Every generation faces its own moral panic over new technology. Even right back to Socrates when the use of written text in books was seen as something that would negatively impact our lives. In the 20th century, wireless radio and television was thought or assumed to bring about the downfall of civilisation.
In this social media digital age, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Monash University Brady Robards focuses on the positive impacts social media brings to our lives. Whilst obviously there are negative impacts of social media, he is looking at ways young people are using these platforms as ways to help open communication and help deal with issues they face. Brady is currently working on a publication called Growing up on Facebook. Studying sustained or longitudinal social media use among people in their 20s who have grown up using social media. Gemma Sharp, a Clinical Psychologist and Monash researcher on the impact of social media on body image, is also using social media as a positive tool to help at-risk young people.
Susan Carland (SC): Joining us first is Brady Robards.
Brady Robards (BR): So my name’s Brady Robards, I’m a senior lecturer in sociology, and I study how young people use the internet.
SC: Dr Brady Robards welcome in this very unusual time to the podcast.
BR: Thanks Susan, great to chat.
SC: We talk a lot about social media, and it's how it's the end of the world, it's ruining everything. Have people always felt this way about new technology, though, when the printing press started, were there similar hand wringing of people thinking that it was the end of civilisation as we know it? Or is there something unique about social media?
BR: Look, I think it's a bit of both. You’re right, I think every generation has a moral panic around technology, so we think about you mentioned the printing press But if you think about but when the radio came in, people thought this would be the downfall of civilisation because people would sit in their homes isolated from everyday conversation and isolated from those social interaction. You go further back when written history started in ancient Greece, people talked about this is going to be the end of spoken language because people will just be writing things down and sort of passing it around and people won't want to interact anymore. The great kind of conversations that happened in different symposia will no longer take place. So every generation has these kinds of moral panics around technology.
I think about these new panics and how technology is often linked to young people, because young people are often the ones that take up technology. And that's the kind of group that I focus on in my research. And I wonder about the relationship between those two things and the way that people think about you know how we are protective towards young people, but also we demonise young people's practises and then therefore we kind of link the technology to them. But in terms of the question about ‘is there something unique about social media?’, I think that it does change some dynamics in terms of the persistence of the things - say, the ways that forms of bullying and harassment and trolling can play out in ways that in the past they weren't able to. But I also think there are lots of positives around ways that people can connect, form communities, form these longitudinal records of their lives that they can look back on. So I think there are positives about it as well that I hope we can talk about.
SC : Tell me, what are some of the positives you found with social media and maybe particularly social media and young people?
BR:Yeah, so one of the projects that I've been working on most in the last few years is looking at LGBTIQ+ young people’s social media use. And I think one of the really key findings that have come out of that for us is that there's an incredible - and for young gender-diverse people this won’t be a surprise - but there's so much community building, information sharing, knowledge work that happens in their spaces that they're not getting in schools or from their families, of course. For young queer people who are coming to terms with their sexuality or young gender diverse people coming to terms with gender identity that doesn't fit their assigned gender of birth, things like that, the Internet is such amazing space where people can think about access to new language that other people have developed, that they have never heard of. Some of our participants, for example, talk about even a concept like feminism that in their household that was never discussed or when it was, it was a negative thing. They went on to tumblr, and suddenly they had access to this incredible repertoire of language and ways of thinking about the world. Young, non binary people or trans people, bisexual, or pansexual people having language that suddenly described their experience is an incredibly affirming process for them, and being able to connect with other people through that language has amazing potential for them.
So I think that that's one example. I mean, some of the other work that I've been doing is looking at how people reflect on and make sense of their social media history. So we did this project where we scroll back with people through their own Facebook timelines.
SC: How did they find that? Was that funny, confronting?
BR: All of those things. There was a sense of, like nostalgia, embarrassment, shame, sometimes, real sadness as well. Like sometimes they would they would come across post that, even though it wasn't about a particular trauma, it reminded them of something that happened when they were 16 or 17, but also the uplifting things like it was a sense of, “Oh, that friend I haven't spoken to in years or I really a member of this trip that I took when I'm looking at these pictures’. So there's that memory work that uncovers both the positives and the really challenging times as well. So you know, that was a really interesting project, just, in terms of thinking about how so much of our lives are inscribed in digital spaces for a generation that has grown up with social media being normalised, I think that there is this incredible longitudinal trace of people's lives and we’re still coming to terms with the implications of that for you people's futures, I think.
SC: And what was the intention of doing the scroll back with young people? Was it just a trip ust a trip down memory lane, or was there a further intention behind it?
