UTS Science in Focus: Will coral reefs survive climate change? Professor David Booth
Thanks so much David and welcome everybody and it’s especially nice to see a bunch of old friends out supporters I guess you’d say. So tonight my role I guess is to not paint too much of a morbid picture of the state of the Barrier Reef, because it's still a wonderful place in this and fantastic diving and that sort of thing but to put these in the context of what's going on up there and what organisms that live there what options are they have, do they stay? Do they go? Can we can we repatriate etc so let’s just see if this works...
So what I want to try and get through tonight hopefully and certainly questions later will be welcome is what's going on up there and course I'm not going to summarise that fully in the next couple of minutes. I’m particularly interested in the phenomenon of coral bleaching which of course is very prominent in the news very few people don't know about it in Australia I would hope, and the bleaching response and how fishes might respond to this of course the charismatic and other tropical reef fishes are important fisheries for tourism etc and I what happened stuff and as David alluded were seeing him down here in that so I want my areas and some of the other people in the audience’s areas.
What happens to those fish that stay and suffer coral bleaching? Can they handle it and also what happens? Is there an escape from the reef to the extent that we might be able to save those horrible airfares and go diving in a coral reef off Sydney one of these days? So cast of important people here and others I'm sure I've left out that have a great deal of involvement in these sorts project and my project so I want to thank them at this early point and reefs in peril well I could put up 100 pictures of oceans and sadly there a lot of things to talk about here so we won't cover them all if I can just maybe go clockwise the top there you have the major ongoing issues of water quality so runoff from agriculture done poorly from urban areas out onto the reef and particularly during cyclones which is one of the other issues.
Sediment and whatever nutrients etc are absorbed onto the sediment get taken off shore and can really devastate areas. Federal government has pumped in lots of money into this and in fact there’s great gains and improvements in water quality in terms of what the farmers know and do in urban runoff.
Overfishing is a perennial a problem on the reef and you’d be pleased to know that 30 per cent of the reef is no take reserve a lot of people from overseas including my colleagues think it must be 100 per cent it's a national park isn't it but no it's only 30per cent but that 30 per cent gives a good foundation through reef fish recovery.
Sadly things like reef sharks are on the decline in spite of that so there are big issues with overfishing. Just human loving of the reef- the sepia picture over there suggests that that's an old picture we don't do the turtle rodeos anymore- gee they were fun but there’s lots of other issues with direct tourist impact, although tourism may save the reef as well, it’s an economic boom.
The crown of thorns sea star has been a problem for the last many decades, the eruption of this sea star, it’s amazingly voracious and it finds all sorts of coral delicious. It can attack a reef and make it look much like coral bleaching. We don’t know all the answers for the ups and downs of that, but that’s a big issue.
I put coal down there it's very prominent and it has many effects as we’ll mention in a minute. Coal export- what you've heard of the Adani plans that are going on up there, coal killing the reef is the headline there and coral bleaching itself and climate change and that's a global issue but you know where I suppose we are not really proud of the fact that Australia exports climate change the world through coal exports so for instance my wife and I who work on the Southern Reef were travelling up to the reef a couple years ago and this is not our picture but we certainly notice this I've been going there since 1978 that's 40 years and the port itself has always been a big industrial port but see the harbour looked like this a few years ago and now it looks like that a coal seam plant has been put there a huge industry there and of course it’s adjacent to one of the most wonderful parts the Barrier Reef so a bit of a handshake up there might help the country or destroy our beautiful Barrier Reef it's not too much politics don't worry I’ll save that till question time.
So focusing a bit more on climate change again there are many manifestations of climate change the ones I’ve shown you include the one probably most people know which is the rising ocean temperatures and our area here is a global hotspot as I'll mention.
Going down to the right here more intense storms they could be in the form of cyclones, we were just up at Hamilton Island and witnessed what was left of Hamilton reefs after a cyclone a year ago Cyclone Debbie but further down the coast as I'll explain also we have east coast lows that are bringing storms which can affect the fishes for instance.
Sea level rise can inundate areas that were otherwise not and finally one of the Insidious ones up the top, top left there is ocean acidification that is the CO2 to draw down from the atmosphere affecting the pH and other aspects of sea water and of course corals themselves calcified they sequester calcium from seawater and turn it into bone basically and it's interrupting that and the fishes have some interesting responses too.
I'll focus mostly on temperature right now so these graphics are quite depressing to someone who's been looking at the reef for 40 years and this is from work done by Terry Hughes and his team who is one of the year the really big names in in this were thinking open mind if we in the whole Reef through aerial surveys and diver surveys and the years 2016/2017 back to back big warming and bleaching years and as you’ll see there the northern sector up north of Port Douglas was massively affected with over 80per cent of the reef severely bleached whereas the Southern Reef where we do most of our work really really did quite well, it dodged a bullet and the reason for that was really nothing particularly special but it was a miserably cloudy rainy period when this all happened so by virtue of clouds I think that was saved this time anyway.
