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Building better: On and off the internet

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Larissa “Larz” May, Founder and Executive Director of #HALFTHESTORY, in conversation with Andréa Mallard, CMO of Pinterest

Emotional wellbeing is a top priority for Pinterest both internally, for our employees, and externally for our Pinners and partners. We aspire to be a platform of positivity, that inspires Pinners to create a life they love. At our 2021 Women’s Conference, were honored to host digital wellness advocate and activist Larissa “Larz” May, Founder and Executive Director of #HALFTHESTORY, an organization dedicated to empowering the next generation’s relationship with technology. Andréa Mallard, Pinterest’s CMO, sat down with Larz to talk about the ways in which technology impacts our wellbeing, and how we can all work to build a better relationship with digital media.

Andréa Mallard: We’re so delighted to have you and so impressed with the incredible work you’ve done in such a short period of time. Can you tell us about your organization, #HALFTHESTORY?

Larissa May (Larz): #HALFTHESTORY began with my story, and my story is one that millions of people share and relate to around the world. I was 18 years old when social media started, and I saw it as this world that would allow my dreams to come true. Through social media, I could be creative, become a fashion blogger, and produce a world by and for myself. After starting a fashion blog, I realized I was losing a bit of who I was in real life because of the digital world I’d created. While I experienced a lot of benefits from social media, I lost a lot of myself. The world I was sharing on my platforms was not my real world, and during my college years, I sunk into the deepest depression of my life. I realized through this experience that I wanted to be on the right side of social media, and show young people how to nurture healthy digital relationships. I started by sharing my “half the story.” It really resonated on my campus and caused a ripple effect — my peers could relate, and wanted to share their “other sides of the story,” the parts that weren’t being shown on carefully curated social feeds.

I made it my life’s mission to build a solution for this and empower others to have a positive relationship with technology. Ultimately, that’s how #HALFTHESTORY, my nonprofit, was started.

Pinterest has a deep alignment with this mission, and recently granted #HALFTHESTORY $150,000. Can you give us a sneak peek into what #HALFTHESTORY is doing with the funds?

Pinterest’s grant is allowing us to bring #HALFTHESTORY to its next generation of existence. A program that we currently run, Social Media U, is a resource to help children build a healthy digital wellness muscle from the start. We’re overhauling our original program with this grant money, and next fall we’ll be expanding the programming through local school systems and the YMCA. It’s giving us fuel to empower the next generation who will become digital wellness stewards in their own communities.

In addition to the existing curriculum, we’re developing a tool that helps users select courses they want to take based on their preferences. My goal is to apply data to mental health so that we can invest in the [most impactful] things for the future. School is not only about science and math, it’s about putting art and inspiration at the core. We believe this should be a regular part of learning for young people today, and that you don’t get commitment from changing someone’s mind, you get inspiration from changing their heart… to me that’s what inspiration is.

Let’s talk about you for a minute. How do you manage your own digital wellbeing? You’ve got a lot of eyes on you, and a lot of work on your plate; how do you balance it all?

I’ll start by saying #HALFTHESTORY was not an overnight success. There is no such thing as an overnight success. When I started six years ago I was on a mental health journey, and #HALFTHESTORY started as an art project to solve the problems that I had, and to share my solutions and discoveries with others. When it comes to my own mental health, it was definitely hard. There has been a lot of radical change throughout my growth process, and the growth of the organization. I changed a lot about my lifestyle in order to find what worked for me. I gave up my life in New York and moved to a farm. I set non-negotiables: starting the day screen-free to appreciate life away from the screen and get centered. Another integral part of managing my mental health was lowering my expectations of both myself and others. It’s important for me to continually check myself, make changes, and adapt.

I’m thrilled that you figured out practices you can keep for yourself. In the spirit of advice, do you have advice for Pinterest? What do you want to see us continue to do or start doing to remain the safest and most positive place on the internet?

