Packing up his belongings to move house, 22-year-old Owen* stumbled across a box in his basement that contained a smashed up matte black iPhone. Immediately, memories of "one of the worst nights" of his life came flooding back.
Five years ago, when Owen was 17 and texting his girlfriend in his family home, his father – a strict parent and a Jehovah's Witness – demanded to see his phone. Fearful that his dad would find out that his girlfriend wasn't part of the family faith, Owen refused to reveal his passcode. In response, his father took the phone outside and used the blunt end of a hatchet to smash it, before returning indoors to punch his son in the face. "I remember, back then, my whole world was ripped in shreds," Owen says now.
Though the trauma occurred in 2012, Owen recently chose to relive it via a 757,000-subscriber subreddit that is two years old. Reddit.com/r/InsaneParents is a place where people go to share stories of strict, unorthodox and even abusive parents. "This sub is a mixture of both the heartbreaking and the hilarious," reads the sidebar. Every day, its front page is filled with screenshots of "insane parent" behaviour – from anti-vaxxer Facebook rants to gut-wrenching texts in which parents tell their children to die.
Owen can't remember how he stumbled across Insane Parents, but he recalls that the page made him "feel better" about his own experiences as a child. "I really enjoyed seeing people that I can relate to and seeing that other people went through similar stuff, or even worse," he says.
When he found his old smashed up phone, he shared a picture of it on the sub and it quickly accumulated 84,000 upvotes. Owen was flooded with both supportive and negative comments ("fake!") and even offered advice to another Redditor looking to escape a similar family dynamic. "It's one of the better subs on Reddit," he adds. "It can be quite wholesome at times, and I think it helps people with strict parents to cope with the cards they were dealt."
Insane Parents is an unusual and remarkable space. The most popular posts paint a dark picture of life with controlling parents: in one, a 20-year-old is berated for being on birth control. In another, a mother watches their child via security cameras to ensure they wash the dishes at exactly 3PM. Occasionally people post about physical abuse; three months ago, one teen shared a photo of his bruised back. Yet interspersed with these tragic stories are SpongeBob memes, jokes about "Facebook moms" and even the occasional cat picture.
Despite – and sometimes because of – the gags, many say the subreddit is a therapeutic space. Owen says it felt good to be encouraged by commenters, while 18-year-old Angel has found the page a useful place to vent. "I wanted to find some place where people could relate to me," he says. There months ago he posted on the sub for the first time, sharing screenshots of texts in which his mother asked him for $600 (£447), before telling her son to "stop spending" when he refused.
"The majority of people deal with abuse from their parents and they have no place to talk about how it makes them feel – no place to express themselves, really," Angel tells me, adding that he "definitely would've felt a lot shittier" without the sub.
Angel loves his mum and dad – he thinks they're "great" – but says they simply have a blind spot when it comes to listening to his view. His story illustrates just how varied the sub is; some posters are crying out for help, while others are just blowing off steam.
Harry*, a 16-year-old who posted on the sub after his mum made him write three pages of lines ("I will respect my parents, I will look them in the eye, I will communicate kindly"), says he doesn't actually consider his mum's behaviour "insane" or abusive, and just sees it as regular discipline. Why, then, did he decide to post on the sub? "It happened, so I was like, well, I might as well post it," he says. His post got over 25,000 upvotes.
Harry feels like some of the people who reacted to his post were "extreme" in their response, with some commenters even advising he move out of his family home. "There's a lot of radical people on there, to be honest," he says. "It kind of happens on every post. It's just, like, something small – like a small punishment – and people are like, 'Oh my god, it must be terrible, save up money and move out when you're 18 and don't look back.' It doesn't make sense at all, honestly – at least in my situation." This kind of advice is so common on the sub that the ninth most popular post of all time is a Simpsons meme mocking the idea that minors can just get up and leave their homes.
Another problem Insane Parents users face is that they may – like Owen – be accused of faking their post. One of the most fascinating aspects of the sub is that the stories told rely on screenshots (often of text messages between parent and child). This leads to a strange dynamic where posters not only have to "prove" their experiences, but their struggles are also gamified into small, digestible pieces, the most shocking of which get upvoted.
Over Reddit messages, Insane Parents' moderators say the high number of screenshots is simply a consequence of the fact that a lot of communication now takes place via text. "As such, there is more opportunity to display insane parenthood with a screenshot," they say. "It's the easiest thing to post."
A 21-year-old who has asked to be identified by the initials B.A says she had to share extra screenshots with people who accused her of faking her post. In December, she posted screenshots of a text exchange with her dad, where he demanded she drive him around even though she had to go to work. When she protested, her dad replied: "I don't give a shit what u have to do. Your [sic] driving me […] tomorrow. You should fucking be ashamed of yourself."
Despite a few negative messages from trolls and the need to prove the screenshots weren't faked, B.A says the subreddit was incredibly supportive, adding that most people helped to validate her feelings. "I felt very heard and seen," she says. "I've been dealing with that behaviour, mostly alone, for my entire life, and I struggle with trusting myself and believing that I'm a bad person through internalising. I posted because I felt like I had to know what others thought of the interaction." She says the supportive response helped her gain perspective.
"Our sub is first and foremost a support sub," say the moderators. They believe the page is a place where teenagers can come and "know that the abuse they've suffered is not a normal experience". In the past, the moderators have also taken action by calling Child Protective Services (after seeing a Facebook post in which a mother gave her children bleach to drink in an attempt to cure them of autism).
Dr Dawn Branley-Bell, a cyberpsychologist at Northumbria University and an expert in online communication and behaviour, says it may be useful for the moderators to flag useful resources – such as charities and helplines – in the sidebar, but believes the subreddit overall is presently a useful space. "Generally I don't feel that the use of this online space is particularly dangerous or negative, and the benefits of social support and community are far greater," she says.
After his post about his dad destroying his phone blew up, Owen initially felt "uncomfortable" with the situation and was concerned he'd "lost control" after people used his post to debate religion, rather than simply focus on his father's actions. Yet, overall, he's pleased about his place in the sub's history. "Younger people can see what others went through and they know they're not the only ones, and they can kind of make fun of it – even though it's kind of a serious situation, they can make the best out of it by sharing it with people and maybe having some fun," he says.
Owen now lives away from his parents and is trying to rebuild a relationship with his dad. "I remember back then I felt really bad and I didn't know what to do," he reflects of the incident. "It was one of the worst nights of my life, and now I'm looking back at it I'm in such a good place. It just feels good to see such an improvement in my life."