Interestingly if you were to go up there to the Southern Reef a lot more tourists are going there, the tourists are voting with her feet and of course word gets around, this is Toronto Star where this came from but obviously they took it from somewhere else, so the world now knows that a lot of corals are dead in the southern and northern reef that has horrible ramifications for our tourism industry. Of course we should acknowledge that there are other respected scientists that have a different point of view, there they are there, last political comment, and of course you’ll always get denialists because of course not everyone can get out to the reef but I’m here to tell you it’s in very bad shape for the north, recovery we’ll have to wait and see.
So my little friends the fishes, which I’ll concentrate on mainly for most of the talk, how do they respond? Well you can stay or you can go I suppose are two options. So a little bit of physiology I guess you’d say- cold-blooded organisms like fish respond to temperature very much so, so their metabolism basically goes up, they crank up as the thing warms up like a car warming up after a cold morning and so if you can see the little green icon there we’ve got temperature versus their metabolism measured by oxygen. Oxygen is used in respiration and you’ll see that the basal metabolism like the idle speed of the fish increases sort of exponentially, goes up quite steeply with temperature, cranks up. Also the maximum they can do, their maximum ability to respire or take up oxygen goes up but not the same rate it’s at a decreasing rate so inevitably you get the clash of the two where the two clash, the animal has no scope to do anything- to breed, escape predators to grow etc - bad news.
In the middle here if you can notice the difference between those red and green curves that’s a maximum aerobic scope, that's kind of where you want to be in the in that case, it's where the fish wants to be and of course what's happening with increasing temperature where up on the reef is that aerobic scoop is dropping away so fish aren't doing as well in general. For example just some of the outputs here, this particular little spinal damselfish, we did some work with this guy and as you increase temperature in a laboratory situation its reproduction goes to pot. The size of the eggs it produces goes down, the number of eggs goes down, and overall reproductive success drops away and that’s only three degrees which is not a lot.
I cherry-picked some of the other examples from the literature, this is a good one and basically it’s suggesting that once coral is bleached, a consequence of rising temperature, little prey fish like little ambon damselfish right here are conspicuous against the bleached coral and predators like the psuedochromis here have much less trouble trying to catch them and killing them so and so this curve here down the bottom shows survivorship which is you want it to be nice and shallow, is steeper for the bleach corals than healthy corals so there's a conspicuous element here as well.
And there's Nemo everyone wants to know about Nemo but sadly anemones which are related to corals also bleach and so there's a nasty white ones they’re supposed to be lovely and pink, and for whatever reason those fishes that are in the bleached coral don't reproduce or reproduce very poorly and this example above the blue graph shows a year of a non-bleached anemone and then the red graph shows the drop off of reproduction in these fish when there was a bleaching event so yeah pretty dire consequences for poor old Nemo.
Also fishes can do different things at different temperatures and this particular bit of work that we did looked at three species of damselfish. This one up here loves live coral and once the water was heated up experimentally it still loved live coral. However, these two down here are what we call generalists, they’re quite adaptable to a range of habitat whether they be rubble or dead coral or alive coral. However, when we warm things up this guy in particular all of a sudden got a propensity for live coral, so it became a specialist, which is all very well but coral is a thing you really not want to be a specialist in in the future warming world. This guy maybe a bit better, will survive a bit better in warmer conditions it seems to like rubble a bit more which there will be plenty of in future.
So all in all without going through everything what we’re expecting to see and this is a very recent paper come out by some colleagues up north, a homogenisation of reef fish, a loss of all the different interesting things, functional groups etc as the reef deteriorates. Now for the bad news, nah. And we’ve been monitoring corals and fishes at One Tree Island the University of Sydney’s research Island for 25 years now, by monitoring fishes and corals, transect simple good old-fashioned biology, noting where bleaching’s occurred, noting numbers of fish etc.
And back in 1998 we were one of the first people to look at the impacts on the fish of bleaching because people had been very focused on the corals which is reasonable and we found that on and One Tree Island at these particular sites, the yellow sites were nailed by bleaching the horrible 1998 bleaching and never recovered, the green did better or the blue did better and as you can see up here the red box indicates those in the sites and the black to the grey shows the drop in life, which is quite severe those sites. And then I guess not too surprisingly the fish responded, the baby fish didn't come in in great numbers at those same nasty sites, the adult fish of these species also dropped off quite severely.
Now the yellow one of the top as I mentioned that's expected that loves live coral, the thing that worried us with the other two fish, these two here really didn't really care for live coral, they could be found in any old dirty old rubble, they also declined and that suggests to us that bleaching has a general negative effect on reef fish in the area which is a bit of a worry. Without going through too many more details things are looking up at One Tree Island, I have to say, after the initial drop in the early years corals have bounced back to a certain degree and so have fish so we may be looking at a slightly better news story at One Tree than in the Northern Reef.
