This episode of What Happens Next? features all the best tips and guidance from our experts about how to help young people manage their social media use for mental health and wellbeing, and how it can be used to build communities and share stories. Gemma Sharp is one of three interviewees in this podcast, speaking on how to be aware of when social media use is becoming unhealthy.
Susan Carland (SC): Joining us now is Brady Robards.
Brady Robards (BR): So my name is 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: Do you know of any things that social media platforms have done to try? Apart from removing ‘likes’ are there any other examples of things like that where social media or dating apps, any of those platforms, have done things to try to make things better for people? Nicer, improve mental health? Or is it all just money, money, money?
BR: Well, I think it's… I think sometimes the latter, the money, money, money thing is served by them appearing to do...
SC: What would we call that? ‘Kindwashing’?
BR: (laughs) ‘Kindwashing’ yeah. So some examples that come to mind for me are Asher Flynn who is a colleague of mine in social sciences as well who often talks about some work that she's been doing with Facebook where there's this… they do this thing, it was around people posting racist stuff, essentially. So it was like this algorithm that detects in a status update or a comment or something where it actually says to you “hey, some people might interpret what you're saying in really negative terms, would you like to rephrase it?”. So there's some kind of like algorithmic detection of sentiment essentially, or the use of certain words or language, and I kind of don’t know the exact numbers, but she said it did make an impact like, something like 3/4 of people, or maybe it was 1/2 changed what they were actually saying. Some of them changed it to something that was also offensive.
SC: So they doubled down?
BR: They double down, or they thought ‘oh, this is a better way to say this’ but the algorithm was still…
SC: Using the ‘N’ word, that's not going to change it…
BR: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, yeah, things like this. So those things… that's not… that was a fairly controlled release I think - I don't think that’s mainstream at the moment. The other example that I can think of is grindr, which is like a dating app for… dating hookup app mostly for gay men, but it's sort of pivoted toward being a bit more inclusive now, but it had a campaign because there's a lot of… on dating hookup apps there is a lot of racist stuff that you see. People basically saying in their profiles who they're interested in and who they’re not and using often very like racist language, and being very selective. So they did a campaign called ‘Kindr on Grindr’ which was about people reflecting on the language that they were using in their profiles and you know, there's always this discussion ‘oh it's just a preference or whatever’ but they were basically saying ‘look, you know, think about how hurtful it would be to read something like ‘not interested in Asians’ when you're looking through profiles and you see this, what is the impact that that actually has on people’. And they have these short videos where they had people who were talking about their experiences of reading that kind of stuff. So they launched this fairly comprehensive campaign like it was built into the app. There was a kind of broader social media strategy where they were putting videos on youtube and on different platforms. I don't know whether there's any research looking at whether that has had a positive impact.
I think that, though, that these are examples of platforms trying to take more responsibility. I'm always, as a sociologist, kind of conscious that there is this commercial imperative that sits below or beneath these, these kinds of campaigns. I do know some people that work for these platforms that are real campaigners, activists in these sorts of spaces. And I think that the more we see platforms hire people specifically to address issues around ethics, around data collection or, you know, these kind of social justice campaigns that try and, as you say, make their platforms nicer, kinder to people that are using them, then that can only be better. I think if we saw them hire as many sociologists and anthropologists and you know, people that do work with marginalized people, social workers. If we saw them hire more people in those kinds of industries and those kinds of fields, disciplines as they do, you know, people to look after their bottom line, then that would be a really positive sign. We're probably not going to get there any time soon but I think there are positive signs there around how platforms are taking more responsibility or being forced to. I don't know what the reality is.
SC: From your research, is there anything individuals can do to help protect or improve their mental health when they're using social media? What would be your take home tips?
BR: I think there's definitely something about managing time, and you often hear people talk about having a break from Twitter when things are getting really dire. There's also something really powerful I think about connecting in smaller group chats. So rather than just being bombarded by the constant feed of things and bad news, being a bit more selective in how you manage the filters around certain posts. So, for example, Twitter can allow you to follow lists of people rather than follow everyone and it can also allow you to remove retweets into your feed. So if the people you follow often are retweeting negative news. Just having time out using different platforms, like seeing how different subreddits on reddit, for example, ban political discussion or ban talk about certain topics. ‘What is political discussion’, that’s another question… but yeah, I think those kind of filtering strategies are really important.
My, always my concern with these sort of things is that it places the responsibility on the individual, like the individual has to take time out or the individual has to develop a filtering strategy to manage their own mental health. And I am really wary of that. But I'm also not totally sold that platforms are gonna solve this for us. I think you're right in thinking about what are individual strategies. As much as we don't want to put all the responsibility on individuals, there is some sense of control and learning strategies to manage that time that you are on social media for yourself.
SC: Brady, thank you so much.
BR: Thank you too, it’s been so great to chat.
SC: Next up is Gemma Sharp.
Gemma Sharp (GS): My name is Dr. Gemma Sharp. I'm an NHMRC early career fellow at the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research center and I lead the body image research group there and I'm also a clinical psychologist.
