By Samantha Murphy Kelly, CNN Business
Updated 7:16 AM ET, Wed December 8, 2021
(CNN Business)Last September, conscionable a fewer weeks into the schoolhouse year, Sabine Polak got a telephone from the guidance counselor. Her 14-year-old girl was struggling with slump and had contemplated suicide.
"I was wholly floored," said Polak, 45, who lives successful Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. "I had nary hint she was adjacent feeling remotely down astatine all. When I asked her astir it, she conscionable kept saying she wanted to get distant from it each ... but I didn't cognize what that meant."
After taking her to a situation center, which banned telephone usage for anyone checking in, Polak learned from her girl that the pressures of societal media were driving her accrued anxiety. The main root of stress: waiting for her friends to unfastened and respond to messages and photos connected Snapchat.
"It became truly addictive [for her] -- the consciousness that you ever person to beryllium on, and ever person to beryllium responding to idiosyncratic successful bid to beryllium seen oregon to exist," she said. "She would look astatine her telephone and spell from calm to storming retired of the car, and the remainder of the night, conscionable curled up successful her bed."
Polak turned connected immoderate of the phone's parental controls, but they were casual for her girl to circumvent. She took the telephone distant but disquieted this determination would lone thrust her girl to deliberation astir taking her ain beingness again. She gave the telephone backmost lone to find her girl "self-soothing" connected different societal app, TikTok -- truthful much, successful fact, that "she virtually believes that she can't autumn dormant without it." As Polak enactment it, her girl "feels lost, like, 'I person nary thought what to bash with myself if I'm not connected societal media.'"
Polak is among a procreation of parents who did not walk their childhoods with societal media apps and are present struggling to recognize and navigate the imaginable harms that societal media tin person connected their kids' intelligence wellness arsenic they turn up. In interviews implicit the past month, astir a twelve parents spoke with CNN Business astir grappling with however to woody with teens who acquisition online harms specified arsenic bullying, assemblage representation issues and pressures to ever beryllium Liked. Most of the parents said these issues either began oregon were exacerbated by the pandemic, a clip erstwhile their children were isolated from friends, societal media became a lifeline and the magnitude of surface clip increased.
The contented of societal media's interaction connected teens gained renewed attraction this autumn aft Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked hundreds of interior documents, immoderate of which showed the institution knew of Instagram's imaginable to negatively interaction one's intelligence wellness and assemblage image, particularly among teenage girls. But Haugen besides touched connected the interaction connected parents. During her grounds earlier Congress successful October, Haugen cited Facebook research that revealed kids judge they are struggling with issues similar assemblage representation and bullying unsocial due to the fact that their parents can't usher them.
"I'm saddest erstwhile I look connected Twitter and radical blasted the parents for these problems with Facebook. They say, 'Just instrumentality your kid's telephone away.' But the world is that it's a batch much analyzable than that," she said successful her testimony.
"Very seldom bash you person 1 of these generational shifts wherever the procreation that leads, similar parents who usher their children, person specified a antithetic acceptable of experiences that they don't person the discourse to enactment their children successful a harmless way," she added. "We request to enactment parents. If Facebook won't support the kids, we astatine slightest request to assistance the parents enactment the kids."
Facebook, which rebranded arsenic Meta successful October, has repeatedly tried to discredit Haugen and said her grounds and reports connected the documents mischaracterize its actions and efforts. But the outcry from Haugen's disclosures pressured Facebook to rethink the launch of an Instagram app for children nether 13. (Children nether the property of 13 are not presently permitted to make accounts connected immoderate Meta platforms.)
It besides helped spur a bid of legislature hearings astir however tech products interaction kids, featuring execs from Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat's genitor company, Snap. This week, the caput of Meta-owned Instagram is acceptable to look earlier Congress arsenic lawmakers question the app's interaction connected young users.
In their testimonies, the TikTok and Snap executives showed humility and acknowledged the request to bash more to support their platforms. Jennifer Stout, Snap VP of planetary nationalist policy, said the institution is processing caller tools for parents to amended oversee however their children are utilizing the app. Instagram antecedently said it's "increasingly focused connected addressing antagonistic societal examination and antagonistic assemblage image."