So also one of the things that we certainly put this in every single grant we write not very successfully mind you, is that this particular region of South East Australia, there it is, is well known as a global hotspot for climate change, so I guess it’s a bit of a pun but the fact is that the temperature is expected to rise to this model by the end of the century by about 4 degrees and nearly as much on the reef and so it's a good place to do this work I guess you’d say and to ask a question what are the fish going to do? What are they going to do? Follow Nemo of course so one of the options are for fish is to travel away from the reef. Now fishes have a baby that lives in the plankton and most of those fishes have the ability to swim in lava form quite a long way for instance those little guys which about the size of a, I’m going to say 5 cent piece, are they gone now? $2 coin about that size most of them are about that size or smaller have an amazing ability to swim in spite of drifting with currents they can swim against currents and so this little graphic over here pretty much shows that some of these bigger lava fish in experimental situations can swim without food for 8 days and go over 100 km in that time- you try that and therefore they have an ability to choose where they’re going to be to a certain degree.
If we do a little graphic like so we might find and we are finding we think that a coral reef fish that has a distribution potentially like so with that red core where most of them are breeding and the little dottie line out there where the larvae go to don't survive. We might end up seeing a movement down the coast and we think we are to a certain degree whereby while on the move we have a trailing edge the guys left behind and a leading edge the brave ones upfront much like any invasive species you could argue, cane toads and then maybe finally relocating South so without going into detail we might see different aspects of the population and we might be finding the poor old trailing edge right at the top of the thermal abilities are suffering as a consequence directional selection smaller numbers in breeding etc so that could be the fate of those guys so they could change quite substantially if they stay there. The leading edge on the other extreme again has its challenges it's got to adapt to new areas and new temperatures and maybe low temperatures that it wasn't ready for.
So a big review that a bunch of us did a while ago asked a simple question who's getting through and why and I won't go into those details, you can look it up yourself if interested but it turns out a range of fishes, about 360 species out of about 5000 species so about 5 to 10per cent of species have a vagrant stage as we call it that is they can move outside the reef and we looked at which sort of species, there were things that had big larvae and various other features be quite a few fish make it from the reef and in this case in our case we presume and we think we're pretty sure they come down the coast, it takes in about a month to get down there with the advantage of the East Australian current of course but also their swimming ability and of course they come to an area that's pretty different from where they’ve left and enter to little vagrant tropical fish hiding down there.
So there's 4 or 5 climate change related things on their side- first of all the current itself as I mentioned is strengthening it's well known to be strengthening and it will continue to do so because of that mainly the sea temperature is rising towards the poles and habitat destruction, I already mentioned about the demise of the habitat on the reef but the flip side of that is the habitat, the useful habitat is expanding and that's mainly because they love rocks without allergy they love urchin barons covered in the thin film of coral and algae with lots of shelter holes and that's increasing because of a sea urchin that’s coming from the north as well.
Here is an example there are many many others but you can see these actually beautiful creatures that have been arriving through as far back as we know and whether they persist in Sydney we’ll talk about. A little video here shot by David Attenborough, no, telling some of the species just very quickly a lot of the butterfly fishes associate with the locals that is very quick a little triggerfish, they often like urchins and that sort of area some surgeonfish, unicorn fish, Sergeant Major damsels someone pointing, that’s me I think and you see that's a tropical damselfish a chromis it's quite happily living out there and spends quite a while there again a little butterfly fish friend these are quite common in Sydney and get quite large and some over winter this little surgeon fish, baby topical surgeonfish, some issues with surgeonfishes I'll mention in a minute they can cause damage there’s a baby olive surgeonfish scattering away from my camera, a baby damselfish, a cleaner wrasse and finally an iconic Moorish idol baby swimming around and so there's quite a lot, a grab bag of really cool fish I guess you’d say.
Our work over the years since about 2001 is simply going out and counting the. There’s a lot of experimental projects associated with that but the skeleton is basic surveying and of course what we’ve found over the years is generally an increase in early summer so don't bother going out December you won't see much at all, but if you go out in February you’re liable to see an increase in these babies, they’re quite beautiful but unfortunately they stop coming as the East Australian current drops off and most of them die over winter very few survive at the moment and what it means is at least easily Sydney’s fish fauna nearly a quarter of the fish are tropical visitors and with potential ramifications for the local fish.
So what we’re showing just very briefly here is over the years we've been particularly looking at Sydney and Merimbula on the South Coast but other sites as well and those two sites have shown a cumulative increase in the number of species but a lot more in Sydney but there's still quite a few come down to Merimbula in terms of what's happening through time we’re seeing the last few years we have now moved about the noise level and I think we see an increasing number of species in both Sydney and in Merimbula which has seen a huge boost in the last few years which I will mention more of in a second so just very quickly teasing that apart a little bit which fish the damselfish are on the increase the butterfly fish pretty stable ups and downs importantly these with this group here who I call surgeonfishes some of those at least are capable of destroying kelp beds you might say in a phenomenon known as stopping tropicalisation and it's happened in other parts of the world and colleagues at the University New South Wales are looking into more detail at this but they're increase the last 4 years is a bit of concern for the local environment and oddbods this is a beautiful little Luna wrasse and it was always around but it seems to be increased in numbers and last few years, difficult to explain but a fact.
