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Our mission is to understand, prevent and reduce mental health problems in young people aged 5 to 25, so that they can thrive through their formative years.

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  • Can I get a show of hands how many of you here tonight have at least one social media account, whether it be Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat? So the majority. 
    Now I want you to think back to the last time you used your social media, hands up if it was in the last hour. So again the majority. Or sometime today? Or maybe in the past week?
    Now I want to ask you a question: why did you check your social media then? Was it that you were bored, or perhaps procrastinating a report you had to write? Or maybe you posted something online and you were waiting to get that dopamine hit we often get when someone likes or comments on our posts? Or maybe you're not really sure why you checked it. Maybe it was something you just did out of habit without really thinking about it. That's something that most of us do a lot of the time. 
    Now the next question I have is, how did you feel after checking your social media? Maybe you felt amused because someone had shared a funny video? Or maybe you felt happy because a friend you haven't seen in a while made contact with you? Maybe you felt annoyed with yourself because you're procrastinating, when you should have been doing something more productive. Or perhaps you felt jealousy rising in you, as you saw posts from your old school friend and their seemingly perfect life? Or again, maybe if you're like most of us, you're not really sure how it made you feel. You didn't really stop and think about it.
    Now the reality of it is that social media is an integral part of most of out lives nowadays. But most of us never stop to reflect upon how our use of it may be affecting our psychological wellbeing, for better or for worse. At least 8 out of 10 Australians now have a social media account, with younger people being most likely to use social media. 57% of us check our social media as one of the first things we do when we wake up in the morning. And for 39% of us, it's one of the last things we do before going to sleep at night. 12% of us admit to checking their social media whilst using the toilet. The most active users of social media are digital natives, or our adolescents and young people who have never known life without the internet. In 2017, the Australian Psychological Society did a survey and found that Australian teens are spending on average 3.3 hours per day engaged with their social media. That amounts to nearly 1200 hours per year. So as a clinical psychologist with a particular interest in the psychological wellbeing of young people, this statistic is something that I think we need to play close attention to. The fact that so many of our young people are engaging in social media use a lot in their spare time. And this is for two main reasons.
     The first is we know that the period of adolescence and young adulthood is a crucial period developmentally. So not only physically but also psychologically and emotionally. During this time there are unprecedented changes to the wiring of our brain, so that the neuropathways that we're using most often are being strengthened and those that we're using least are being pruned away. It's also a time when we're transitioning obviously from childhood to the greater independence of adulthood, and also when our peers are having a much greater influence. It's also a time developmentally when we're grappling with issues of identity and often asking the big questions about who am I and where do I fit in. I believe that anything that a person is doing a lot of in this key period, whether it's playing a team sport or studying or smoking marijuana or engaging in social media, is likely to have at least some kind of influence on how these developmental factors are playing out, for better or for worse.
    Secondly, research indicates that adolescence is a peak time for the onset of mental health issues. In fact, half of all of lifetime mental disorders have been shown to emerge by the age of 14, and 3/4 by the age of 24. approximately 1 in 5 Australian teenagers experience significant mental health issues, most commonly anxiety, depressing and some of the externalising disorders. Given these statistics, I believe that  if there is a potential for social media use to have either a positive impact of psychological wellbeing, then we really need to try and understand this so the potential benefits can be harnessed and any potential risks limited. 
    So what exactly is the impact of social media use on psychological wellbeing? Well the short answer to that is that it's complicated. And as yet, it's a question we don't have a definitive answer to. While there's been a lot of research done in this area, the results have been inconclusive. So some research for example shows that social media use is associated with poorer mental health, so most often higher anxiety and depression, decreased self esteem. Whereas other studies have found the opposite, citing a range of positive association between social media use and mood, and social connections. One of the key difficulties with most of the research in this area is what we call correlational or cross-sectional. So for example, we may take a snapshot of a thousand people in time and have a look at their mood state and also look at how much they're using social media. Say for example we find that on average people with lower mood or more depressed are using more social media or using it more often. Does that mean that one causes the other? No it doesn't. It may be that for someone who's using more social media, that can have a detrimental impact on mood, but it might also be that someone who's depressed in the first place is more likely spend more time on social media. It may also be that there's just some other factor involved altogether like sleep deprivation or academic failure.
