ABC Canberra Drive with Emma Bickley Friday 31 May 2024 - Transcript

FRIDAY, 31 MAY 2024

SUBJECTS: Teen mental wellbeing and social media, Australian National University response to protests on campus.

EMMA BICKLEY: The Honourable Doctor Andrew Leigh, Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, Assistant Minister for Employment. Minister, welcome to the Drive program.

ASSISTANT MINISTER ANDREW LEIGH: Thanks, Emma, great to be with you.

BICKLEY: Look, there's been a recent push to lift this minimum age. As I said, it's 13 at the moment. New South Wales, Queensland and Victorian premiers have all supported these tighter restrictions, but our government a little bit slower to commit to this. Why is that the case?

LEIGH: Well, Emma, as the Communications Minister Michelle Rowland has said, there's no country around the world that's got this right. But it is the number one topic of conversation among the parents that I chat with. We all feel as though the childhoods that our children are experiencing don't involve as much outdoor activity and involve too much screen addiction. In some sense, as Jonathan Haidt argues in The Anxious Generation, we've become overprotective in the real world and underprotective in the virtual world. So, this is a really important conversation and the age assurance trial that the government has on train is going to inform that conversation.

BICKLEY: Yeah, look, I doubt there'd be any parents out there who disagree with the idea that social media is all-pervasive. It's a frightening thing, particularly for young minds in those formative years. Few things to break down there. The children who are on these devices, obviously then, they're not outside, they're not exercising. Statistics are showing more and more obesity is a problem. What else do you see as the key concerns there for parents to be aware of when it comes to their children on social media?

LEIGH: We've also seen this terrible worsening in mental wellbeing. Smartphones and social media hit the stage around 2007. We've seen rates of young people's depression doubling, social phobia tripling, rates of panic disorders have increased nearly fourfold. We're now in a situation where 47 per cent of young women say they've experienced a mental disorder in the previous year. The timing coincides with smartphones and social media, and some of the randomised experimental evidence points the same way. An experiment that paid nearly 3000 people to quit Facebook for a month showed that they were significantly less anxious, less depressed and happier with their lives. That does seem to suggest we've got something causal going on here and unless we have community action in order to break this problem of screen addiction, that we're going to end up with a much more anxious generation.

BICKLEY: Absolutely. And so then, with that being the case, why has your government been so slow to commit to raising that age? I mean, 13 still feels quite young for some of the concerns you've outlined.

LEIGH: Well, we're not slow on this at all. We funded the age assurance trial out of the Budget and we're keen to work with the providers and also the device manufacturers in order to get it done. The challenge is that you can set an arbitrary age, but unless that's enforceable, you don't make a clear difference. If children can simply lie about their age and sign up for platforms, you really haven't had the impact that you're aiming at.

One interesting idea I've seen is to make it device-based verification and so if you get a smartphone for your child, you register their age at the time of your registering the device, and then all platforms only have to check the age of the child using the device through that device-based verification. There's a range of work going on at various levels on this, but it's also about parental action. My wife and I have an approach that we won't give our kids a smartphone until 15, which typically means that they're the last kids in their peer group to get a phone.

BICKLEY: And look, some parents are very happy to be that parent, others are perhaps succumbing to some of the pressure, the peer pressure that's coming home with their children from school, from their activities that they're doing with other kids. We're talking about things that parents can do and, you know, restrictions on the phone. But what about the responsibility on the social media companies? So, that's what I want to know. Like, there seems to be uncertainty regarding their involvement in this conversation.

LEIGH: They certainly have a responsibility. Work done by Alice Dawkins at Reset Australia has tested the systems at the social media networks with regard to problematic anorexia content. What that’s shown is that if a new account is set up that follows anorexia material, then it quickly starts getting fed more problematic eating disorder content.

We know that the social media companies need to do more in terms of content monitoring and need to fulfil their social compact with the Australian people. Right now, they’re not doing that. The Facebook Files laid clear the problems that are in platforms such as Instagram in terms of propagating problematic content. To say nothing of some of the extremist nonsense that goes around in the political space.

BICKLEY: Absolutely, and anyone who's used social media for even a short amount of time has seen the advancements in the algorithm which have resulted in, yeah the ability to pinpoint what you're interested in and continue to feed you more information, more nuanced content on that subject, which as a parent is frightening that a child could look for one thing and then be bombarded with those potentially negative messages. But what can the government do to put pressure on the social media companies to actually do something tangible about this, rather than sort of pay lip service to it by saying, well, we, you know, we have these age restrictions, etcetera, which they know potentially can be got around by children under those ages?