And overall we’ve seen anything to the right of this line indicates an increase and obviously it's been increasing certain tacks are increasing more than others and worryingly the Acanthuridae or surgeonfish is right up there. How is this happening? Well the obvious no-brainer is it’s to do with the East Australian current, they’re all coming from up there so one would expect a really tight correlation between the strength of the current which varies year to year and the number of fish and of course you don’t really get that, you get something so years that had higher East Australian current strength on the right should have had higher numbers of species and numbers of individuals, there’s something there but it just reminds us there’s a lot of other factors in play.
Once they get there, that’s Step 1, Step 2 is meet the neighbours I guess you’d say, so I’ll talk a little bit about that briefly and one of the interesting things is seeing some very interesting interactions and they’re not just keeping separate, they’re integrating and this particular butterflyfish has a propensity for this territorial damselfish which is interesting. Also unfortunately as the waters cool down as they do every year, these tropical fishes start feeling the pinch and so this particular one here, some experimental work we’re doing on how quickly the fish can escape a predator, so the bigger number is better and as you can see if you look at the black bar this is a tropical one here and this is a temperate they’re about the same they both have the same escape speed but once you drop the temperature which is the grey bars the poor old tropical just doesn’t do and you get picked up by predators, so there's still a few issues here with winter survival and winter survival that's we think is a major bottleneck to the populations establishing so we published some work a number of years ago looking at how many fish survive the winter vs the temperature across the state and was quite interesting that above a certain temperature around about 18 Celsius all of a sudden a lot more survive so I sort of call that a threshold winter temperature so if the winter temperature in Sydney maintains itself at about 18 we expect a lot of those tropicals to survive.
Here is some temperature logger data just to reinforce the point and you can see first of all Merimbula over here, unfortunately if you’ve ever been in Merimbula in winter don't get in the water it drops 15-14 degrees every year not so good for tropical fish but Sydney, luckily for us, is in a very interesting spot. Some years it’s below and some years it’s above in the winter at the water temperature and indeed in those years its above we see more overwintering. And projecting into the future we are expecting an increase this is winter temperature across time, Sydney of course is there, there's our magic red line above that we think they might survive, so Sydney is a very interesting area at the moment whereby some of the winters are too cold some are just right but with a trajectory like that we might expect in my lifetime to see a continual influx of overwintering of these little tropical which is very interesting. Whose overwintering? Mainly damselfish on the left hand side there but others. Is it increasing? We’re starting to see signals above noise and we’re starting to think yes there is an increase in overwintering, very low numbers at the moment. Who’s doing it all? Damselfishes the top guys there, they’re increasing in a jaggardy sort of way, the surgeonfishes are up and down but they’re the ones we want to watch because they’re the one’s responsibly potentially for destroying kelp habitat which we want to keep and fisherman would like to keep as well. Are they breeding? That's the acid question, well someone out here might have observed it in Sydney, I haven't seen it as yet.
This particular species are a likely customer this is a Sergeant Major damsel breeding in that picture up north somewhere I've seen them change colour the males would change a breeding colour and I've seen that happening so we might be set to see some breeding. When you think you've got it all licked and worked out as far as temperature along comes another climate change factor. I mentioned intense storms and east coast lows have battered Sydney, you might know of the one June 2016 this here is a nightmare photo for my risk assessment and this actually happened in Sydney and in fact my study site the idealic Cabbage Tree Bay was reduced to rubble and the little toilet block in there was completely destroyed and dispersed over my study site so luckily we had done a survey just before so as soon as we got out after still we went out and checked out who was still there. Insights they were very exposed and somewhat protected from that horrible storm and as you can see here exposed sites we had huge drops in numbers of the surgeonfish particularly really nailed and there were very few fish left out there afterwards and so that's very negative consequence but interestingly what we also noticed was a lot of this nasty old kelp which isn’t nasty at all but a lot of our fish don't prefer it was replaced by this delicious habitat.
Now the habitat itself includes bits of toilet block as well which they also like and so that restored habitat at least the next year we looked in that habitat vs the other habitat and we found lots and lots of our little tropical fishes in the blues in that new habitat of those of barrens and compared to the stuff outside so there was a negative effect of the east coast low and then the next year was positive it just reminds us that climate change is a little bit sneaky and we don't know all the answers. But of course it’s still not a coral reef is it it’s just a bunch of fish coming down.
This grainy photo is form a colleague of mine Yohei Nakamura at Tosa Bay in Japan, which incidentally is 34 degrees north about the same as Sydney is south. This is a shot from the 70s, late 90s, early 2000s and now. Rapid change over 20-30 years, from a kelp environment which the fishing industry love to a coral environment and as you can see quite beautiful so this is at a place like Sydney so will this happen here? And they found being a fish person, the southern fish that is the fish in the tropics, because of course it’s the other way around there, the current brings them up, increased and the northern fish including fish they like to catch disappeared so the fisheries dropped out of there but we've got some nice corals. Finally will we expect this? Not the flying car I'm guessing maybe the rest of it in future. Well it turns out this not so far-fetched, and if you look at this particular video here are done by John [inaudible] don't know if you are out there in the audience anywhere yes and you'll see it ain't a coral reef but it looks a lot better than than nothing and there's certainly corals there now growing off Shelly Beach in fairly exposed conditions, phosphorus corals that support fish, that fish like branching coral and this has increased in the last 4 or 5 years very beautiful indeed and more importantly supporting some very cool fish that we hadn't seen here before like the little guy in the middle here so you know it's early days but it could well be that we’re seeing a transition in Sydney, watch this space, sadly we might lose some fisheries species but we might see some interesting corals in Sydney maybe not a coral reef but potentially corals can move south so there's the answer I guess you could say for now and that's all I’ve got for you thank you very much.