SC: Imagine if we change nothing when it comes to social media and mental health, particularly for young people. You know, let's cast our minds to 80 years into the future, where we've done nothing to try to improve this. Your bot never takes off. The social media companies do nothing. The government doesn't care. What would that future look like?
GS: Eighty years into the future? I'm just thinking. So we're in, like, the year 2100?
SC: Yeah, pretend instagram and TikTok is still a thing.
GS: Wow and I’m just like ‘gosh, I hope I’d be an old lady’. I don't think I'd be around. Um gosh, that feels like such a long time away, but I'm sure it will go really fast. So we’re talking...
SC: You know what? You’re right, things are changing so fast. What if it was just 30 years into the future? Thirty years into the future where whatever social media evolves to become, no one has taken this issue of mental health and social media seriously enough. What's happening?
GS: Gosh, well, I think we have a very unwell population, I suppose. And all the young people who have come through this generation will potentially go on to be parents and grandparents and potentially the generations behind them will be even more unwell. I think our mental health workforce is not prepared for a very unwell population. I think we’ll be completely overrun, overwhelmed. It might be that people really can't engage in normal, functional lives at all if they're so unwell. We might have so many people potentially not even engage in normal lives as I said. I think it would be a very bleak future if we did absolutely nothing.
SC: So it really is very important that we do something about this now.
GS: I think so. Because these guys coming through are our next generation of parents and grandparents. And we know how influential parental figures are on the wellbeing of their children.
So if they’re unwell, what hope do we really have for the next guys to come through?
SC: What can the average person at home do? Young person or old person like me, who consumes social media and is concerned about the impact on their mental health. Maybe not just in the realm of body image, but of course, that too. What do we do so we don't become like you predicted, a society that can't even function because we're so mentally unwell.
GS: Well, obviously we do have resources at the moment to help people so if they are feeling unwell, go and seek support from someone early. Don't leave it til you're so unwell that you really can't maintain any kind of normal life. So seek support. I think it's also about... although social media is an excellent tool for connectedness, it’s not our only tool. So I think we do need to limit our time on there. I don't think we should be on there 24/7, I think that's quite unhealthy. I think we should also be mindful of what we follow, who we connect with on social media. We can ask ourselves ‘does connecting with this content make me feel worse about myself, or better?’. If it’s consistently making you feel worse about it, do you really need it in your life? So you can be quite careful with what you actually engage with on social media.
SC: All right, so always having like that check-in with yourself to go ‘after I did that. How did I feel?’
GS: Yeah, I think that's something we don't do enough anyway in our normal lives. That is monitoring our mood, our emotions, our feelings after experiences and I know that certainly some people I work with, they will go ‘I feel worse after this’ and then they will purposely go looking for stuff that will make them feel even worse about themselves. So they go around in these spirals, and I'm like ‘ah, we could have nipped that in the bud much earlier’.
SC: So we have to be pretty aware of ourselves then?
GS: You do. And I think young people aren't great at that. So I think it is about parents, caregivers leading a good example of what it is to be emotionally aware. And if they themselves aren’t sure, that is where they can seek help from a mental health professional about how to become more aware of this. That's what we're here for, to support adults and young people. So I don't think suddenly when you become an adult, you have all your shit together. Pardon my French, I should probably rephrase that.
It certainly does not mean that we can all seek support at different stages of life. But we do know that yes, parents and caregivers are very influential. So if you're doing the right thing by yourself, being mentally aware of your own reactions etc., then your kids will pick up on that and be able to live positively as well.
SC: Do you think, given what you said, that sometimes young people aren't that good at being aware of themselves and what's good for them? Do you think parents maybe need to intervene a bit and say, ‘I'm going to say you can only have two hours of social media time a day, like it or not’, is that the kind of thing that would be useful?
GS: Sure, I think that sounds absolutely reasonable. I think it is important for parents to set limits on these kinds of activities just like you would any other kind of activity, really. You want kids to have a certain amount of sleep, etc. Why wouldn't you put some limitations on social media usage?
SC: For them and for ourselves, probably.
GS: I agree and I know instagram put timers on how long people were actually spending on the platform. And I think people are quite unaware of how long they spend on these platforms each day. So I think that kind of tool by Instagram is a really good initiative.
SC: Yeah, it's confronting and I think we need that wake up call. Dr Gemma Sharp. Thank you so much for your time. This is really interesting and confronting
GS: It really is. Thank you so much for having me.
SC: Nicky Jacobs has some evidence based advice.
Nicky Jacobs (NJ): So I’m Nicky Jacobs and I'm an associate professor at Monash University in the Faculty of Education. I'm also a clinical and counselling psychologist and I work with children, teenagers and adolescents.
SC: Nicky Jacobs, welcome to the show. And thank you for joining us.
NJ: Thanks Susan.
SC: What are some tips that we can do that teenagers won’t roll their eyes at and go ‘you don't know anything and all my friends are online all night’.