Ahead of the Congressional quality this week, Instagram introduced a Take a Break feature which encourages users to walk immoderate clip distant from the platform. The institution besides said it plans to instrumentality a "stricter approach" to the contented it recommends to teenagers and actively nudge them toward antithetic topics if they've been dwelling connected immoderate benignant of contented for excessively long. It's besides readying to present its archetypal tools for parents, including an acquisition hub and parental monitoring tools that let them to spot however overmuch clip their kids walk connected Instagram and acceptable clip limits, starting adjacent year.
"You tin connection tools to parents and you tin connection them insights into their teen's activity, but that's not arsenic adjuvant if they don't truly cognize however to person a speech with their teen astir it, oregon however to commencement a dialog that tin assistance them get the astir retired of their clip online," Vaishnavi J, Instagram's caput of information and well-being, told CNN Business this week.
Meanwhile, members of Congress person shown uncommon bipartisanship by uniting successful criticizing tech companies connected the issue. Some lawmakers are present pushing for legislation intended to summation children's privateness online and trim the evident addictiveness of assorted platforms -- though it remains unclear erstwhile oregon if specified authorities volition pass.
For immoderate parents, these changes aren't coming speedy enough. Unsure what other to do, parents consciousness they person to spell it alone, whether that means pushing for changes successful their schoolhouse districts oregon looking for proposal from peers connected immoderate of the aforesaid societal networks they consciousness person caused their families pain.
A longtime interest that's getting worse
Even earlier Haugen's disclosures, determination were concerns successful immoderate households that the risks societal media platforms posed to their kids were lone growing.
Katherine Lake said societal media became "everything" for her 13-year-old kid during the pandemic to walk the clip astatine location and link with friends. She said her teen fell down a rabbit spread of pages astir intelligence wellness and, later, posts astir aforesaid harm -- thing her kid "didn't adjacent cognize astir earlier Instagram." The teen was hospitalized past outpouring aft attempting suicide.
"The pandemic has surely accelerated immoderate of the threats and dangers that we've been dealing with for years," said Marc Berkman, CEO of the Organization for Social Media Safety, an bureau founded 3 years agone to supply tips and preventative information workshops for parents.
Some information besides enactment that intelligence wellness issues among young radical connected societal media are connected the rise. Bark, a paid monitoring work that screens societal media apps, idiosyncratic messages and emails for presumption and phrases that could bespeak concerns, said it saw a 143% summation successful alerts sent astir self-harm and suicidal ideation during the archetypal 3 months of 2021 compared to the twelvemonth prior. (Parents person alerts erstwhile Bark detects imaginable issues, on with adept recommendations from kid psychologists for however to code them.)
"Our children's lives are buried heavy wrong their phones and the problems unrecorded wrong their integer awesome successful places that parents don't go," said Titania Jordan, main selling serviceman of Bark. "If you're not spending clip successful the places wherever your your children are online, however tin you beryllium educated and past however tin you springiness them guidance?"
Gabriella Bermudez, a 19-year-old Fordham University student, told CNN Business she started struggling with assemblage representation issues successful mediate schoolhouse aft a lad she had a crush connected started Liking photos of a 30-year-old exemplary connected the Instagram.
"I was 12, and I would look astatine her and think, 'Why don't I look similar that?'" said Bermudez."I was covered with pimples. My hair, it was awful. ... It ne'er resonated that she was a grown woman. I posted pictures of myself to marque myself look a batch older than I was."
But that started to pull nonstop messages from older men connected Instagram. She kept this from her parents, she said, due to the fact that she thought "they'll ne'er recognize what it's similar to beryllium young [right now]."
"They ever had societal pressures to look a definite mode oregon behave a definite way, but that was successful a mag oregon connected TV. They could person turned it off. For us, we're attached to our phones each the time. When we're waiting astatine the autobus halt oregon walking to class, we're ever reminded of these ideals."
Looking for answers
When Julia Taylor needs held making parenting decisions, she sometimes turns to a Facebook radical called "Parenting successful a Tech World." Taylor's lad has ADHD, which she said causes him to "become hyper-focused connected definite things," including "anything with a screen." Taylor, a azygous ma from the Denver area, wanted him to person a smartphone, "but helium was hacking each parental control, sometimes staying up each night."
