By Cliff Reece with Freya Leach

Freya Leach (pictured above) is Director of the Centre for Youth Policy at the Menzies Research Centre. She recently gave a speech in Fremantle, WA and this is what she had to say:

“Young people are the future of our country

As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “We can’t always build the future for our children, but we can build our children for the future.” So, what kind of children are we building today? 

In the last 10 years, we have witnessed an enormous, sudden and international mental health crisis.

In Australia, there has been a 52% increase in psychological distress among girls aged 15-19 since 2012. In total, 39% of young people aged 16-24 suffered a mental disorder in the last year. That’s compared to 26.4% in 2007 and 27% in 1997. 

Sceptics are probably thinking, could this “crisis” be a manifestation of the fact that Gen Z are more open about their mental health, so rates of reporting are higher?

Well, yes, mental health does carry less of a stigma, but the crisis is not simply the result of changes in the willingness of young people to self-diagnose, nor in the willingness of clinicians to over-diagnose. Gen Z isn’t just talking more about mental illness, there is physical evidence that we are suffering more. 

Since 2010, rates of hospitalisation for intentional self-harm have risen 62% for young women aged 15-19 and 221% for girls 14 and under.

The ‘completed suicide’ rate for girls born between 1999–2003, my peer group, is almost two times higher than it was for the Baby Boomer cohort at the same age. The data is clear, Gen Z is not whining about mental health, nor is the crisis due to them seeking more help. We truly are suffering more. 

This crisis came on suddenly in the early 2010s and is acutely affecting Gen Z. Mental health has remained steady for all other generations. 

This crisis is also disproportionately impacting girls. The base rate for mood disorders has always been higher for young women, which means when you double the rate it produces a lot more sick girls than boys.

According to the ABS, in the last year, 46% of girls aged 16-24 experienced a mental disorder. That equates to 653,489 young Australians. Had rates of mental illness stayed consistent with their pre-2010 levels, we would have seen around 260,000 fewer girls experiencing mental disorders last year.

That is not a small number. These are our friends, daughters and granddaughters who are suffering from what are often silent conditions. 

Forget COVID-19, the most overlooked pandemic of the last decade has been Gen Z’s collapsing mental health. So, what has caused such a stunning rise in anxiety and depression? What could be so universal, pervasive and impactful that it could rewire the brains of an entire generation?

There is no better explanation than social media. Other factors have contributed, like our culture of victimhood, economic decline and broken homes. But social media seems to play an extraordinarily large role in the crisis. 

Nearly all studies find a correlation between the mental health crisis and social media use

Social media usage peaks at the age of 17 with an average of 5.8 hours spent each day. While, 62% of 17-year-olds spend 4+ hours on social media daily, or over 28 hours per week. 

Excessive social media use has been associated with reduced grey matter volume. Reduced grey matter is associated with cognitive impairment, poor decision making and reasoning.

Studies have also found that greater social media has a negative influence on the brain’s dopamine-driven reward system.

Scientific studies often look at correlations as a way to measure the association between two variables. A correlation of 1.0 demonstrates a complete positive correlation. For example, there is a strong positive correlation between physical fitness and the amount of exercise someone does.

The emerging consensus – based on numerous studies – is that the correlation between social media use and adverse mental health is positive and of concern to scientists and clinicians.

Studies point to a positive correlation in the ballpark of 0.10 to 0.15. For girls, it’s much stronger at around 0.15 to 0.22. 

What can be considered a large or small correlation varies by domain. In public health, many of the things that warrant political action are correlated with outcomes in the ballpark of 0.05 to 0.15.

For example, the correlation between childhood lead exposure and lower adult IQ is 0.11. This is enough to justify national campaigns to, rightfully, remove lead from water supplies.

That is a substantially smaller correlation than the link between mood disorders and social media use for young girls which sits at around 0.2.

Such apparently “small” effects can have a very large impact on public health because they accumulate over time and at scale.

In Australia, we have hundreds of thousands of teens spending over 20 hours per week on social media, every single week from the age of 10 or 11 years old.

We don’t just have to take the word of the research; young people are telling us that social media is bad for them. Teens often say that they enjoy social media while they are using it –– which is something heroin or cocaine users are likely to say too.

But when you ask them whether they think it is good for their mental health overall, the answer is overwhelming ‘No’.

Facebook’s own internal research, leaked by a whistleblower, concluded that “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression … this reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

This is true in Australia as well. When polled, young Australians identify social media as the main contributor to worsening mental health. 

We are sleepwalking through a crisis that is claiming the lives of hundreds, and making life miserable for thousands of young Australians every year. We owe a duty of care to young people, so we must act now. 

There are three layers we can think about when regulating social media. 

Most foundationally, we need to address who is gaining access to social media in the first place.

We need to consider preventing kids under 16 from having social media accounts.

Many parents feel powerless in restricting social media use amongst kids under 16 given the peer pressure and risk of kids being excluded from social circles for not having accounts.

This is why we need to consider uniform restrictions.

We also need to strengthen the age verification requirements for social media accounts. There have been great advances in age verification technology allowing us to strike a balance between privacy and safety. 

The second level of social media regulation is tackling the algorithms. These are often designed to get kids addicted, they can be manipulated directly by foreign governments, or via troll farms using millions of bots.

Currently, we have no idea how these algorithms work, what content they promote, or how they are impacting young people. 

A former Vice President of Facebook was asked by students at Stanford University about his role in exploiting consumer behaviour.

“I feel tremendous guilt,” he admitted. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”

We should also consider introducing an Australian version of the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act. This is a bipartisan US proposal to improve data access for researchers and journalists.

It requires social media companies to declare how their algorithms work, what content is going viral, and what content they are taking down.

Secondly, we should look at implementing something similar to the EU Digital Services Act which allows all users to opt out of algorithmic feeds.

Up until this point, Australia’s only legislative response to social media has focused on compelling platforms to remove and moderate specific content e.g. terror-related posts.

However, we now know the harm to kids starts long before exposure to damaging content. Being on social media in the first place is making kids sick. 

To sum up, we need to stop kids from getting on social media before the age of 16, then add transparency to the algorithms and finally, ensure that extremely damaging content is taken down and monitored.

Social media is a colossal issue for Gen Z and by extension, the future of our country. The studies tell us it’s making us anxious and depressed, we all feel it too. 

Former Prime Minister Robert Menzies was alert to the social challenge caused by technology 73 years ago when he observed: “Men have learned to live with machines and have forgotten how to live with one another.” 

Social media is driving the biggest public health crisis facing Australia’s young people. If we want the road ahead for Australia to be bright, we need bright young people who haven’t had their brains re-wired, their social lives decimated and their mental health crushed by addictive and destructive social media platforms.”

We should all take note of what Freya has identified above. More importantly, we all need to take positive action in relation to both our own children/grandchildren and also within the wider community.Social media is proving to be a major public health issue and has also undoubtedly led to countless additional youth suicides and an appalling reduction in personal happiness among those who should at their ages be enjoying life to the full.   

Thanks to Freya Leach and Menzies Research Centre for allowing publication of this article. Website: https://www.menziesrc.org . Images via https://www.google.com

SUGGESTED ARTICLES