BR: It was, in terms of a methodological, I guess, question, there was something about how - it was with my colleague Sian Lincoln (CHECK) in the UK and we came together thinking about how do we make sense of people's disclosure practises? So what they say online, how has that changed over time and we designed this project at the time that Facebook was coming up to its 10th anniversary, so it had been around for 10 years, and whereas other platforms like MySpace or Live Journal had kind of gone by the wayside, in many ways, Facebook at that time had really had this power, or staying power, I suppose, where they weren't going away. And in fact, they were buying up smaller platforms like Instagram at the time, WhatsApp and they were incorporating the affordances of those platforms into their main platform. Now, of course, that people are much more critical of the role of Facebook in our lives, and that came through a little bit in the interviews, but is much more present, I think, now in our kind of popular discussion about trust and how, what kind of role platforms do play in news-sharing, in the way that elections work and so on. So that was the original intention. I think if we did that project today, it would be very different.
SC: I wonder. It's interesting when you say, you know, people would look back at what they said 10 years ago and see how did they feel about that, and I'm sure maybe when there were times of embarrassment or even shame, part of it was just, you know, I was young and I said dumb things because we all did when we were young. But also, I wonder if part of it is, really more than any other time in history, what’s been socially acceptable is changing faster than ever. You know the attitudes towards different minority groups, or what's okay to say about certain issues, mental health, all those sort of things, are changing much faster than they ever have. Did it make people reluctant to - seeing what they said five years ago? ‘Oh my God, I can't believe I used that word that I now know is a slur. But at the time, I didn't know’ - did it make them more anxious about what they were saying now, knowing that maybe what's okay now, we might realise in five years will not be okay.?
BR: Yeah, that really came through a lot, actually. And it was in two senses, like in one sense, it was about, I guess, how they were being interpreted by future employees, for example. So it was about what's appropriate - what was appropriate when I was 16 versus now I'm 26, I’ve finished uni and I've done some casual and part time work and I’m really trying to start my career in this direction, like I'm trying to be a medical doctor or a teacher or work for a bank or something. So there was that. But there was also a sense - one of the key processes of change and disclosure practises was around who was in their network. So when a lot of our participants started using Facebook, it was very much their friends, like they were friending people from school, maybe coworkers at casual jobs and things like that. But a lot of their parents weren't on Facebook when they first started, and as Facebook became a platform that more people adopted, so too, did it become a different form of surveillance. So there was a move to a more complex landscape of social media platforms, so that now you have Instagram, Facebook you've got SnapChat, you might have tumblr, you might be having more conversations in closed groups, in different message threads - it's a much more complex landscape than it was say 10 or 15 years ago when Facebook was really starting to take off, so I think you're also absolutely right, the way in which public discourse around certain topics - mental health is a really great example, the way that has changed is really remarkable, and I think that it's one of the real positives to the way people talk about sharing those kinds of disclosures on social media. But there are still, of course, conventions around what's appropriate, where the lines are, and that moves and changes for different people, sometimes based on their age, sometimes on the kind of group of friends they have. So I think there are still appropriate ways, there are conventions around what's appropriate for certain disclosures as well, and I think that, yeah, that process of scrolling back with people really revealed where the pressure points are like what is too much information? What's over-sharing
SC: You mentioned the ways that social media can be good for mental health. When it does come to social media platforms and mental health, do you think it's the platforms that have a duty to protect the mental health of young people? Should it be government intervention, should it come from elsewhere.?
BR:Oh, it’s such a complex issue isn’t it? And I think that platforms for a long time were very much hands off with this stuff and were saying we’re just a place for you to share ideas and stuff. But as the last five, even less, years have gone on, platforms have had to take much more responsibility. So one example of this is Facebook, or Instagram rather - but Facebook owns Instagram - of Instagram removing likes on posts
SC: Is there any evidence that removing the light count has made any impact on how people feel about themselves or each other?
BR: It's too early to say, I think. I haven't seen any good evidence yet. In terms of those questions about longer term mental health or body image issues, I think we're in a bit of a wait-and-see scenario there. It's still relatively new, but I'm sure there will be data coming out in the next little while that starts to show whether there’s an impact on mental health but I haven't seen it just yet.
SC:I wonder how much of an impact the filers will have because - and especially when we think about body image in mental health, because even Zoom has this now, I don't know if you know, but I was trying to change my background for my my zoom for when I teach students to make it more interesting. And when I was fiddling around in the settings I found, there's a little switch you can turn on where, even in live video you are permanently airbrushed. And I’m like ‘Oh hello, this is new’. Even in something like Zoom, which we wouldn't think of as social media which most of us use for business purposes, we can present quite a different image. And that affects how, like if I don't know that feature’s there, I haven't turned it on, and I'm having a meeting with you and think, ‘why are you glowing and I look like crap?’. That does affect people because I don't realise that you've got this filter on.