Who here is working, raising, or perhaps trying to tame a screenager?
Not a teenager or a threenager, screenagers are kids that learn to tap, swipe and pinch before they've learnt to ride a bike, grip a pencil or tie their shoelaces. These are kids that have never known the agony of waiting for their roll of Kodak film to develop. Do you remember the days spent nervously waiting for the chemist, talk about delayed gratification! And these are kids and teens that have never known what it's like for the internet to dial up. In fact, today's screenagers, the research is telling us, are spending more time with pixels than with people. And in a recent survey, we asked young people, upper primary and lower secondary students: would they rather have a broken bone or a broken phone? And I can tell by your response you know what the majority of the survey respondents said.
Whether we love it or loathe it, our children, our adolescents and our young people will inherit a digital future. So digital abstinence is not the solution. Banning screens, suggesting that they're toxic or taboo, is no longer an option either. What we have to do as parents, as professionals and as educators and as young people in this space, is to tame their technology habits so that they are masters of the media and not a slave to their screen.
We need to teach our kids and our young people today how they can be in control of technology and not the other way around, where technology controls them. Where they start to salivate like Pavlov's dogs every time they get an alert or notification on their phone. So one of the issues that makes this particularly difficult is because the very way that technology has been designed. It may come as a surprise to you to learn that many of our big social media companies, when they were developing their online tools were not only employing tech recruits, but they were also employing psychologists and neuroscientists to make sure that the technology appealed to our psychological vulnerabilities. And one of our basic psychological vulnerabilities as human beings whether we're a teenager, a young person or even an adult, is what we call "bad forecasting."
When we jump into our social media feeds or perhaps we get an alert telling us that we've had a photo of us tagged in it, what we actually think will take us five minutes, can very quickly become the rabbithole, so I'm suggesting that instead of having alerts that look like this, we should perhaps have alerts that look like this. Much more realistic indicator as to how much time we are going to dedicate to social media. And this is one of the many psychological vulnerabilities that social media taps into, and that is our incapacity to accurately forecast, and it also explains - and I'm going to talk about this in a moment - something called "the state of insufficiency."
So this evening I want to talk about why, whether we're talking about young people or even ourselves as adults with fully developed brain architecture, why we have succumbed to the screen. Why is it that we are digitally dependent on our devices. And then I'm going to speak specifically about the young brain. The teenager and young person's brain and why they are particularly vulnerable to some of the potential pitfalls associated with social media. And then I'm going to provide you with practical solutions about how we can tame our tech habits, in terms of establishing healthy boundaries and also about fostering healthy habits. Because as I said, digital amputation isn't the solution.
So in this video, we often decry that teenagers have become dependent on their devices, but I want to ask you as adults in the room, who here is also dependent on their devices? Are you perhaps one of the 58% of women who said that they would rather give up sex than their mobile phone for the space of a week? Are you, as Louise pointed out, one of the many people that reach for their phone before their partner first thing in the morning? And please don’t answer when I ask you are you one of the people that are checking their social media in the bathroom?
As adults, with fully developed brain architecture, we are tethered to our devices, I can tell by some of the smirks and laughs you're not immune either. I'm often asked, is technology really rewiring our kids' and teens' brains? And I'm here to say as a researcher in this field, in some regards we are conducting a bit of a living experiment. We don't have longitudinal data to tell us what the long term impacts are. The iPad only recently celebrated in April this year, it's 8th birthday. In 8 years, we have, as a society, veraciously adopted it. So I want to ask you as adults with fully developed brains, do you suffer from nomophobia? Fear of not having your phone. Would you travel home in Sydney's horrendous traffic to retrieve your digital appendage that you left charging near the bed or somewhere on the kitchen counter? Now if you don't suffer from nomophobia, maybe you suffer from phantom vibration syndrome. Now you have a label for it, next time you're scratching your leg in that weird way or twitching, that tingling sensation that your phone is vibrating and it's nowhere near your physical body. Now I use these two as humorous examples, but to say whilst we may not have the longitudinal data or the research to confirm that technology is rewiring our brains, I think we can see from our own personal experience what a profound impact technology is having.
So why is it that we find it so hard to digitally disconnect? Why is it that we want to spend more time with pixels than with people? I'm going to explain now that there are three basic psychological drivers that explain why we have become infatuated, somewhat obsessed, with social media, and I'm also going to explain some of the neuropsychological reasons why we have become digitally dependent.
