Creating a safe digital environment in the age of cyberbullying

30 August 2018

Simon Albrecht

Image by Toby Burrows

At the UTS Science in Focus: Is social media bad for us? talk last month, two experts shared their insights and practical parenting tips for ensuring psychological wellbeing in the digital age.

According to a 2017 Sensis report, eight out of 10 Australians have a social media account. Of those people, 57 per cent start their day by reaching for their phones when they wake up to check their social media, and for 39 per cent it is also the last thing they do at night.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest users are teenagers, who spend an average of 3.3 hours a day scrolling through newsfeeds, ‘liking’ their friends’ posts and uploading selfies.

For Louise Remond, a clinical psychologist at The Kidman Centre UTS, this is an area of concern. “As a clinical psychologist with a particular interest in the psychological wellbeing of young people, this statistic is something I think we need to pay close attention to.”

Speaking with Remond at the recent UTS Science in Focus talk, leading digital parenting educator and UTS alumni Dr Kristy Goodwin put it plainly: “Todays ‘screenagers’ are spending more time with pixels than with people.”

Adolescence represents a critical development stage for teenagers, who undergo an unprecedented level of physical, social and emotional change. It is also the age at which lifetime mental health issues emerge: 50 per cent by age 14, and 75 per cent by age 24. For Remond, this has sharpened her focus as she investigates the potential impact of prevalent social media use on psychological wellbeing – both positive and negative.

“Todays ‘screenagers’ are spending more time with pixels than with people.”

“As human beings we’re social creatures; we’re hard wired to want to belong to a group and be connected to other people,” she said. When interactions on social media platforms are positive, it can be incredibly valuable, particularly for those who are marginalised, socially isolated or suffer anxiety. It can create an important sense of belonging and facilitate shared experiences.

But social media has also facilitated the rapid rise of cyberbullying and toxic online behaviour – enabled by the veil of anonymity, rapidly escalated by the ease of sharing, and impossible to escape given the proliferation of smart phones. “Cyberbullying is one of the potential serious dark sides to the use of social media, especially for our young people,” said Remond.

The relationship between social media use and mental health in teenagers is as a complex one. So far research studies have not found any direct correlation and it may be some time before the true impact of social media on psychological wellbeing is known. As Dr Goodwin put it, “In some regards we are conducting a bit of a living experiment. We don’t have the longitudinal data to tell us what the long-term impacts are.”

“What we do know from the research is that it appears that it is not so much the platform itself that has an impact, but how we’re actually engaging with it,” said Remond. “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 how can you protect yourself and family members from potentially negative impacts? Banning social media and tech devices these days may not be a realistic option.

“Digital abstinence is not the solution,” said Dr Goodwin. “What we have to do as parents, as professionals, as educators and as young people in this space, is to tame our technology habits so that we are masters of the media and not a slave to our screens.”

Both Remond and Goodwin advocate for a practical approach to minimise the impact social media has on psychological wellbeing. Below is a summary of the advice they provided, which was designed for parents but is applicable to all who may find themselves tethered just a little too tightly to their phones!

TOP TIPS FOR SOCIAL MEDIA USE

Consume conscientiously, not on autopilot. Be aware of how long you spend on social media, who you are following and how it makes you feel.

Create boundaries for your children. Delay their access to social platforms, and use tools like Koala Safe and Family Zone to filter their access.

Don’t use screen time as a reward OR as a punishment. If you use it as a reward, you will elevate its status and develop a transactional relationship with your child, and if you use it as punishment, they will be unlikely to confide in you about negative online behaviour for fear of losing access.

Don’t use screens at night as it interferes with sleep.

Remove devices from sight so there are less triggers.

Create tech-free zones. Especially in bedrooms, meal areas and cars so they don’t develop bad habits when they learn to drive.

Teach your children about privacy. They may have little understanding of the permanent digital DNA they are creating online.

Teach your children to pause before posting. Ask them to imagine their post being projected onto a giant screen in a stadium or shown to their school principal. If it doesn’t pass the muster, it shouldn’t be posted at all.

About the speakers

Louise Remond is a clinical psychologist who has experience in a number of clinic, health, community and university settings. She works with a range of adults, teenagers and children in individual therapy; and presents to school students on managing stress. Ms Remond has also co-authored several books (Good Thinking: A teenagers guide to managing stress and emotions using CBT; Taking Charge: A Guide for Teenagers) and for many years answered questions in the Dolly Doctor; Love & Life column for Dolly Magazine.

Watch the full recording of Louise Redmond's presentation here.

Dr Kristy Goodman is one of Australia’s leading digital parenting educators (and a mum who deals with her kids’ techno-tantrums!). She’s the author of Raising Your Child in a Digital World, a speaker and digital wellness researcher, who doesn’t suggest that we ban the iPhone. Dr Goodwin completed a Bachelor of Education (Honours) at UTS and her postgraduate degree at Macquarie University. She worked as a primary school and early childhood educator for 14 years before becoming an academic.

Watch the full recording of Dr Kristy Goodman's presentation here.


Byline: Clio Anne Ellis