    Overall though, what it seems from the research is that the relationship between social media use and individual psychological wellbeing is a complex one involving various interacting factors. It appears that it's not so much the platforms themselves that have an impact, but most important is how we're actually engaging with them. What we're doing and thinking when we're using social media, who we're interacting with, how long we're spending on it and what else is going on in our lives. So tonight I'm going to look at some of the potential ways that social media may be able to positively impact psychological wellbeing, and some of the negatives. And as I go through some of the examples I'm going to be referring mainly to the context of young people, but the issues that I raise are going to be relevant to anyone who uses it.
    So first of all lets look at some of the potential positive. I want you to imagine you're a student, you've had a pretty stressful day and you're feeling a bit flat, and you're scrolling through your Insta feed when up comes this post. There you are with your friends last weekend, you're having such a fun day, it was a really good time, you were laughing together and talking about life's bigger issues. You comment with a thumbs up, and your friend comments back saying "Great to have you in my life, let's do it all again soon." How do you think you're going to feel? Chances are you're going to have some of those warm and fuzzy feelings and you're going to feel connected. As human beings, we're social creatures. We're hard-wired to want to belong to a group and be connected to other people. One of the most appealing aspects for social media for most of us is the huge potential it offers to extend connections beyond physical realities. It provides a really convenient way to keep in touch with friends and families who we may not get to see that often but equally we may spend a lot of time just having light hearted banter or connecting with people that we do see often. It can make arranging face to face catchups much easier. For people with social anxiety for example, social media may provide a really easy way for them to follow up on a first meeting with someone. They've met in person for the first time, and it may provide a way to reconnect with that person and build on that relationship, that issues such as shyness may often pose an obstacle to. A major research paper found that having positive interactions with people on social media, and feeling connected to and supported by them, is consistently related to lower levels of depression and anxiety in users. The link was strongest for people who were actively messaging or engaging with or commenting on and liking posts from their own personal context, so it's actively being engaged with people you already know or have a connection to rather than just scrolling through random people's feeds.
    So when it comes to your social media use, useful questions to ask yourself are: is this helping me to build on and maintain healthy social connections? And, are the interactions that I'm having with other people, ones that are positive and making me feel good? 
    Now i want you to imagine that you're someone who's feeling devastated after the death of your much loved family pet. You're not someone who would normally pick up the phone to call your friends and tell them what's happened, but instead, in your grief, you post this. Within moments messages of sympathy and support start popping up. People let you know that they're thinking of you, and soon after a friend pops over just to see how you're getting on. Social media can provide a relatively easy and quick way to elicit social support when you need it. Research shows that feeling emotionally supported during times of stress can help buffer the negative effects that challenging situations can have on mental health. Feeling cared about by others is considered a really strong protective factor for good mental health. In one study, seven out of ten teenagers reported seeking and receiving support on social media during tough and challenging times. 
    What about you? Do you feel supported by your online social network, and if so this may be a way that using it might be beneficial for you. For people who feel marginalised, isolated or are in a minority group, social media can offer a unique opportunity to become part of a supportive community online. So for example, research has shown that young people with chronic illnesses, those questioning their sexuality, those from ethnic minorities, or those with particular mental health issues have been found to benefit from joining closed groups online where they can share their thoughts and concerns with other people who can relate to their experiences, or share similar values and ideas. When done well, these online communities can provide a powerful way for people to see that they're not alone. By providing a safe and supportive network, they can help promote a sense of belonging and acceptance, something which is vital for all of us but especially our young people. 
