24 November 2023

Address to Lifeline Australia Annual Members Forum, Sydney


Is social media worsening youth mental health?

Thank you very much for that generous introduction. Chris Siorokos and I have known one another for 32 years, and he doesn’t look like he’s aged a day since we first met. As well as having the gift of eternal youth, Chris is a man of remarkable intellect, generosity and purpose. You are fortunate to have him as your Executive Director.

We’re meeting on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I acknowledge their Elders, past and present and acknowledge any First Nations people present.

It is a real honour to be speaking to the Lifeline Australia Annual Members Forum in this year, the 60th anniversary of Lifeline. My grandfather, Keith Leigh was a Methodist minister, a bit like Alan Walker, who founded Lifeline back in 1963. I never had the chance to meet my paternal grandfather, but that ethos of service was one that I was very aware of growing up. The story of Alan Walker's founding Lifeline is remarkable. Lifeline Australia took its first telephone call within a minute of the telephone lines opening. It took 100 calls on the first day and it now routinely takes over 1,000 calls a day. You've been an inspiration to similar organisations around the world ever since you were profiled in Time magazine back in 1964. Your introduction of a text messaging service and online platforms are absolutely vital. You have saved many Australian lives and brought meaning to many more.

Your volunteers come often with lived experience, whether that's the experience of post‑traumatic stress disorder after a natural disaster, whether it's the experience of a volunteer who is themselves felt burned out. Whether it's the experience of a mum experiencing postpartum depression, or a businessperson at the end of their tether. Your former Chair John Brogden came into the role after his own brush with suicide and that’s an example of the way in which you incorporate that lived experience. You provide people with an opportunity to put their lived experience into action and that is truly remarkable.

You do so in an environment in which Australia is facing a range of challenges. And the one which concerns me most is the worsening of youth mental health. I expect you know the statistics, but I think it's worth running through some of what we've seen in the period just since 2007. Over that period, teen suicide rates are up by 55 per cent for boys, and up by 70 per cent for girls. Self‑harm hospitalizations are up 29 per cent for boys, and up by 83 per cent for girls. If we're to look at the prevalence of mental disorders, Australian Bureau of Statistics surveys show us that the share of young Australians who are experiencing an anxiety disorder was 14 per cent in 2007. That’s up to 32 per cent today. The prevalence of social phobias has tripled. Panic disorders and generalized anxiety disorders have quadrupled.

What's happened since around 2007? Well, a lot has changed in Australian society. But if you ask Australian teens why they think mental health and mental disorders have worsened, the number one answer that they give you is ‘social media’. That would coincide with what we've seen in the trends over this period. The iPhone was released in 2007. The first commercial Android touchscreen phones launched in 2008. Key social media platforms had their genesis around this period, including Facebook (publicly launched in 2006), Twitter (founded 2006), Tumblr (2007), WhatsApp (2009), Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2010) and Pinterest (2010).So in a relatively short period, the lives of Australian teens were transformed.

When your Executive Director Chris Siorokos and I first met the early 1990s, no one we knew had a mobile phone and certainly no one was accessing social media. Now, these devices are ubiquitous and occupying an extraordinarily large share of the waking hours of Australian teens. We know from its internal research (leaked by a whistleblower) that Meta knows that Instagram worsens the mental well‑being of a large share of its teen users. The change in the mental health of young Australians is what you would expect if the pernicious effects of this technology were at their worst.

In resolving conflict, boys tend to use physical force, while girls tend to damage their rivals social networks. Since social media makes it possible to damage social networks at scale, you would expect cause a larger worsening of the mental health of girls than boys. And that's exactly what we see in the data. Whether we look at suicide rates or self‑harm hospitalizations, or at the disorders I've just mentioned. All of those worsen to a larger extent for girls than for boys. As United States researchers Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff put it, if a malevolent demon put a hand gun into the pockets of every teenager, we'd expect the effects would be worse for boys. If the same malevolent demon was to place a social media enabled smartphone into the pockets of every teenager, we'd expect the effect to be worse for girls. That's precisely what we've seen.

