can do this. Life will not be easy. You will face difficulties that you won’t know if you’ll be able to bear. You will lose people that you love and who shaped who you are. But because of the values you were taught — some incredible lessons your dad left you with and that your mom continues to teach you — you will persevere despite it all. You will fall in love and become a mother and try your best to make a difference. You just have to give yourself time and grace to get through it all.  

For more Michelle Obama, listen to her podcast “The Light” which is available wherever you get your podcasts. You can also watch her Netflix special “The Light We Carry: Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey,” which captures an intimate conversation with Winfrey during Obama’s final book tour stop for her 2022 bestseller.

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