So in terms of psychological drivers, as human beings we share three fundamental needs. This is based on the self-determination theory and our three basic needs, as we heard earlier in Louise's talk, our fundamental need as humans is for connection. We are hard wired for relational connection. We want to feel like we belong. So it is easy to understand why our teens and young people have gravitated towards social media because it caters so perfectly for their desire and biological need for connection. The second need that we have is our need to feel like we are competent. We want to feel like we're in control of our environment. And in social media, I get to depict a sense of competency. As Louise indicated, I only share the highlight reel, I don't share the behind the scenes footage. So I can convince my followers, my friends, that I am a competent human being by what I share on social media channels. And my third need that I have, my third basic psychological need, is the need for control. We are hard-wired for automony. We want to have a sense of locus of control over our lives. And with social media, we get to choose that we are the causal agents. Social media, and gaming in particular, give us that need of feeling like we are in control.
But there are also neuropsychological reasons to explain why we have become dependent on technology, and our teens and young people as well. As Louise indicated, scrolling through Facebook, getting a like, comment or share, triggers the release of dopamine in the brain and a whole lot of other neurotransmitters like serotonin. So when we turn technology off, one of the reasons it's hard to turn off, is because we don't want to terminate our supply of dopamine. Who's a parent in the room? Anyone? So you know exactly what I'm talking about when I describe the technotantrum. For anyone unfamiliar with the technotantrum, this is when your otherwise well adjusted child or teenager emotionally combusts when you ask them to turn off the gaming console, pass back the phone or shut the laptop lid. Why is it that our kids behave like this? Because we're literally cutting off their dopamine supply when we digitally disconnect them.
One of the other reasons and I'm going to talk about this part of the brain in just a moment, but for now I want to explain this part of the brain, it's called the pre-frontal cortex. This is the logical part of the brain, this is the CEO, this is the air traffic control system. Whos's a parent to boys? I have 3 sons. Sorry 3 boys, two sons and a husband. I've got a bit of bad news for you, when does the male pre-frontal cortex fully develop? This is not a gender stereotype, this is neuroscience. Who said never? That was unfair! The pre-frontal cortex develops in the late 20s in males, and for those of you smugly thinking I'm a parent of girls, it's much better for me, it's not. The pre-frontal cortex in females develops in the early 20s, about 21-23 years of age. Why is this part of the brain important? The pre-frontal cortex does three important jobs. It manages impulses, it helps with our mental flexibility, and it helps with our working memory. Do you understand now why you may say the same thing to your teenager repeatedly and they look at you very vaguely each time as though they've never heard the information? They don't have a working memory.
But the big thing there I want to illuminate, is impulse control. That part of the brain that manages their impulses isn't fully developed. So they will share on social media, they will behave impulsively because their pre-frontal cortex is still under construction. Well this pre-frontal cortex has been biologically wired for novelty. We are always on the hunt, as human beings, for new and interesting information. And so social media, the online world in general, caters for that biological need. The online world is always new, it's always interesting, and it's always rewarding, with minimum cognitive effort to go into that reward. The offline world, the analogue world, the real world, isn’t always interesting. In fact the real world is slow-paced, and it's often boring. So when I talk to parents, I send them a virtual giant permission slip to say it is okay, in fact I suggest it is essential, for our kids and teens today, to learn what it's like to be bored. Boredom is absolutely critical, not only for their wellbeing, but also for their creative thinking.
But as adults, we have even lost the art of boredom. A study was done about four years ago with adult participants aged 18-34, and they put the adult participants in a room, no windows, no phones, no magazines, and they asked them to sit there and be bored for 7-15 minutes. Now as a mum to two small children who still put their fingers under the bathroom door, the idea of sitting in a room by myself, uninterrupted for 7-15 minutes sounds like utopia. I did not participate in the study, but the researchers had to prematurely terminate the study because the adult participants showed signs of psychological distress. They could not handle the idea of being bored for 7-15 minutes. Wait it gets better, the researchers went back to their ethics committee and they said, "we'd like to do iteration 2 of this study, but instead of subjecting our poor adult participants to the psychological stress of boredom, we'd like to give them the option of administering a small electric shock. They got the green light, completely ethical, I try relentlessly to get ethics approval on studies of iPads and kids but I'm told it's completely unethical but adults giving themselves electric shocks is completely fine. So knowing what you know now about the male pre-frontal cortex, and its delay in being fully developed, what percentage of males do you think elected to give themselves an electric shock in lieu of being bored. And it wasn't 100! 69% of males, 24% of females gave themselves an electric shock in lieu of boredom. I won't reveal the gender but in the data set there was somebody that we call an outlier, and they elected to give themselves 180 electric shocks in lieu of being bored. Social media, the online world in general, caters for our brain's desire for novelty. It's always new and interesting, you can see why I think boredom is essential.
One of the other reasons why we find it's so hard to digitally disconnect and for our teens in particular is because when they're online, scrolling through feeds or perhaps it's playing video games, they enter what we call the psychological state of flow. This is where they become so engrossed and enraptured in what they're doing, that they literally lose track of time. This is why paediatricians are treating increasing numbers of young children presenting with urinary and bowel incontinence because they're holding on just so they can get to the next level in the game or completely oblivious about how much time they have spent playing online. So when we become enraptured, we lose track of time. Any parents in here, when your little one looks at you with their puppy dog eyes, and says "but I've only just turned it on, I've only just started" and they've probably had 3 or 4 maybe even 5 hours, that is why. They have entered that state of flow.
