At first glance, Aimee Winder Newton does not come across as someone you’d imagine crossing the schoolyard to punch the bully in the face. Or at second glance.

But underneath that pleasant, non-threatening exterior beats the heart of a person who is hunting the biggest bully out there.

Namely, social media.

Aimee is the lead person behind the governor’s Social Harms Campaign (socialharms.utah.gov) that has been underway since last fall. The goal of the campaign isn’t to get kids to engage less with social media. The goal is to get them to not engage at all.

Why? “Oh, there are so many reasons,” says Aimee, who proceeds to rattle off alarming statistic after alarming statistic:

  • 64 percent of kids surveyed who use social media say they have been exposed to online hate.
  • 60 percent of teen girls report being contacted on social media by a stranger in ways that made them feel uncomfortable.
  • 57 percent of teen girls report feeling persistently sad or hopeless.
  • 50 percent of teens say social media makes them feel worse about their body image.
  • 18 percent of Utah youth report seriously considering suicide in the past year.
  • Rates of major depression for teens have doubled in the last ten years. (These statistics are from the office of U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, who has said, “We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis.”)

It’s true, Aimee concedes, that a few kids can use YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Facebook, TikTok and all the rest and remain unscathed, but the odds are about the same as understanding trigonometry on the first try.

Giving kids carte blanche access to social media is not unlike doing away with a minimum drinking age, or smoking age, or marriage age, or driving the car age.

Their brains need enough years to mature and make it even close to a fair fight.

And yet, while 88 percent of parents surveyed say they think social media is detrimental to their kids, 76 percent of their kids still have it on their phones.

“We hope that by the time the campaign finishes that parents unequivocally understand that social media is dangerous and they’ll delay giving their kids a phone that has social media on it,” says Aimee. “It’s hard. So many of the parents say they don’t want their kid to feel left out. What we need are enough parents to start taking it away so that it becomes normal to not have social media instead of the other way around.”

Aimee’s boss, Utah Governor Spencer Cox — a man who has been vocal about not allowing his teenage daughter to access social media — came up with the idea for the Social Harms Campaign.

Aimee Winder Newton, senior adviser to Gov. Spencer Cox and director of the Office of Families, left, and Cox announce the launch of a new public awareness campaign urging parents to learn about the harms social media has on youth at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“It was the governor’s inspiration and his vision and I’m helping to implement it,” says Aimee, who also serves as a senior adviser to the governor and director of the newly created Office of Families.

“We hear so many stories from families who have struggled with this,” she says, “the thinking was that social media would help us with connections, but when people are switching out real life interactions for just social media online it’s making them lonelier, it’s affecting bodily image. Some girls think they look terrible unless they have a filter on for a picture — they don’t like how they look in a regular mirror. Teen girls around the age of puberty are affected the most.”

Sleep, or lack thereof, is another concern. “We’ve found that only 38 percent of kids are getting eight hours on a school night; the amount of time they’re spending on their phones is an issue.”

Funded by the state legislature, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Health and Human Services, the Social Harms Campaign uses billboards, TV and radio ads, movie theaters, podcasts, websites and other digital mediums to spread the word — in both English and Spanish.

The campaign is in agreement with, but not part of, the legislative bills currently making their way through the system that would put legal restraints on social media companies targeting children without parental consent. Laws the social media companies are fighting against tooth and nail.

“I feel so grateful that I get to push back against a bully that I feel is so impactful to children in Utah and that bully is social media companies,” says Aimee. “They are a faceless bully that is putting children in harm’s way.

“We hope to save thousands of kids, but we need parents to be part of it. The kids aren’t going to do it on their own.”