    Think of it for yourself. How many of you are a member of a particular interest group or support group online? Might be a sports club,  a professional group, or a cause you're passionate about. What does being part of that do for you? I know for myself, i have a relatively minor but annoying health condition, but it's also something that's really rare. I've never actually met anyone else in person who has the same thing. But a few weeks ago i was on Facebook and I found a closed group, where there are 3000 people across the globe, who have the same thing. So they're all on there sharing their experiences and talking about things that they're doing to manage it, and for once i found that somehow i could relate to those experiences. Somehow it made me feel a little less alone. 
    Again there's a bit of a proviso there with the closed group i was talking about and one is that it's important that these, particularly when it comes to our young people, are responsible and well monitored. We've heard reports recently of closed groups for example that are promoting suicide or that are talking about various self harm strategies. You can imagine the impact that such toxic environments could have on  a vulnerable young person. So again if there are young people in your life it's important to make sure that the groups that they belong to are ones that are well monitored and responsible.
    Now we've looked at some of the potential upsides of social media use identified in the research, let's turn our attention to some of the potential downsides. 
    I want you to imagine you're a 16 year old girl, it's late at night and you're fast asleep when you're woken up by the beeps of a whole lot of notifications coming up on your phone. You open it up and this is what you read. It's from a fake account and you have no idea who's behind it. Now i want you to imagine that you're a 14 year old boy on Snapchat when through your feed comes a video. You open it up and you realise it's of you. Someone's been secretly filming you at school and at the bus stop, and the video's been edited to a song that has the lyrics "i'm a creep, I'm a loser" and in the subtitles are messages telling you to go kill yourself. The video has been up for over an hour but you have no idea how many people have seen it or whether anyone may have copied or shared it. 
    Cyberbullying is one of the potential serious dark sides of the use of social media particularly for our young people. It's defined as the use of technology to bully a person or a group with the intent to hurt them socially, psychologically or even physically. Cyberbullying can take lots of different forms such as abusive texts or emails, hurtful messages, images or videos, imitating others online, humiliating others online or nasty online gossip or chat. Research shows that being the victim of bullying in childhood is a significant risk factor for developing mental health issues. The effects can be long-lasting and go well into adulthood. Cyberbullying has been linked to depression, anxiety, social isolation and suicide risk. Compared to more traditional forms of bullying, when it occurs on social media, cyberbullying can be witnessed by a much larger audience and can be shared quickly with hundreds of people. The perpetrator can often remain anonymous. Imagine not knowing who's behind the messages or nasty images that you're receiving. It can also be really difficult to escape, because unlike traditional bullying, it can follow you home on your mobile phone and potentially haunt you 24/7. Studies show that the more you're bullied online the worse off you are psychologically. Targets of cyberbullying are twice as likely to have attempted suicide as those who haven't been bullied. And the more a teenager uses social media, the more likely they are to be exposed to cyberbullying. 
    So with the potential to have such a dramatic negative impact on psychological wellbeing, it's important that we focus on preventing it in the first place but also on intervening early and effectively when it does occur. Even less intensive negative interactions via social media can have a detrimental effect on psychological wellbeing. So even personal criticisms or personal put-downs that are there on a public forum via social media can get someone feeling down and have a negative impact. If those are occuring it's also important that people take action. 
    Now i want to return to that Instagram post we saw earlier. So now imagine again that you're the same student looking at your Instagram feed, but this time instead of feeling part of it, you realise it's a whole lot of people you know and you haven't been part of that experience. Anxiety starts building as you start questioning: why wasn't I there why wasn't I included? And the more anxious you become, the more you start scrolling through past feeds to see if there's anything else you may have missed out on. Lots of people jokingly talk about the concept of fomo - have people heard of FOMO before? Otherwise known as the fear of missing out. But it's actually a really real phenomenon and there's even been a scale developed to measure it. Here is a few of the items from the scale, take a look at that now. And i want you to see how you fare, think about how you fare on those items. Just a snapshot. Chances are if you're rating higher, then some of the things you may be doing when you're using social media may not be working that well for you. 
