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Reaching social media’s age of reason

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Reaching social media’s age of reason

Both sides of politics have become enlightened about the need to restrict children’s access. WORDS: Caitlin Zerafa with AAP.

It seems we cannot avoid the continuing conversations surrounding the impact of social media on our youth.

For years, we’ve been discussing how school-aged children use platforms – particularly nowadays with the likes of Instagram and TikTok.

While social media isn’t all bad all the time, there are many arguments that it opens up a world of dangers to users.

From cybersecurity and safety to online bullying, the ability to access explicit content and links to behavioural and mental disorders, it’s no wonder the world of social media has become a minefield of concern. In an effort to better protect school-aged teenagers, there are now calls to lift age restrictions limiting who can open a social media account.

Currently, the minimum age to use social media platforms is 13 and some children younger than this are already falsifying information to bypass age gates.

The latest discussions involve federal and state leaders across the country who want to see a social media age-limit overhaul and hold social media companies, such as Meta, accountable for enforcing the changes.

Politicians are suggesting increasing the age limit anywhere up to 16 years of age. The federal government is indicating it supports tighter restrictions on children accessing social media, which Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has identified as a national issue.

Premier Steven Miles says children need to be protected and the responsibility should fall on social media companies. He would like to see a complete ban for children under 14 and parental approval up to 16.

“They are failing on so many measures designed to protect our kids and parents need help in monitoring and restricting access to dangerous content,” Mr Miles says.

“We’re seeing so much evidence on how social media plays with the brains of young people. We don’t let young people use pokies and they are designed to have a similar effect, so we should seriously consider the impact of social media.”

Federal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has announced that children under the age of 16 will no longer be able to use social media if the opposition wins government at the next federal election.

Mr Dutton says he will use age verification technologies to raise the minimum age for social media platforms from 13 to 16 within the first 100 days of a coalition government.

Any companies that do not comply will be penalised under the opposition’s proposal.

However, Mr Dutton has not detailed what tools would be used to prevent children from accessing websites.

The current federal government has already invested $6.5 million to trial age-assurance technologies that would reduce children’s exposure to inappropriate material.

Federal Member for Fisher Andrew Wallace is a known advocate for social media reform and has also called for reform and regulation on social media algorithms.

He believes young people are often innocently exposed to harmful content.

“Two-in-five kids see porn on their newsfeed without looking for it,” he says.

“Dangerous fad diets and ‘thinspiration’ can lead to eating disorders and self-harm.

“Foreign disinformation campaigns drive extremism and division.

“Algorithms amplify biases, desensitise us and disable moderation.

“Things must change.

“With nearly three-in-four Australians already on social media … age assurance, algorithm regulation and social media ID verification are urgently required to keep kids safe online.”

Will age restrictions fix the problem?

Closer to home, organisations such as Youturn work with young people and see first-hand the impact social media can have on an impressionable mind.

As the clinical manager of Youturn’s Youth Enhanced Program, Mariloly Reyes Munoz believes the problem does not lie with the age limit, but a lack of accountability from social media companies.

“The current minimum age of 13 for social media use is appropriate,” she says.

“However, I believe the focus should be on holding social media companies accountable for the content on their platforms. They should ensure that the content is safe and suitable for younger users, rather than raising the age limit.”

Ms Reyes Munoz says its important parents are armed with resources and training to effectively monitor and manage young people’s social media use.

“This will empower parents and guardians to protect their children better and create a safer online environment through collaborative efforts,” she says.

“By implementing stricter content regulations and enhancing parental guidance, we can create a safer digital space for young users without having to raise the age limit.”

Ms Reyes Munoz agrees social media companies need to do more to stop underage users from accessing accounts.

“A multifaceted approach is necessary to address the issue of underage users falsifying their age on social media.

“Parents will need to approve or deny requests for specific use of social media or downloading apps.

“Social media platforms should implement more robust age-verification methods to deter falsification.”

Ms Reyes Munoz says she regularly observes challenges associated with their use of social media through her work.

“One of the primary concerns is the impact on mental and behavioural health,” she says. “Increased exposure to unrealistic stereotypes and negative behaviours online can contribute to issues such as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem among young users.”

However, she makes a point that social media is also an important tool connecting youth with their peers.

“Enforcing age limits on social media platforms could help protect young people from harmful content and negative online behaviours, potentially benefiting their mental health and wellbeing,” Ms Reyes Munoz says

“However, it might also restrict their access to peer networks, hinder their development of digital literacy and limit opportunities for self-expression and creativity. Additionally, strict age limits could lead to secretive behaviour, such as creating fake accounts, which may expose them to unmonitored and unsafe online environments.

“A balanced approach that includes age limits, parental education and promoting real-world interactions may better address these challenges.”

Ms Reyes Munoz  says it is necessary to consider this issue from a comprehensive perspective, focusing on how we, as a society, can collaborate to ensure the safety of children.

“Parents, educators, policymakers, and social media companies need to work together to create a safer online environment,” she says.

“For instance, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation, Headspace, has teamed up with Facebook to address youth suicide. Facebook has offered Headspace free, targeted advertising to promote mental health messages in 11 communities across Australia with high rates of youth suicide.

“These messages contain advice on where and how young people can seek help if they are facing significant distress.

“This proactive approach, driven by research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics demonstrating a 10-year high in youth suicide rates, underscores the significance of adults collaborating to protect and guide young people. This collective effort will aid in safeguarding young users while respecting their digital rights and nurturing a healthy balance between online and real-world interactions.”

Chief health officer issues advisory after alarming teen hospitalisation numbers

Social media use has sparked a “public health problem” in Queensland, with authorities linking it to an alarming number of teenagers being hospitalised.

Chief Health Officer John Gerrard has issued a formal advisory about social media’s negative impact on young Queenslanders, recommending parents restrict or exclude its use for kids under 14 years old.

Dr Gerrard says while most health indicators are improving in Queensland, one measure is standing out: a mental health decline in teenagers, especially girls.

State health data shows self-harm hospitalisations for Queensland girls aged up to 14 years have tripled since 2008.

For girls aged 15 to 19, self-harm hospitalisations have nearly doubled. The rate almost doubled for males up to 14 over the same period.

Dr Gerrard is linking the stark rise in self-harm to social media platforms, which he says have become an unstoppable phenomenon.

“We have a significant public health problem in Queensland,” he says.

“We cannot pretend it is not a problem. It is real.”

Dr Gerrard is recommending parents closely monitor and support teens as social media is introduced and restrict time until healthy habits are established.

“Young children are less likely than older children to have the developmental capacity to manage social media adequately and the content they are exposed to,” he says.

The recommendations have been published in a guideline on Queensland Health’s website.

               – AAP.

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