The fourth reason that we are digitally disconnected in terms of our neuropsychological needs, and this is the one I personally grapple with the most, is something called the state of insufficiency. In the online world, we never ever feel like we are done. There is no finite finishing point. There is no end point. There's always something new I can update my social media feed with, there's always a new browser I can open, another level I can get to in the video game, another TV show I can watch thanks to 24/7 streaming. And so we never ever get that sense of being done. And so I'm often asked, "is this just moral panic?" Is this experience really any different to this experience. Who thinks yes? Are these qualitatively different? Aside from the medium in which they are delivered? And no I'm not talking about whether one delivers fake news and the other one delivers real news. That's open to debate as well. But what I want to point out is that the newspaper had a finite number of articles, a back cover, and a final story. Your device not only has an infinite amount of information, in fact we're calling it infobesity, but the other reason that we find it's so hard to switch this off compared to the newspaper, is that comes into our social media feeds thanks to algorithms, is highly curated and highly personalised. Now you could have obviously selected the newspaper of your choice in years gone by, but the content would not have been as personalised, as interesting as what comes into your social media feed.
So what do we need to know about young brains and why are they particularly vulnerable to social media demands? As I mentioned before, this pre-frontal cortex is still under development. This is the part of the brain that manages impulses and helps to make smart logical decisions. The part of the brain that's operating instead as this next video will show you, is the limbic system.
"So the pre-frontal cortex is the last region to fully develop. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain you need to make decisions, to think about the future, to think about consequences, you can kind of think of it like the Spock of the brain. Logical, calm and collected. And then deeper in the brain, there are emotional systems like the limbic system, which are more interested in immediate gratification. They're sorta like Captain Kirk, a risk-taker and a bit emotional. During the teenage years, the limbic system develops really quickly, and the prefrontal cortex is trying to catch up. Eventually, as individuals become adults, the prefrontal cortex will increasingly have more influence over behaviour than the impulsive part of the brain."
And so you can see why our kids are often engaging in cyber bullying, because they are impulsive and often their emotional brain is taking over as opposed to their prefrontal cortex. So, this is one of the reasons, that we need to be as parents, educators and carers, talking to our teens about what they're sharing online. We need to be encouraging them to critically think, and not only behave respectfully and responsibly, but to think critically about their digital DNA. We need our young people to understand that every post, comment, every blog post, every message that is sent online, even if deleted or dragged to the trash can, has digital DNA. And our young people are curating their digital futures from the minute they share their first post.
So how do we tame our kids' tech habits? What do we need to do? I firmly believe - I deliver seminars to parents throughout the country, and regardless of whether I'm speaking to parents of preschoolers or adolesceents, my message is the same. We need parents and carers to be the pilot of the digital plane. Parents often say "but I feel ill equipped, my child or teenager knows way more about the technology than what I do!" and that may be the case. I say use it to your advantage. What your teenager or young person doesn’t have, is your prefrontal cortex, nor do they have life experience or a catastrophe scale like you do. We need parents to be in the pilot seat of the digital plane, because if and when your child crashes the plane, or they go off course or they hit turbulence, perhaps they're cyberbullying, perhaps they've seen pornographic content or age-inappropriate content. If a parent or carer is in the driver seat, they're there to help them course-correct. However if you're way back in economy class, and your child or young person is in the pilot seat, what happens when they hit turbulence, they crash the plane. And this is one of the many reasons that I talk to parents about strongly discouraging using screen time as a reward or punishment tool. Why? If we offer screentime as a reward as I know many parents do, two things happen. Number one we elevate the status of technology even more. It's already innately pleasurable for all of our kids. And number two, we develop a transactional relationship with our kids. If you do this, then you can have this. And as any parent knows, you get backed into a no win position very quickly if you operate from that standpoint. When it comes to using screentime as a punishment, as Louise mentioned before, about some of the staggering cyberbullying statistics, we know that if children have the threat of digital amputation hanging over their head, if I do something naughty mum's going to confiscate my phone, will they go and tell a trusting adult if they're a victim of cyberbullying? They won't. it's akin to cutting off their oxygen supply. So we need as pilots of the digital plane to help our kids form healthy relationships with technology.
So some of the boundaries that parents can set up is delaying the introduction of social media. Most social media platforms have a legal of children required to be 13 years of age, we must make sure we are not introducing social media before they have the social and emotional skills to deal with the demands of social media. As parents we also have a responsibility to use internet filtering tools on every internet connected device that your child or young person has access to. There are so many tools out there, koalasafe, the one that I personally use with my children and recommend, is the family zone. Not only can you help manage and monitor what your child uses in terms of app and social media tools, you can also monitor and limit when they use screens. Ironically they're also digital tools, so for many adolescents, staying focussed on their homework and assignments, is really difficult when the temptation of social media is calling their name. so there are tools like self control, which allows you to block access to distracting websites or online tools at certain times. There are other tools like FocusMe and ironically also phone tools that will monitor and restrict access to particular sites at particular times.
