Interview: Maddie Freeman, Founder No Social Media November

CO ASCD sat down with Maddie Freeman, the founder of NoSo November - a program designed to challenge kids to unplug for a month - to learn more about her vision, why she started this movement/non-profit and how schools can get involved this November.


1. Tell us about yourself. Why did you start NoSo November?


My name is Maddie Freeman, I am currently in Leeds School of Business at CU Boulder and the creator of NoSo November. I started this movement and educational program during fall of 2020. After losing 5 classmates during high school and 5 more friends throughout the year of 2020 (most being lost to suicide), I was fed up, in pain, and hopeless. I didn’t know what to do anymore so I decided to channel the immense pain I was feeling from these losses into something productive and helpful. I knew my local school system needed to change and include more resources for mental health, so I created a petition addressing the issue which got almost 14,000 signatures in less than 3 days. Shortly after, I started working with Littleton Public Schools to aid them in implementing more student-forward resources and amend the way they handle suicide. Then, while doing this work I watched the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. This documentary rocked me to my core after specifically hearing about how social media has influenced the mental health/suicide crisis that I had been all too familiar with. I had already sensed detrimental effects of these apps within myself and my peers seeing how madly addictive it was, so things clicked. From there, I came up with the idea to challenge high/middle schoolers to take a month long detox from social media in order to prioritize their mental health while also educating them on the issue and problematic design of big social companies. Ever since NoSo has been very successful in changing young people’s relationships with social media for the long haul and positively impacting/educating communities.


2. Do you think today’s students have different ways of connecting with others than previous generations? What kinds of things can students do connect more meaningfully with others?


Social media has invaded the fabric of social communications and how we relate with one another. This provides a myriad of benefits as well as tremendous consequences for today’s generation. Today we are more politically polarized than ever, have a lower capacity for empathy, and have trouble finding middle ground and authentically connecting with others. Our brains were not evolved for this much social stimulation and it's important for students to still be able to connect meaningfully with others. This is a huge part of NoSo’s mission. Cutting out social media for a period instantly forces students to learn how to connect with others without using these apps. Students will find the importance of using features like text, phone call, voice memos, and facetime rather than shallow social interactions. Because boredom is usually a side effect of this month-long challenge, and you can no longer spend 5 hours straight laying in bed staring at a screen, students typically see their social lives enhanced because everyone wants to spend more time together in person. This is crucial to the development of a child in the social realm.


3. You went without social media for a month. Can you share the impact it had on you?


Taking a month-long detox from social media provided me with so many benefits while actually improving my social life. Within the first two days, I noticed a strong sense of freedom, like I was no longer being held captive by something. With all this newfound free time I created morning and night routines for myself, started reading, created art, talked on the phone with old friends, cleared out my email, deep cleaned my room, and went outside a lot more. The list goes on and on. My mental health definitely improved, and I felt much happier. Essentially, I found out how to actually LIVE. Boredom is the first step of creativity, and without social media, I was as connected as ever.


4. What do you think are obstacles to getting students to unplug?


Some obstacles I can see are that many students don’t see the harm of the apps, or their friends won’t participate with them, or they don’t think they can shed their addiction. One of the benefits of No Social Media November is that we fully outline the negative aspects of social media and explain how the app designers purposely addict you at the risk of your mental health- this gives students a reason to give it a shot. Additionally, we promote bringing together the community - when student-friend-groups join together it can be a very fun and interactive challenge for them to all face together.


5. How big of a role do you think schools should play in supporting mental health? What do you think schools can learn from young people today to better support mental health?


I think schools have a huge responsibility to support their students and get them the proper help they need, especially when a parent cannot provide it. I strongly believe that if my school had more resources available and more support for grieving students we would have not lost as many classmates as we did. When we have nowhere else to turn, and we spend the majority of our time at school, it only makes sense that we have an adequate support system to turn to. This is a big reason why I created NoSo, and why it is free.

Additionally, mental health is an ever-changing issue with many different variables, so it is crucial to listen to young people in order to tailor mental health resources to them to ensure they are actually effective.


6. If you could see into the future, and it was a brighter future, what would that look like? Do you envision a future where social media is something the consumer controls? Do you think future generations will be as tied to their phones as the current generation?


My ideal future is a future where big tech companies are held to the same standards most businesses are held to. Government intervention needs to occur to shift big tech away from their manipulative “attention-for-profit'' business model in order to promote democracy and lessen addiction among today’s generation. I am hoping that with this change that is hopefully coming soon, future generations will have more autonomy and be less tied to their devices.


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