I urge those of you who are parents of teens not to allow your children to break the rules about accessing social media before the legal age, and not to give them a smartphone before they’re ready. Eric Pickersgill’s artworks, titled ‘Removed’ are photographs with the smartphones photoshopped out of the image. They show a couple on their wedding day, staring into their hands, a group of friends around a barbecue all staring at their hands, a family sitting at dinner, all staring at their hands. ‘Removed’ remind us of what the world was like before all of us were staring at our hands. So as we look to deal with these extraordinarily addictive technologies, it's worth reminding ourselves that we are at the early stages of a technological development, and that our brains were not designed to combat the sort of addictive technologies that the most insidious of Silicon Valley psychologists and software designers have put together.

Naturally, that’s not the only challenge that I’m concerned about as the Assistant Minister for Charities. In Reconnected, coauthored with Nick Terrell in 2020, we identified the pressure being placed on community groups in Australia. Volunteering rates are down from about one third of adults at the beginning of the millennium to about a quarter. We've seen a drop in the share of Australians playing organised sport, a decline in the share of people who are participating in community groups, a drop in the share of people who are part of a religious community, a decline in the share who are members of a trade union. Australians have become more disconnected. And it’s in that environment that we need to rebuild community.

The good news is that there are some remarkable organisations out there that are bucking the trend. At a time when sporting participation is falling, parkrun is attracting increasingly large numbers of people to get together not just for a five kilometre run on a Saturday morning, but also to share a laugh and a joke and to have a conversation afterwards about your latest running injury. We're seeing organisations such as Puddle Jumpers in South Australia, growing their volunteer base by getting their volunteers to nominate other volunteers. Online volunteering is growing too, with the Australian Museum’s DigiVol program and the National Library’s Trove program just two examples of organisations that have harnessed the demand for people to volunteer from home. The National Volunteering Strategy, funded by the Australian Government and developed by Volunteering Australia, is looking at ways in which we can build volunteering in Australia.

The Australian Government is also looking to increase the quality and quantity of philanthropy. We’ve initiated a once‑in‑a‑generation review of philanthropy, which has been conducted by the Productivity Commission whose interim report will soon be handed down. That will look at how we can improve the culture of giving in Australia and turn around that trend which has occurred over the last couple of decades of increasing dollars from decreasing donors. We hope that the Productivity Commission's philanthropy inquiry will help meet the Government's target of doubling philanthropy by 2030.

The Community Sector Advisory Group are developing a blueprint for improving the strength of Australian charities. We're excited by the potential for Australian charities to better use technology, as Lifeline has been doing. The Australian Government also sees great potential for organisations to work together, collaborating to not only win grants, but also tackle social problems. We see huge potential from growing a sector that accounts for more than a tenth of employment, almost a tenth of GDP, and millions of volunteers.

The Australian Charities Not‑for‑profits Commission is now headed by the well‑respected Sue Woodward and supported by an advisory board, chaired by Sarah Davies, which is majority female, and includes First Nations and CALD representatives: just like the sector it serves. We are reforming the laws so that the Australian Charities and Not‑for‑profits Commission has the ability to speak out when it needs to about its ongoing investigations is an important reform to build trust and confidence in the charity sector. We've seen in other countries, the challenges that can emerge when a charity scandal gets out of hand. We don't want to see that happen in Australia. And we need the regulator, in exceptional circumstances, to be able to talk about its investigations.

Finally, I've been conducting Australia's largest ever charity consultation. So far, we’ve held 17 town hall meetings in person, and more online. We’re conducting conversations with Australia's charities and non‑profits about how we can work together to build a stronger Australia.

I began with some of the troubling trends in the worsening of youth mental health, and the move that we've seen of Australia becoming less a country of ‘we’ and more a country of ‘me’. The good news is that the solution is right here in this room, and in rooms like that this across the country. Australia's charity sector is remarkable. In our Government, you have a government which is committed to being a partner for the community sector.

We want to see a strong community sector because we believe that there are shared challenges that can only be met by the combined efforts of community and government working together. We value the work that you do. We want to partner with you to attract more volunteers, more donors, and to build your systems and your networks. We recognize that a country which is grounded on more friendships, more socialising, more community, will be a healthier society, will be a wealthier society, and will be a happier society.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today, and all the best for your continued success in helping Australians.