BR: Yeah, that's so interesting. I came across that filter on Zoom the other day too - it’s called the Beauty Filter or something like that, in those sort of terms. The filters discussion is really interesting too. The work that I've been doing with Gemma Sharp from and psychology. She's looked specifically at this where some young people are literally taking airbrushed selfies of themselves into cosmetic surgeons and saying, ‘Make me look like this’. I think you're right. There is some of the work we did with Gemma. We actually did interviews with people about their selfie practises and what kind of impact filtering and filter work has on their sense of who they are, their own self image and things like that. What was quite surprising from that - there's a lot of research on how young women are affected and there's a long history, of course, of a beauty industry around young women - but also the young men are increasingly thinking a lot about selfie work and filtering, and there some participants who talked about how, before they would even post on image to their main Instagram feed, for example, that they would check it with their friends, and some of their friends would do touch-ups. So they would literally have apps where they will go on, remove a blemish or apply a filter and so they would pass the image around digitally before they posted it.
So that was one kind of interesting selfie-filtering practise. But then the flipside of that, there was also a lot of what I would call selfie work - like people turning the camera on themselves and taking photos of themselves - that our participants didn't talk about as selfies, they talked about them in a more everyday communicative style. So if they were using Snapchat to send photos and quick text updates to each other, they might take a selfie with neck chin, or chin roll, or deliberately ugly kind of performance because they wanted to show that they weren't taking themselves seriously in that context.
So, yeah, the filter stuff is so interesting. It comes down to context again, I think. If you're putting something on your main Instagram feed where you have all your friends and family, you might have 500 people on there, versus what you're putting on an ephemeral kind of story on Instagram or SnapChat where only a smaller number of people might be following you or you've given access - so the context is really key there. And it's like, is there a negative impact on people? Well maybe but what about also the positive - if it’s fun, if it’s like, ‘Oh, that makes me feel really good about myself. I know that's not how I might look in the mirror or it might not be how I look on the street, but these little flowers on my eyes or this tiara or photoshopping a beard on to myself with this augmented filter, these are kind of fun, communicative actions that involve that selfie work and that's kind of the focus in my work, but I'm really conscious that the work that Gemma's doing is really important as well - about how does this affect people’s, especially young people’s, sense of body image or sense of self and worth because I think that's a really critical challenge that we're facing as well.
SC: Last question - Zoom filter on - yes or no?
BR: It’s a no from me!
SC: You look very smooth.
BR: Oh, thank you. I've got great lighting at the moment. I think the key to zoom is having good lighting.
SC: You’re telling me that now, when I look like Voldemort? Brady thank you so much.
BR: Thank you Susan it’s been great to chat.
SC: Now let's hear from Gemma Sharp.
Gemma Sharp (GS): My name is Dr Gemma Sharp. I'm an NHMRC early career fellow at Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre and I lead the body image research group there and I'm also a clinical psychologist.
SC: Thank you so much for joining us today.
GS: No worries. It's a pleasure to be with you.
SC: You're a psychologist. What impact do you see social media having on the mental health of young people?
GS: I think young people are keenly aware that mental health is important, and I just wanted to throw in some stats, if that's all right? We know that young people in our last Mission Australia survey in 2019 nominated mental health as the most important issue facing Australia. Mental health. That came before environment, and other issues. So they're very, very concerned about their mental health. And around one in seven young Australians has a mental health condition. That's not to speak to all the other young Australians who might not meet our criteria for a mental health condition but are feeling anxious, stressed and unwell.
SC: That's really high,
GS: It really is. It's frightening and they are our most unwell generation that we've had. So we’ve got a big issue on our hands. And you spoke of social media there, Susan and the work I do, particularly in my clinic, focuses on body image concerns and we know that these can lead to more serious body image disorders, which include things like eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder. And it does take up a lot of my time in my clinical practice because these disorders are so prevalent in young people. Our latest stats suggest 22.2% of young Australians aged 12 to 19 meet criteria for an eating disorder - that is absolutely frightening, isn’t it?
SC: So that's more than one in five?
GS: Exactly, Exactly.
SC: And how does that compare to say previous generations?
GS: It is higher, yes. And I think social media, while not being the cause of eating disorders, not by a long stretch, certainly I think it puts a focus on beauty ideals and how young people may feel they don't measure up to these ideals. So I think social media really puts it out there. How we’re meant to look, what we’re meant to eat, how we’re meant to exercise - basically it almost can serve as a guide for young people for how they're meant to live their lives. And because it's so curated and edited it's a very unrealistic picture of how we should be, and that puts a lot of pressure on young people to try and follow these trends.
SC: Well, I mean, that does sound worrying, but it's encouraging to know that you're actually doing some interesting and important research with organisations like the Butterfly Foundation. Tell us about the work you're doing and tell us particularly about some of the good you're seeing. I think we need some hope in this area.