In terms of how we overcome cyberbullying, one of the great tools that has been developed by a Queensland teacher here in Australia, and this is being readily adopted QLD and western australia schools at the moment, is a tool called Stymie. It's also a tool that parents can use. Using Stymie is an anonymous bullying alert system. Because the research is telling us overwhelmingly that in most cyber bullying incidents, unlike traditional bullying, where there was a physical altercation and there was usually a bystander, the bystander in traditional bullying would go and seek help. With cyber bullying, do bystanders go and seek help or stand up to cyberbullying? In most instances, in fact the research tells us about 83% of instances they don't. why? The threat of social ostracization is great, so they will not do it. So Stymie is one tool, as this video will show you, there's also another great tool that was developed by students and young people, this is basically a tool that acts like your child or adolescent's pre-frontal cortex.
"Reword is an affective tool that will help change online bullying. It's like a spellchecker, for bullying. It's a non-intrusive red line that strikes through insults as they're typed so people can reconsider what they're typing before they press send."
So again, empowering young people to use technology but use it in ways that compensate for some of their emerging social skills. So not only do parents need to enforce boundaries, but parents also need to help their children adopt and develop healthy habits if they're going to tame technology. One of the main things when I speak to parents is that we must strongly discourage young children using screens at night. Not only is it a huge risk to the quality and quantity of the sleep that young people are getting, but we also know that it is one of the prime times of the day when cyberbullying occurs. In fact some studies have suggested that 93% of cyberbullying in teens and young people. Why? At night time, the limited part of their prefrontal cortex that's operational shuts off. Have you ever noticed your young person is particularly illogical and irrational at night? Guess what part of the brain turns on at night. The amygdala. The emotional centre of the brain. So next time your partner is trying to pick a fight with you, you say to them, my prefrontal cortex is off, my amygdala is on, can we talk about this in the morning? Can you see why cyberbullying is so rife at night? We need to discourage the use of screens at night.
Another healthy habit that we can promote and this is a two pronged habit, is proximity, the old out of sight out of mind. Removing devices so they're not a mental trigger to actually pick them up and use them, so we don't start salivating like Pavlov's dogs every time we see an alert or notification on our screen. The second part of the proximity strategy is removing digital temptations from the homescreen of your smartphone or tablet. So that when you unlock the phone to actually make a phone call, you don’t succumb to Facebook or Instagram because those apps are on your device. Another strategy that works really well which is something that I've been implementing lately is the greyscale. Turning your smartphone to greyscale so that the coloured icons are nowhere near as appealing.
Families also need to establish tech free zones. Bedrooms, bathrooms, meal areas, cars and play areas. Cars for two reasons, any parent knows that cars are one of the few times of the day your kids are trapped in close proximity, and even though they might only give you a grunt, you might actually elicit some form of conversation. The other one I have learnt particularly as a parent to boys, is that boys, and I am also told adolescent boys and girls, but young boys in particular, love - do you all remember Dickie Knee from Hey Hey it's Saturday? - they love the Dickie Knee conversation. They would much rather talk to the back of your head or have side by side conversation, than face to face conversation, and the car is one of those opportunities. The other reason that we suggest not having screens in cars is because we now know many provisional drivers have formed such a strong habit that they use screens in the cars, guess what happens when they get their P plates? It's a near impossible habit to break.
So we need to establish tech free zones, as this video shows, I don’t think you need to go to these extreme lengths to make sure that meal areas are screen free areas, but you may in fact need to do so.
So what can we do to help young people tame their technology habits, particularly when it comes to social media? We need to talk to them about the three Ps. The first one, again because their prefrontal cortex is still developing, we need to encourage them to pause before they post, we need to encourage them to pause from their scars and not from their wounds, it's so easy particularly at nighttime when our amygdala is on, to post that comment or social media post that we later regret. So I talk to young people and I give them three strategies. Number one is the stadium strategy. If your phone was plugged in and put on the big screen in a full stadium, would you be okay with what you're sharing? Because our young people often don't understand, as Louise talked about, the immediacy and the gravity of what they're sharing online. The principal test - what would your headmaster or headmistress say if they saw what was shared on your device? And the last one the good old fashioned grandma test. What would grandma say if she unlocked your phone and saw what you were posting?
The second P we need to talk to our young people about is privacy. We are now seeing young people posting inappropriate content and sharing inappropriate content. I am working with primary school students at the moment who have been in trouble with the police because they have been distributing nude photos of other people. And there are criminal offences attached to doing so. We need to make sure that kids are aware of privacy and also whether they have permission to post.
So when it comes to taming technology it’s not about banning screens, it's about planning and helping your child by giving them healthy boundaries and also healthy habits. Digital amputation isn't the solution, in fact we know when we ban technology or we demonise it, it only drives the behaviour underground.
Thank you for your attention, I hope that has been helpful, and ironically, if you need to connect, there are digital channels and social media to do so. Thank you.
Medical and Biomedical Sciences