NJ: Talking more from a psychologist point of view, rather than the definite research side of things. Removing or banning the Internet can be perceived by teenagers or by children as a form of punishment. And I'm very much against extremes in any form of behavior and I believe it's always problematic. It's about moderation of use. And as I said to you before, if you educate your child in a way that's not done in any other way than to gain a deeper understanding that they are appreciative of what you're saying and off what the research is out there, you've got a better chance of getting some balance going, some moderation going. And the idea would be to sit around with your teenagers and establish clear, reasonable boundaries for limited internet, social media, gaming, whatever it is that the online use is, is what you're aiming to get. But it's really important to include your teenager in this decision making process of how and when they're going to use it, and also the general household use of technology.
If they are sitting there and you're deciding in a collaborative way, and they're sort of setting the rules as well. They're taking some form of ownership of it and they're taking responsibility, and therefore they're more vested in getting it to work than if you impose it on them in that sort of parental role.
Important that you monitor the adherence to the rules and you have very clear consequences if they're not kept. And again, I would be sitting around with the teenagers and helping them develop what the consequences are that they think are fair and reasonable. So when they're imposed, if they should be, that they are more understanding and more accepting of them because they set the rules as well. And they agreed on it. So it is really important that it's a collaborative process, and most important is that you role model as a parent the appropriate behavior as well
SC: This is what I was actually gonna get in and say, because I think it's so easy for us as parents to go ‘now listen, you spent so long on that smartphone, I just, I can't who believe it as we barely lift our own eyes from our own Twitter or Instagram accounts to tell them off about it. And that's why I guess, as we've been talking about this I have been thinking you know, obviously the impact of smartphones and social media on the developing adolescent brain, teenage brain is unknown and what we do seem to know so far it doesn't look great. But we could, I wonder if we should be making similar concerns about the impact on my 40 year old brain as well. Like we're talking about teenagers reigning it in. But the rest of us are probably just as guilty of spending an obscene amount of time, mindlessly scrolling. What you've been saying about teenagers, could we, should we be transferring that to everyone?
NJ: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, you go out to restaurants, when we could, those things, and how many people are sitting at the table checking their phones, not talking to each other, not communicating. It's really a problem and also the physiological side of it from actually sitting in front of a screen that most people do through their workplaces. Forget teenagers. And they get from the screen, they go home and then when they're in their down time they’re either watching TV, which is effectively a screen, or they're sitting on their phones in front of the TV or they go to bed. Last thing adults do at night, usually check their phones. Kids can’t have their phones during dinner time. Everybody puts their phone away during dinner, and they’re seeing that there's equity. It's important to do that.
SC: I think you're absolutely right. One thing I've been trying to implement while we've all been in iso because, like you said, you know, kids are learning online all day. Now that's just how they have to learn. And I have to say at the end of the day, my son in particular, who's staring at an iPad for zoom lessons all day, he honestly looks tranquilized. At the end of the day, he looks like a zombie. And so I've just started having really strong ‘no screen times’ after school. So from this period to this period, no one is to use any screens whatsoever, that includes me and my husband because like you said, if it's just me saying to the kids put your phones down, it's very easy for me then just to quickly shoot off a few more emails. But we're all in the same boat and it's just as bad for me as for them. Do you think we're focusing.. why do you think we are having this focus on teenagers, then? Is it we're trying to sort of offload our own unease about the way we as adults are using our smartphones and saying ‘aah geez, these troublesome teens they’re really messed up’ as a way of avoiding our own complicity in the problem?
NJ: I don't know if it's that or if a lot of it has to do with the fact that we've had, we've had both. Like, we've grown up and we've gone out and we've learned to socialize by meeting someone and the first time we meet them is face to face and you get to know them and you're using those interpersonal communication skills that we've developed over time. And so now we're sort of getting into the online world, and we're also using emojis and abbreviations etc. and text messaging.
As you said originally, this generation they don't know, and the ones that are coming up, the ones that are being born. They don't know a world without smartphones and devices, and that's what they’re acculturated into. And the frightening thing is that you know, going outside and kicking a football or going outside and playing, just informally, is something that might have been so natural to how we grew up. Whereas they’re inside, they're not communicating with people other than through their devices. And I guess the parents… that's very frustrating, because they haven't got a balance and as a parent, you know that you've had both worlds. They’re only having this and they're missing out, and it's frustrating to see that in your child - not getting the benefit. So that's why I'm saying moderation, smartphones, devices, ipads. It's here, it's not going away, so how do we merge into their lives in a healthy, productive way.
SC: Nikki Jacobs. Thank you so much. This was very interesting and also a little bit terrifying, which is not a bad thing for an interview.
NJ: Thank you very much.
SC: That's it for this episode, and our little series into social media and mental health. We’ll be back with a brand new topic to delve into on the next episode of ‘What Happens Next’? So in the meantime, why don't you go and leave us a review? Remember only the ‘5 star’ button works on our podcast review for some reason we don't know why, take it up with iTunes so anyway. That's the only button you can press. Look forward to seeing you next time. Bye!