Young people today are under an immense amount of pressure and face complicated issues and challenges, driven in large part by the nature of 24/7 platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Recent studies echo the same conclusions around the direct negative effects social media platforms have on the health and well being of adolescents. With so much negativity in the online world, young people are in need of positive and authentic alternatives to the high-gloss or hateful swirl of content flowing through traditional social networks and digital outposts.
I recently spoke with Josh Sinel, founder of storybooth, a digital media platform that has gained 57 million views since its launch a year ago. storybooth produces real stories told by kids and teens, elevated through animation, for kids and teens. It’s this combination that is driving massive numbers of young people to the platform, which he co-founded with his wife Marcy Sinel.
I asked him to go deeper on how storybooth is connecting a global audience of young people around real and universal topics, and growing a positive and engaged community in the heat of such an overwhelmingly negative mental health climate for kids and teens.
The concept actually started when Josh and Marcy’s daughter came home from an overnight school trip with a terribly embarrassing underwear story. “We all have one – an embarrassing underwear story – and as parents, of course we let her know that the other kids would forget about it and that one day she’d look back and laugh about it. It was, actually, a very funny story, but she ignored every comforting word. She was going through it alright, but we saw that in this day and age, more than any other, kids take their cues and their comforts from a vast community of peers and near-peers, not from parents and teachers. It was at that moment we realized the need for an online platform like this,” said Sinel. “She felt utterly alone in what she was going through, and no matter how many times we told her she wasn’t, it just sounded like so much parent-speak to her.”
Josh and Marcy quickly realized there was a need for a community that shared raw and real stories and served as a safe place for young people to feel connected, inspired and less alone in the world. Much of its origin also came from the realization that today’s kids spend their lives learning about important issues from the perspective of adults. They realized, too, that even programming designed to educate kids on important topics like anxiety, depression and even suicide was being written and directed by adults – stopping short of addressing the real issues – and probably more often than not, falling on deaf ears.
Today, storybooth is attracting millions of kids to its YouTube channel every week, receiving more than 35,000 story submissions. Josh mentioned that despite the sheer volume of submissions, there is a commonality among the stories. They are all authentic representations of the raw, complex issues kids are experiencing first-hand. The topics range across all that they are dealing with like acne, dating and breakups, bullying, sexual orientation and even suicide. While some are more light and funny, many of the stories relate back to mental health and wellness topics.
Take for instance the story “Coming Back from Depression.” Josh tells me about the storyteller Reshma, who was born and raised in India, but suffered from bullying all throughout grade school. Fortunately, she had a strong relationship with her father. But while she was in the fourth grade, he passed away suddenly, causing her to feel like her world was crashing down. This triggered intense depression and her self-worth decreased significantly. She even contemplated suicide because she truly thought her life couldn’t go on anymore. Today, Reshma lives in Boston and is experiencing a fresh start. While depression is still a major part of her life, it’s far less significant. For the storyteller and audience alike, there is healing in the telling and in the connection the community makes. The comment sections under these stories are flooded with “me too,” and “that’s just like me,” and one can feel a real sense of hope and belonging in it.
Josh told me, “Situations in school today escalate so much faster because of pace and pervasiveness of social media. Young people today are holding so much in. These real feelings are manifesting in their bodies, and there’s so much pressure on them. storybooth gives them a release and a chance to feel less alone in the world. It has become a place of inspiration where they feel they can get out of something, rather than being stuck.”
Josh goes on to tell me about the therapeutic healing experienced among the storytellers. Often times when a story is posted about a particular topic, take for instance depression, storybooth sees a correlated surge in submissions around that topic. Beyond the uptick witnessed in the sharing of similar stories, the videos even elicit responses like, “I watch videos like this to keep myself alive.”
With the proliferation of so many negative social platforms that have a direct and heavy effect on young people, there is truly a need for an outlet and safe place to go. For adults, it’s important to really listen to what children are saying. “And if adults really want to understand what’s going on with young people, they can come and watch these stories. It’s truly a unique window into what young people are going through, how incredibly resilient they are at managing their challenging situations, and how they talk about them.”