On "Parenting successful a Tech World," which has 150,000 followers, she and different parents tin find feedback connected a wide scope of topics, including erstwhile a kid should beryllium allowed to articulation societal media sites, what to bash if they're sending oregon receiving inappropriate texts oregon pictures, and merchandise recommendations similar a docking presumption that keeps devices retired of kids' rooms astatine night. Last year, Taylor purchased a Pinwheel telephone that comes with web browsers and restricts societal media use. (She aboriginal joined the institution full-time arsenic a selling manager.)
Bark's Jordan started the radical years agone aft she joined the institution erstwhile she struggled to find resources to assistance her ain parenting. "It has ever taken a colony to beryllium the champion genitor you can, and portion we're waiting connected legislators and Big Tech to bash the close thing, astatine the extremity of the day, cipher is going to beryllium a amended genitor for your kid than you. The champion happening that you tin bash is larn from different parents who person been determination and done that, some their mistakes and their wins."
On this issue, however, determination are nary casual answers. Social media and smartphones are present to enactment -- and taking them distant could hazard undermining a child's societal relationships and consciousness of independence. According to Alexandra Hamlet, a objective scientist successful New York City, it's important for parents to assistance teenagers navigate some the online and carnal world, by being knowing and nonjudgmental. "If we tin thatch and enactment our children to usage the aforesaid skillsets to navigate each world, we summation our chances of attaining intelligence health," she said.
There's present a wide scope of argumentation ideas being batted astir to assistance parents and kids. Some critics, including Haugen, said tech companies should determination distant from algorithmic quality feeds that tin thrust users down rabbit holes. Two Democratic Senators person touted legislation called the Kids Act, which would prohibition autoplay settings and propulsion alerts with the anticipation of limiting surface time. And the Organization for Social Media Safety said it is present moving with Congress to effort to propulsion done authorities that would necessitate third-party genitor monitoring apps connected each societal media accounts of kids of a definite age.
Some parents wrong and extracurricular this Facebook radical are already utilizing parental power apps arsenic good arsenic purchasing low-tech phones and limiting societal media use. Some person besides gone truthful acold arsenic to effort to get their children's schools to instrumentality enactment connected everything from banning phones successful classrooms to cracking down connected online bullying incidents, with small success.
Fernando Velloso, a begetter from Los Angeles, said his precocious school-aged girl dealt with an anonymous bullying relationship apt acceptable up by classmates who made mendacious claims astir her dating life. He said the schoolhouse didn't privation to instrumentality enactment due to the fact that it occurred extracurricular of its premises.
On a bid of Instagram accounts from precocious schools successful the area, which were viewed by CNN, students are encouraged to taxable gossip tips to accounts that person called students cheaters, rapists oregon questioned their sexuality. While Instagram has banned immoderate of the accounts, others stay active. (A Meta spokesperson said the accounts did not interruption its assemblage guidelines but a fig of pieces of contented did, and person been removed.)
Bermudez said schools tin bash much to amended teenagers connected however to amended negociate intelligence wellness and societal media. "We request to beryllium taught astatine a truly young age, similar successful simple school, astir however to usage it and [make it a] harmless space."
During her testimony, Haugen said schools and organizations specified arsenic the National Institutes of Health should supply established accusation wherever parents tin larn however to amended enactment their kids. Meanwhile, the Organization for Social Media Safety is presently rolling retired a programme with DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) to beryllium portion of that program successful thousands of schools by the extremity of the existent schoolhouse twelvemonth to amended students astir the dangers of societal media
Polak, the parent whose girl had suicidal thoughts, has projected a Mental Health Awareness Week astatine her daughter's schoolhouse that would see screenings of Childhood 2.0 and The Social Dilemma -- 2 documentaries that interaction connected however platforms are impacting the well-being of its users.
Polak said her girl is present doing amended and occasionally accesses societal media with clip restrictions. "But erstwhile a week we person a societal media brawl, wherever she'll contiguous maine with, 'When tin I spell backmost connected Snapchat? When tin I get backmost connected TikTok?' It's a changeless struggle, and there's a batch of adjacent unit from friends, bully friends, to get backmost connected immoderate of the apps."
But connected a caller night, she recovered her girl softly playing with their household feline for fractional an hr successful her room. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, that's what's missing -- the small mundane worldly that curbs our anxiety," she said. "It's conscionable wholly missing from teenage beingness astatine this point."