    For some people, spending time on social media may actually trigger FOMO. At the same time, for people who experience FOMO in the first place, so even without social media they're people who often fear missing out on things generally, then experiencing high levels of that in the first place, they may be driven to spend more time on their social media checking their accounts. It can become a really vicious cycle because the more a person uses social media, the more they may feel they're missing out, because they're constantly seeing people socialising together or sharing in jokes that they're not part of. For some people this may drive a compulsive need to be constantly checking their accounts because they're terrified that if they aren't, they might miss out on something. Journalist Sarah Miller describes social media as being like the kerosene on FOMO's fire. And that is because on social media, we're exposed to people's updates on real time and have constant access to all the things that we're missing out on. Reflect on it for yourself. How do you feel when you see catch-ups or activities on your social feeds and you haven't been included? Do you ever find yourself checking your social media driven by concerns or anxieties that you might be missing out on something. 
    Now imagine you're flicking through your Facebook and up comes this post. Instead of thinking, "nice view, great holiday," you start comparing yourself and your life, and you're thinking here I am stuck at boring work while she is on yet another amazing adventure and look how great her legs are. There's no context of what you're seeing. You're not privy to the fact that she's still recovering from Bali belly or that she had a fight with her partner over breakfast this morning, or that she spent 3 months working double shifts just to pay off this trip. On social media there's a constant stream of images and social information. On facebook alone, over ten million new photos are posted every hour, and that provides endless possibilities for us to be drawn into comparisons of ourselves and our own lives with what others are posting. Psychologically, we tend to measure our own self worth by comparing ourselves to other. A tendency to engage in what we call upward comparisons where we compare ourselves negatively to people who we perceive as being better off than us, is a significant risk factor for the development of anxiety and depression. When we're using social media, it becomes very easy to contrast ourselves and what we see as our potentially mundane lives with other people's "highlights reels." We often forget or somehow ignore the fact that on social media there's often a degree of what we call "impression management." Studies show that people are far more likely to post an image online where they're either looking really good, or doing something particularly fun, or something that they're proud of or something special. So if you're someone who finds yourself comparing and despairing when you're using your social media, then it may be time to start challenging yourself to think more critically about what you're looking at. 
    Increasingly we're become aware that what is good for our physical health is also good for our mental health. A number of factors have been found to contribute positively to psychological wellbeing such as getting enough sleep, doing regular exercise, in person face to face socialising and spending time in nature. Social media may have a detrimental impact if it's crowding out any of these activities. For example, sleep deprivation in particular has been linked to mental health issues in teenagers. On average, teens need 8-9 hours of sleep per night for optimal health but most are getting far less than this. In one study, 1 in 5 teenagers reported that they were waking up at night specifically to check their social media accounts. Positive, in-person, face to face interactions are also important for psychological wellbeing. Think about it for yourself. Have you ever experienced a difference physical contact like a big hug when you've had a hard day can make to how you're feeling. Or what about when you're with some friends and your friend's face lights up when they tell a funny story and there's contagious laughter. Purely online interactions cannot replace this. Social media use, if it's detracting in some ways from these in person interactions, that may be one of the potential negatives that it could have for psychological wellbeing. 
    So after reviewing some of the potential positive and negative ways that social media may influence psychological wellbeing, what's the take home message from tonight? The key is, that rather than continuing to consume social media out of habit, all of us need to be giving it much more conscious thought. We need to be mindful of how we're using it, the types of interactions we're having with others online, the way we're thinking about and processing what we're seeing, and how we feel afterwards. Our young people in particular must be encouraged to do the same. So like all of us, they need to become discerning consumers, to think about the reality behind the images, to learn to keep the balance with the other aspects of their life, and to take effective action if they fall prey to bullies. We need to focus on maximising the benefits of the time they're spending online by helping them make space for positive and supportive social interactions.
    So as i mentioned at the beginning of the presentation, social media platforms themselves do not yield particular risks or benefits for psychological wellbeing, but rather it's about the ways that we as individuals are engaging with them. So hopefully you can keep this in mind and make it work for you. Thank you.