Sitting on a stage in front of a packed auditorium at Tooele High School on Monday, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox asked five students to sum up America with one word.

One student said “progressing,” and another said “amazing.” But the others were more critical — “broken,” “stressed,” and “divided,” they said.

Later that morning, Cox said he wasn’t surprised.

“I think maybe they’re feeling it more acutely than adults. And I don’t know if we realize the impact that is having on our kids. Maybe we have thick skins, and we can get used to it, but it’s very harmful for our younger generation when that’s the example that we’re setting,” he told reporters.

Monday marked the first stop on the “Connecting Utah” tour, where Cox over the next calendar year will stop at each of Utah’s 29 counties to meet with students and residents. Cox described it as “a looking to the future tour.”

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The governor started his talk with an overview of some recent policies — tax cuts, an education bill that raised teacher salaries and launched a controversial school voucher program, and more funding for water conservation and agricultural optimization. He also laid out issues he’s focused on, among them water, the cost of housing, and maintaining a healthy economy and education system.

He fielded some questions from high school seniors, and was swarmed by students, Tooele residents and business owners after he left the stage.

Gov. Spencer Cox kicks off his Connecting Utah Tour with the first stop at Tooele High School on Monday, March 20, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

But central to Monday’s event was political division and mental health, a common refrain from Cox lately, who has repeatedly blasted social media and its impact on teen mental health. Cox, during his monthly press conference on Thursday, told reporters he is excited to sign SB152, which will require Utahns to prove their age to use certain social media platforms and is expected to result in litigation over First Amendment concerns.

Grace Rasmuson, one of the five students sharing a stage with Cox, asked him what his office and the legislature are doing to fight the epidemic of suicide among teens, which is the leading cause of death for 14 and 15 year olds.

Cox said the negative impact social media has on mental health is causation.

“The more time we spend on social media, the worse the mental health outcomes,” Cox said, before touting increased funding for mental health resources, public school counselors and the new 988 mental health hotline. “We still have a long way to go, but we’re getting closer,” he said.

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The governor also blames social media for the country’s division — when the students on stage used words like “divided” and “broken” to describe America, the governor referenced a Pew survey that asked the same question. Cox’s answer, which was also the most common response, was “divided.”

“Politics has gotten so ugly over the past few years, right? Turn on the TV and it’s just people yelling at each other, just talking about how terrible the other side is,” Cox told the crowd.

Gov. Spencer Cox kicks off his Connecting Utah Tour with the first stop at Tooele High School on Monday, March 20, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Republicans are wrong about Democrats and Democrats are wrong about Republicans. Why? Here’s why — because, what we’re doing now is we’re only listening to the most extreme voices in those parties. So Republicans are only listening to the craziest Democrats and assuming that all Democrats are like that. Democrats are only listening to the craziest Republicans and assuming all Republicans are like that. When the difference between the average Democrat and the average Republican, really isn’t that big,” Cox said later during his speech.

He said the majority — around 75% to 80% — of Americans don’t want to see division, but often succumb to “a very loud 10% on either side that loves to have us divided.”

Cox closed out his speech with a plea, asking the students to be cautious when posting to social media.

“I want you to ask a question, is this going to convince the other side that you’re right? Is it going to help them think about my argument better? Is this going to make our city a better place?” Cox said. “... This is as much for me as other people. I want to be better, and I try so hard and sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I say some pretty dumb things on Twitter, and I feel really bad about it after.”

As the governor made his way to the school exit, taking pictures and shaking hands, Rasmuson, a senior who plans to go to Salt Lake Community College and then the University of Utah’s medical school, told the Deseret News “it was enlightening to be able to ask him questions that I wanted to ask. Not everybody gets that opportunity.”

Still, Rasmuson had some follow-up questions for Cox — mainly, when will students see the mental health initiatives funded by the legislature and signed by the governor, take shape in their schools.

“I’m graduating, but my brother is a freshman. So he’ll be here for a while, and I want to make sure those resources will be there for him,” she said.