Opinion piece: Case of cause and effect

Australian Treasury

In recent weeks, we’ve learned two troubling facts about young Australians: the prevalence of mental disorders has hit a new high, and the rate of volunteering has plumbed a new low.

According to the surveys, young Australians are more likely to be experiencing anxiety or depression. At the same time, this cohort is less likely to be joining with others to help their local community. With charities in desperate need of new helpers, many are pulling back from the civic work that is so vital to a strong society.

To get a sense of the scale of the problem, let’s look at the numbers.

Among young women, an extraordinary 47 per cent have experienced a mental disorder in the previous year – up from 30 per cent in 2007. Among young men, the rate of mental disorders has grown from 23 per cent to 31 per cent. Among young people, rates of depression have doubled, rates of social phobia have tripled, and rates of panic disorder have increased nearly four‑fold.

In terms of community involvement among 18‑24 year olds, the volunteering rate is now 25 per cent, down from 30 per cent in 2006. Many remarkable young Australians still give their time and energy to help out in their local community, but the net effect is that for every five young volunteers today, we would have had six young volunteers if the rate had remained as high as in 2006.

What’s going on? One possibility is that young people are merely reflecting changes in society at large. Over the past few decades, Australians of all ages have become less likely to join organised groups, play team sports, or socialise with our neighbours.

Another possibility is that these changes are reflecting the impact of COVID on communities. From churches to political parties, many organisations have struggled to keep their members engaged in recent times. Given that the pandemic hit many in Gen Z at a time when they were leaving school or looking for their first job, it might not be surprising that it affected their mental wellbeing and shaped their community engagement.

The trouble with both these explanations is that they don’t fit the data very well. The rise in mental disorders and decline in community preceded COVID, and are more pronounced among young people than older generations.

In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt offer a different explanation: smartphones and social media. As they point out, the rise of these technologies and platforms occurred rapidly. 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).

These technologies have created extraordinary connections, but they have also reshaped society, and nowhere more than among the generation dubbed ‘iGen’. American teens are less likely than young people in previous generations to leave the house without their parents. The share who get together with friends nearly every day has fallen by two‑fifths over the past two decades. They spend more time on devices than socialising.

In the US, as in Australia, the rise of mental disorders has been most pronounced among girls. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that this is because boys tend to be physically aggressive (they punch and shove) while girls are more relationally aggressive (they try to hurt rivals’ social standing). If a malevolent demon put a handgun in every adolescent’s pocket, they say, the harm would be worst for boys. But if the same demon put a social‑media‑enabled smartphone in every adolescent’s pocket, the damage would be worst for girls.

Further evidence of the connection between devices and mental wellbeing comes from an experiment involving 2,743 people that paid half its subjects to quit Facebook for a month. Compared with the control group, those who went off Facebook spent more time socialising with friends and family, were significantly less anxious or depressed, and were happier with their lives.

These findings are a reminder that the supercomputers in our pockets are not an unalloyed good. Smartphones and social media can help connect communities, but they can also fragment society and decrease face‑to‑face interactions. In that sense, smart devices are like past technologies. The industrial revolution made for a more productive economy, but dirtier air. The automobile revolution brought freedom, but also created carnage until seatbelts and airbags reduced the road toll.

In the case of social media, part of the answer may lie in what Nick Terrell and I describe in our book Reconnected as ‘CyberConnecting’. Becoming better smartphone users involves recognising the addictive qualities – from SnapStreaks to ping notifications – that make devices so engaging. Like salt and sugar in junk foods, many of the functions of smartphones are designed to keep us hooked rather than to serve our deeper needs.

CyberConnecting also involves seeking out platforms that foster community. When natural disasters strike, Airbnb’s Open Homes platform allows people to offer their spare room to someone who needs emergency accommodation. Google’s Impact Challenge funds social entrepreneurs to build technology platforms that connect communities and serve a social purpose. Mobile apps that allow people to text their friends about politics provide a level of personal engagement that no ad campaign can match.

One of the great things about being a parliamentarian is the chance to regularly speak with school and university students. I’ll almost invariably come away from these conversations feeling optimistic and energised. But we need to recognise the scale of the challenge that young Australians are facing today, and provide them with the skills and tools to ensure that smartphones serve us – not the other way around. Only by getting smarter about smartphone use can we ensure that Australian teens are happier, healthier and more connected with the community.

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