LEIGH: The Minister has asked a House of Representatives Committee, chaired by Kate Thwaites, to do an inquiry into social media that will see evidence from a range of the heads of the social media companies about what they're doing. I'm really glad you mentioned the algorithm issue because it's shifted dramatically in the last couple of years. My kids tell me it started with TikTok and then spread quickly to Snapchat and Instagram. The big change is to take out material from your friends and replace it with the most addictive video on the web today. We know that humans are prone to addiction, and this is simply using the canniest tools of psychology in order to hook our kids to staying on the devices for longer, to make more money for the social media companies.

They're not aiming at the wellbeing of kids, they're simply aiming at hooking kids, and we're seeing screen time going up and up. Meanwhile, we're seeing activity out of the home, going down and down. So, in the US, the share of teenagers who get together with friends nearly every day has fallen by two-fifths. So-called iGen are less likely to be getting driving licences, less likely to be dating, less likely to be leaving the house without their parents. So it's not only about the harms of social media, it's also, as Jonathan Haidt and others have argued, about encouraging kids to spend more time outdoors, more time in nature -- which is a great place to be when you live in the bush capital.

BICKLEY: And I know that you're a big fan of things like podcasts that can be listened to while you're out there exercising, and there's no doubt that all of that is part of this conversation. But I still really want to drill down to this idea that if the social media companies are in it for themselves, you know, we understand that as a given, but surely there's a role for government there to put pressure on them. Do you have suggestions or strategies on how it can become less viable for them to make these messages easy for our children to access?

LEIGH: Well, the Australian Competition Consumer Commission has talked about oversight of the algorithms. The age assurance trial will go to some of the ways in which they can be limited from young people. We do need to make sure that if there is content that's being propagated on those platforms that is in breach of community standards, that we stand up for that. And the eSafety Commissioner has shown a clear willingness to take Elon Musk to court in the interests of the Australian people, and not having these kinds of appalling videos which are against Australian community standards being broadly accessible. So, it's a tough area of public policy, but we're focused on it through a range of different areas. The age assurance trial, the eSafety commissioner's work, the parliamentary committee's work.

BICKLEY: And look, the Federal Government has pledged 6.5 million for a pilot to restrict children's exposure to adult content, specifically on social media that starts in May. In terms of Budget, one area that I can see where potentially there needs to be more funding is for mental health resources for young people. So, you mentioned the link between social media and mental health concerns and how this is a growing and ongoing issue. Here in Canberra, we have long waitlists simply to access psychological services for young people. What steps will you take to support our young constituents in accessing the help they need for these conditions?

LEIGH: There's a good set of free resources out there on the internet, which will often be a first point of call for young people feeling anxiety. The headspace centres are, I know, a useful point of contact for people. And then as the issues become more serious, then we've got the clinical sessions that people are able to sign up for. And at the most serious end, then there's a mental health plan which can be put in place. So, those resources are there and I'd encourage any of your listeners who are feeling anxious, depressed, panicky, to go out and make use of those resources. Speaking to a professional can make all the difference. It's important that young Canberrans who are feeling the pressure of life know that they're not alone.

BICKLEY: If you've just joined us on the Drive program, I'm Emma Bickley. My guest is Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, and the Assistant Minister for Employment, Doctor Andrew Leigh. Moving to a slightly different story, as you would know, the ANU has told protesters to move from the campsites. But the ANU actually also faces Senate scrutiny for the second time over the increasing instances of hate and incitement of that on campus. Now, do you think the university should be held accountable for these incidents?

LEIGH: Well, the university, I think, has acted responsibly in this and has worked with the students in order to see them vacate that encampment. My understanding is they packed up on Monday night. There were a portion of those students who established a second camp on a different area of the ANU's grounds. The ANU has been working with students to make it absolutely clear that protest is totally fine, but an encampment which blocks an emergency evacuation route isn't appropriate. I understand also that the Vice-Chancellor, Genevieve Bell, has invited protesters to meet with her on a number of occasions, and the protesters so far haven't taken up that offer.

BICKLEY: Minister, that's all we have time for. Thank you for chatting to us today on Drive.

LEIGH: Real pleasure Emma.

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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.