GS: Yeah, I think body image concerns are definitely on our radars as clinicians, researchers and particularly the wonderful Butterfly Foundation, who is our National Eating Disorder and Body Image Support organisation - I have been very lucky to team up with them as well as researchers from Monash and Swinburne and, through the Butterfly Foundation, being able to team up with Instagram, which we know is one of the most popular social media platforms for young people.
And what we're building at the moment is a chatbot. Which is a computer program that can have human-like conversations. And if you feel like you're not familiar with what a chatbot is, you would have definitely seen them already - say you're looking at a product online and something pops up and says, ‘can I help you with that?’, that’s a chatbot.
SC: Oh! So you mean all this time I thought I was chatting to a real person?
GS: Totally, Susan. Yeah, probably not a real person that instance, But possibly it would have been a real person later on in the conversation. But the chatbot is starting it for you, and our chatbot is goin g to be accessed through Instagram where we know that young people are having these harmful body image conversations and what it aims to do is offer advice to young people and also their carers about how they can use social media in a more helpful way and also provides positive body image skillwork that I would normally deliver in a therapeutic setting, so basically there they're getting this therapy online, 24/7 because it's a chatbot, and it's supported by the Butterfly Foundation Helpline. So that if someone wants more support than the chatbot can give, they’re directed to the helpline who are sort of the in-person help.
SC: So how does it work? Imagine I'm a 16 year old girl. I'm scrolling through instagram. At what point does the chatbot intervene? When I post a photo? When I'm looking at someone else's things? When I start to write specific keywords? How does it work? Because to my knowledge, there are no chatbots I've ever interacted with on Instagram, so I don't understand, how does it pop up?
GS: You're absolutely right, Susan. So Instagram, the architecture of Instagram doesn't support chatbots. So what we're doing on Instagram is targeted advertising to people we know who are at risk of developing body image concerns, through, just as you said, use of certain Hashtags or certain words, as well as certain key demographics, like being a younger person. We know that LGBTQ+ people are also more at risk of body image concerns. So we know we can target these ads to particular groups, and that's exactly what we'll be doing. And then once the ad pops up, people can swipe on that and then they'll be connected with the chatbot, which is hosted by Butterfly’s website.
SC: So you're looking for sort of some key things to sort of trigger the chatbot to appear witht he ad?
GS: Yeah, absolutely. And this is harnessing the technology that the advertisements use already. So we know that if people are looking at certain kinds of sites, they like particular things and you'll get advertisements in your feed that you're likely to be interested in. But the plan is that the chatbot will be launched later this year on Instagram.
SC: That's exciting. Are there any other ways that young people use social media to help their mental health? We know it can certainly play a role in damaging mental health for a whole host of reasons, can it ever be used for good beyond the bot?
GS: Of course. Obviously, we like to think that our bot is the be all and end all but social media has been used for since social media came into existence. And I think social media is a very important tool for young people, particularly if they're feeling isolated in their school and family communities. I think it helps them find like minded people, and they can potentially support each other through tricky times. So I think that sense of connection is the strongest thing social media can do.
SC: Social media platforms themselves have a responsibility to be doing more to help young people and their mental health, or not even just young people but everyone, I suppose. Where do you think that needs to come from, do you think? Does that need to come from governments? Whose job is it?
GS: It's a great point you raise there Susan, about it not just being young people, but everyone on those platforms. And I don't think it is the social media platforms’ responsibility alone. I think it's a shared responsibility between the platforms, government, policy makers, mental health professionals, organisations like Butterfly, researchers, et cetera. I don't think it should be up to the platform themselves and I'm not sure that they necessarily always have the resources and expertise to have all the right answers to this. So I'm really glad to see platforms like Instagram teaming up with organisations like Butterfly to make really cool interventions,
SC: I guess I wonder if … Okay, I don't know - feel free not to answer this, but do you think, should we just get rid of social media?
GS: I’m happy to answer that, no worries at all.
SC: Is it, overall, on a weight of good versus bad - should we just set it all on fire?
GS: I would say no way. I think social media is here to stay. I think it is a fantastic tool that we can utilise for good. And I can see social media being superseded with something else in the future. I think you know, we had television, magazines, movies, et cetera. In the last century, we've seen social media this century. Who knows what's next in terms of the social connectedness tools? So I think it’s about us working with it rather than fighting against it.
SC: Thank you so much, Gemma., I really appreciate it.
GS: It’s been a pleasure.
SC: Well, that gives us some hope for the future that social media might not be the downfall of us all. On the next episode will be talking tips and strategies for managing mental health and social media. Most of us use it, so we need to find out from the experts how to make it a useful tool and not just a time suck. Thanks to our guests today, Brdy Robards and Gemma Sharp. That's it for this episode. More information on what we discussed today can be found in the show notes.