When the Duke and Duchess of Sussex invite you to join them for a conversation, you don’t say no. But I went to the Archewell Parents’ Summit, “Mental Wellness in the Digital Age,” with some trepidation. With the brutal attacks in Israel echoing in my head, I worried that somehow the state of youth mental health was somehow less relevant. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
(I was actually invited through an Archewell advisor who knew of my work fighting hate-for-profit media responsible for teen self-harm.)
The parents of Englyn Roberts, Toney and Brandy, began by sharing the story of their daughter who took her own life at just 14.
Toney wanted to be clear that they were parents who paid attention to their daughter’s digital life: “We knew her unlock code. We knew her passwords. We knew everything. But I just didn’t know how to navigate through these platforms.”
It was only after her passing that they found a note on Englyn’s phone. Holding it in his hand, Toney read it aloud to the audience: “Behind the social media life, nobody knows the real me and how much I struggle.”
Here Toney was overcome with grief, and handed the phone to his wife Brandy, who continued to read: “How much I struggled to make sure everyone’s good, even though I’m not. If it’s not one thing, it’s the other. And when things are going wrong for me, I just become so suicidal and I just need that emotional support.”
Eighteen days later, “there was a video on Instagram depicting what our daughter did,” Toney said.
The words hung in the room. Sitting in the front row, Meghan Markle wiped her eyes. She was hardly alone.
Then the parents of 16-year-old Mason, Dave and Jennie DeSerio, joined the conversation. Mason was going through teenage drama, struggling with a bad break-up on Halloween of 2020, when he found out his girlfriend cheated on him and then ghosted him. He went searching on TikTok. The first search was “my girlfriend broke up with me.”
Jennie explained what happened next: “And then the TikTok started getting darker and darker and darker, and the more he engaged with those, the darker they got. And it got to the point where it was videos telling him how to kill…