2CC Breakfast with Stephen Cenatiempo Tuesday 28 May 2024 - Transcript

TUESDAY, 28 MAY 2024

SUBJECTS: Impact of social media on teen mental health.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO, HOST: Talking federal politics and a couple of interesting topics that I want to discuss with Andrew Leigh, the Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, and the Member for Fenner. Andrew, good morning.

ASSISTANT MINISTER ANDREW LEIGH: Good morning, Stephen. Great to be with you.

CENATIEMPO: Social media has become, well, a major talking point for a whole bunch of reasons at the moment and I want to just get your personal view on this, because your view on social media has changed in recent times.

LEIGH: I used to think a couple of years ago that this was just part of what was going on with the worsening of young people's mental health. But increasingly now, the more I read, works by people like Jonathan Haidt, the more I'm concerned that this really is the number one culprit, in terms of the worsening mental health of young Australians. And the worsening is really substantial. Rates of depression have doubled, social phobia has tripled, rates of panic disorder are up fourfold, and there's an extraordinary 47 per cent of young women who say they've experienced a mental disorder in the last year. All of this has come about in the 15 years since smartphones and social media emerged. Even the set of randomised trials, which look at what happens when people take a break from social media, show an immediate improvement in mental wellbeing.

CENATIEMPO: I don't disagree that social media is a major problem, but I think, and this is, again, my personal view on this, I think there's another issue that goes alongside this, and it's a lack of resilience that we seem to be building into young people these days where, and I know this is a flippant way of looking at it, but it basically highlights the issue, is that when you and I were kids, we were told, you know, sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you. And we kind of got over things and we were taught to be resilient, whereas now we try to create a victim mentality amongst people. And then when you compound that with social media and the constant aggression and nastiness that goes along with it, it's a twofold approach that I think is culminating in some of those figures you're talking about.

LEIGH: Nassim Taleb talks about this is the idea of being antifragile. An antifragile thing is a thing that's experienced enough small shocks that has become pretty resilient, like one of those trees growing out the side of a mountain. We need to think, as parents and as society, how we make sure that we put young people in uncomfortable situations that don't break them, but make them more antifragile, more resilient. I really struggle with that as a dad of three boys. But I think society in general finds it harder when kids are spending more time indoors on devices and less time outdoors, running around the neighbourhood and getting into strife.

CENATIEMPO: So, of course, the question is, what do we do about it? Because, I mean, there's been a lot of talk about raising the age of access to social media, and the tech sector comes out and says, oh, no, it's not possible. We should, can't be done, so don't do it. But they obviously have a vested interest in keeping kids on social media. I know that there's been talk within the government about artificial intelligence being used for identity verification and age verification. How far are we progressing with that?

LEIGH: Well, we've just funded an age assurance trial which will look at a range of ways of doing this. One idea that's been put forward is you do it on a device basis and so new devices which were registered to a parent would have an age registered to them. As a child accessed social media, the platforms would keep them off if they were below a certain age. There's a range of other ideas that are out there. But I think the overall point is we've become overprotective in the real world -- too worried about what will happen to our kids if they roam the neighbourhood -- and underprotective in the virtual world -- not worried enough about the harms of pornography for young boys, dodgy people contacting young girls, and just the general challenges that social media poses for the mental health of teens.

CENATIEMPO: That's an interesting dichotomy that I've never actually considered in those terms, that we're, we're not worried about what's happening in the real world, we're, sorry, we are worried about what's happening in the real world, but not worried about what's happening online. That's extraordinary, isn't it?

LEIGH: Yes, t's the so-called backseat generation idea. The notion that we're driving our kids around rather than putting them on bikes, and that, yes, there is stranger danger. Kids do get abducted, but the chance of your child being abducted by a stranger is far smaller than the chance of your child getting into strife unsupervised online.

CENATIEMPO: Yeah. And I wonder if the incidence of abduction and those kind of things is higher now than it was when we were kids, or it's just that the population's higher and therefore, you know, the sheer numbers. Yeah. Look, and I understand that parents want to protect their kids, I don't begrudge that whatsoever. But I just wonder if we look at things today and think that it is worse than it actually is.

LEIGH: These stories are horrific and, of course, get widely reported. What doesn't get so widely reported is kids whose mental health just slowly worsens as a result of following a diet of social media videos. And these platforms’ algorithms are getting more and more effective at hooking kids. My own kids talk about how the TikTok algorithm, the Snapchat algorithm, the Instagram algorithm, have become so much more addictive just over the last couple of years. Much less content from their friends, much more just being fed the most addictive video on the Internet today.

CENATIEMPO: Do we need to look at this more broadly, though? And this is something I've railed against even before the discussions around the dangers facing young children, young people on social media emerge. But the anonymity of it is a problem. Now, you and I are both on social media, and we have to do it under our own names. And I'm sure that subconsciously that informs what you are willing to say on social media, as opposed to what you might, you know, keep to yourself. Whereas a lot of people who have the veil of anonymity feel free to say whatever, whenever. Do we look, if we're looking at age verification, do we need to look at identity verification as well? For adults, not just kids?

LEIGH: Anonymous platforms, I think, are a real challenge. You know, back in the 19th century, they talked about poison pen letters, anonymous letters that were written to smear your name. But there weren't that many of them because, of course, you had to write a letter. These days, cyberbullying at scale through anonymity is far easier than it's ever been before. So, taking away some of that veil of anonymity, and only providing it where it's needed. Obviously, or if you're a civil dissident in Myanmar, then you can understand it. If you're a teen in Australia using the veil of anonymity in order to bully classmates then we ought to take a careful look at that. Parents can only do so much in this space, Stephen. We're all out there trying. But ultimately, it's like other challenges, such as smoking, where, you know, a bit of government action may be appropriate to sit alongside the work that parents are doing.

CENATIEMPO: Yeah. And look, and I  - and, well, I don't know, maybe you do share my view on this. But my view is that, you know, governments are generally bad at doing most things and should stay out of things. But there are things that governments do need to do. And I think this is one area where governments need to step up. And this is not a criticism of either side of politics because it really is a difficult policy area.

LEIGH: Yeah, exactly and, you know, you look at this through lens of past technology: cars came along and they gave us a huge amount of freedom but they also created carnage on the roads. So, then we had laws that said you've got to have seatbelts and airbags, and the road toll came down. There's no way we can get rid of these extraordinary devices. Connecting people up is great, it can even be great for mental health. But without the appropriate regulatory guidelines around it, I think we're going to continue to see teens spiral into an epidemic of depression and anxiety.

CENATIEMPO: I think you're 100 per cent right. Andrew, good to talk to you this morning.

ANDREW LEIGH: Likewise. Thanks, Stephen.

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  • Toby Halligan
    published this page in What's New 2024-05-28 11:04:03 +1000

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.