Last September, just a few weeks into the school year, Sabine Polak got a call from the guidance counselor. Her 14-year-old daughter was struggling with depression and had contemplated suicide.
“I was completely floored,” said Polak, 45, who lives in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. “I had no clue she was even feeling remotely down at all. When I asked her about it, she just kept saying she wanted to get away from it all … but I didn’t know what that meant.”
After taking her to a crisis center, which banned phone use for anyone checking in, Polak learned from her daughter that the pressures of social media were driving her increased anxiety. The main source of stress: waiting for her friends to open and respond to messages and photos on Snapchat.
“It became really addictive [for her] — the sense that you always have to be on, and always have to be responding to someone in order to be seen or to exist,” she said. “She would look at her phone and go from calm to storming out of the car, and the rest of the night, just curled up in her bed.”
Polak turned on some of the phone’s parental controls, but they were easy for her daughter to circumvent. She took the phone away but worried this move would only drive her daughter to think about taking her own life again. She gave the phone back only to find her daughter “self-soothing” on another social app, TikTok — so much, in fact, that “she literally believes that she can’t fall asleep without it.” As Polak put it, her daughter “feels lost, like, ‘I have no idea what to do with myself if I’m not on social media.'”
Polak is among a generation of parents who did not spend their childhoods with social media apps and are now struggling to understand and navigate the potential harms that social media can have on their kids’ mental health as they grow up. In interviews over the last month, nearly a dozen parents spoke with CNN Business about grappling with how to deal with teens who experience online harms such as bullying, body image issues and pressures to always be Liked. Most of the parents said these issues either began or were exacerbated by the pandemic, a time when their children were isolated from friends, social media became a lifeline and the amount of screen time increased.