I want to recognize what Pinterest has done to date. You are truly practicing what you preach, and I want to thank you for that. As it relates to what Pinterest can continue to do, here are some thought starters:

  1. A code of social ethics for advertisersProhibiting weight loss ads was a huge step in the right direction. You should continue to think about what the code of ethics is within your ecosystem, for advertisers, Creators, and Pinners. All three of these players create the digital ecosystem from within. (More on Pinterest’s Creator Code here.)
  2. Continue supporting causes that are part of the solution. Pinterest is not afraid to own that you can live life online and offline in a healthy way.
  3. Invest in positive practices and resources for employees. If Pinterest invests in life/tech/work balance, it sets a great example for their children and families, and brings everyone in their orbit one step closer to digital wellness.

You highlighted a major priority for Pinterest. We work hard to bring our Pinners from inspiration to action, meaning they can take the ideas they find in-product and bring them to life in the real world. Last summer, #HALFTHESTORY mobilized the Global Day of Unplugging, which had a very similar intention — can you tell us about it?

Our goal for Global Day of Unplugging was for people to stop, reflect, and understand the role that technology plays in their life. At #HALFTHESTORY we believe that tech is here to stay and we have to learn how to live in a world with it, rather than fight against it. The Global Day of Unplugging was a day where our collective, global communities were encouraged to take 24 hours to unite, reflect, and connect offline.

I think Pinterest is the best platform for people to get inspiration for a day like this: inspiration to unplug. That is the beauty of a healthy relationship with tech. Being able to take art, recipes, etc. that you find online and indulge in them in real life. Creativity is an act of brain care, and we can find creativity online. It’s about how we use these platforms, and it’s so easy to use Pinterest as a place of inspiration.

Our Women’s Conference theme, Building Better, takes inspiration from the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement that challenged many people, myself included, to reconceive the meaning of allyship and our relationship to it . How do you elevate the experiences of historically excluded groups as part of your work?

It’s a top priority, first and foremost. One of the biggest challenges I’ve seen is that the people who need the most support lack access to resources, relationships, and solutions. Through the work we’ve done at #HALFTHESTORY, we have learned that one’s relationship with tech is very much influenced by their socio-economic background. We’re building our educational curriculum based on age group, but socio-economic status, because students’ needs differ in various ways. We’re aiming to serve a wide variety of communities, and leaning on key partners, like the YMCA, to do it right.

With regard to BLM and allyship, one of the ways we’ve tried to amplify Black voices is to give the keys to our platform without limits. We’ve “passed the mic” to young mental health advocates, and empowered them to share their stories with our audience. In May, Sylvia Talacayo created content for our Pinterest and Instagram to share her story, and shed light on how social media impacts her as someone in a wheelchair. This is our way of using social media to give people a platform to feel at home and identify vs feeling alienated.

To wrap up, if we were back sitting on this couch in 5 years and you were to raise a toast to Pinterest, what would you hope that you were celebrating?

Pinterest is taking the [emotional wellbeing] lead here in Silicon Valley. If you all continue to set the standard, and in partnership with #HALFTHESTORY, I see a future in which there is legislation passed that solidifies a real code of ethics not only for tech companies, but for the ecosystems within them. I hope that Pinterest is able to continue to take this path and set the standard. The way that this platform was built, with inspiration at the heart, means there is no company better positioned to raise that bar and lift the torch.

One last question. How can each of us, as individuals, best protect our mental health and the mental health of those around us?

It all goes back to intention. Pull out your phone and look at the time that you’ve spent on it this week. What is the opportunity cost of that time, where else could you be spending that time in your life? Ask yourself these questions and uncover your “why.” Are you using your phone to create? To connect? That purpose is the difference between healthy and unhealthy consumption. Set your phone background to say “why are you going on your phone right now” and I guarantee you will think about it, be more intentional and set an example for the next generation. We can rewrite the story together.

For more information about #HalfTheStory, visit: halfthestoryproject.com

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