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Protect online generation’s mental health

Young people’s growing use of and exposure to technology can create risks to their mental health but also provide opportunity for intervention, a leading expert argues.

Speaking at the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses 8th Primary Mental Health Care Conference in Canberra this morning, the chief executive of Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre, associate professor Jane Burns, highlighted the importance of talking to young people about  how often they engage with technology and the online world, and how they do it.

Burns said research indicated that about 20 per cent of people aged 16–25 admit to spending more than five hours a day online and that the risks to mental health needed to be given greater credence.

When discussing online behaviours with young people, such as uploading content on social media, sexting or posting messages, Burns said it was important to talk about the potentially negative impacts of tagging others, as well as the potential for such content “to be stored online forever”.

Whilst such conversations, which could centre on respecting themselves and others, might not immediately change behaviours she said, there was great potential to encourage young people to think about the unintended as well as intended consequences.

“Discussing sleep hygiene is also hugely important – discouraging young people from taking the mobile or smartphone to bed," Burns said. “It's important that young people understand the need to use technologies in ways that do not adversely affect their mental health.”

Online gaming was also a serious risk, she added, with some young people locking themselves away for many hours at a time. However, experts have also recognised opportunities within the sphere to engage with those at risk.

Burns also discussed the potential barriers to identifying those at risk in specific social media communities and settings, such as Facebook.

Responding to a question from the audience regarding the possibilities of Facebook using the same algorithms it uses to target users with advertising to reach out to those at risk of suicide, Burns explained that one such initiative had to be abandoned due to complaints relating to privacy.

“Despite this, I think it is an area we should be looking at,” she said.


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