Growing up digitally

Sunday 12 March 2017 5:05PM

Digital technology is rapidly changing our lives—we socialise, we’re entertained, and we learn online. Today’s kids have only ever known a digital world of connectedness with smart devices, search engines, and social media platforms and while growing up digitally offers exciting opportunities, it also has its challenges. We discuss how kids and their parents can get the balance right and be safe in the digital space.

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aLynne Malcolm: Hi, it's All in the Mind on RN, I'm Lynne Malcolm. Today, growing up digitally.

Samantha Yorke: It's becoming increasingly hard to escape technology, and I think people are struggling a little bit with understanding what the right balance should be.

Mia Freedman: For young people there is no divide between what goes on in life and what goes on, for example, on social media. And that's why particularly as a mother of a girl this is something that they can become very vulnerable to, is this idea that their value is determined by the number of likes they have or the number of followers they have.

Jono Nicholas: If a young person is going through a tough time they will talk to their friends, they will talk to their parents and they will go online. And generally what we see is they will talk to their friends, talk to their parents, plus go online.

Lynne Malcolm: Jono Nicholas, Mia Freedman and Samantha Yorke were panellists at a recent forum called Growing up digital: Young people, technology and mental health. It was organised by the Mental Health Commission of NSW. Digital technology is rapidly changing our lives.

Today's kids have only ever known a world of smart phones, search engines and social media platforms. While the digital world brings new opportunities, it can also bring challenges to kids and their families.

Samantha Yorke is the director of public policy at Google in Australia, and she's the mother of an 11-year-old.

Samantha Yorke: Well, I think the overwhelming trend and challenge simultaneously, Lynne, is that digital technologies are all around us now, and young people are growing up with technology at their fingertips, whether it's a smart phone or whether it's a device like an iPad or whether it's actually computers in the home or in the classroom. And it is becoming increasingly hard to escape technology and I think people are struggling a little bit with understanding what the right balance should be.

In terms of young people, parents I know are asking themselves the question, I'm asking myself the question at the moment, when is the right time to introduce a smart phone into my child's life? My son is 11 and he's walking to and from school every day, and I regularly think I would feel more comfortable if he had a phone that he could call me on if he got into any trouble on his way to or from school, but then I also have to temper my concerns with, well, when I was young we didn't have a phones and we managed perfectly well and our parents managed perfectly well. So I think struggling with these ideas of when to introduce technology, how to manage its consumption, are very much top-of-mind for people at the moment.

Lynne Malcolm: You're weighing that up against the issues of safety I suppose, once a child has a smart phone they have access and they are vulnerable to everything that is going on in the digital world.

Samantha Yorke: That's right, and they develop that notion of always being on and available and contactable as well from an early age, which is something that I know we as adults also struggle with.

Lynne Malcolm: Sam Yorke from Google.

Whilst many parents negotiate with their kids about how much technology and screen time is too much, young people with concerns about their own mental health are heading online for help as their first port of call. Jono Nicholas is CEO of, an online service to support parents and their kids.

Jono Nicholas: So ReachOut is a digital-only service, and we think this is critical because what we know is that for young people now digital is their first port of call. So they might be typing in 'I feel depressed' into Google, or 'I feel suicidal'. What we want to make sure is that when they do that they come to an Australian evidence-based safe service that can help them, that can also point them to other things that they can do to better look after themselves, how they can reconnect with their family, for example, but also how they can access face-to-face services. So it's about recognising that young people live in a digital world and how do we blend their experiences with the great services our community offers in the real world.

Lynne Malcolm: So what are the pressing issues that you can see young people are facing?

Jono Nicholas: So the pressing issues for young people are actually no different than previous generations. I think if you are a young child it's about am I safe, and I loved, am I connected to my family, am I going to school, do I feel valued? The challenges for a teenager are who am I, how do I fall in love for the first time, how do I navigate new friendships, how do I get through those things? And then for young adults in their late teens, it's who will I be. It's about exam stress and work issues.

So what we are seeing now is the same issues that we've been dealing with for generations are simply expressed in digital form. 'Have I got friends' might be the number of likes I get on social media. Bullying doesn't just happen in the school, it happens online. So they are not new challenges for parents, they are simply the same challenges expressed in a different way. For many parents that can feel really scary, and one of the things that we keep pointing to for parents is you have the skills, it's about talking to your teenager, about understanding their issues and helping them be happy and well.

Lynne Malcolm: What do you know about the extent to which kids will actually go online to seek help if they are struggling with certain mental health issues?

Jono Nicholas: It's the most likely action. If a young person is going through a tough time they will do one of three things. They will talk to their friends, they will talk to their parents, and they will go online. And generally what we see is they will talk to their friends, talk to their parents, plus go online. So what is critical around that though is if the young people believes that they will be judged, they are more likely to go online. So a good example is young people will often say I'll talk to my parents about exam stress because I don't think they will judge me. I wouldn't talk to my parents about having sex for the first time because I think there might be judgement.

So the more stigmatised the issue in the mind of the young person, the more likely they are to go online, and will hence the reason why for us making sure they come into a service like ReachOut is incredibly important. If you look at our audience, we get about 143,000 Australians per month coming through the service, of those around 60% are young people experiencing high levels of depression. So this is actually a world where young people are very distressed and they are coming online, and that's why we think it's incredibly important that services like ReachOut are also there so that we can help them directly but also help them get to other services like Headspace, Kids Helpline and Lifeline that do more direct support.

Lynne Malcolm: Suicide is the most likely reason that young people die. What's happening?

Jono Nicholas: It's terrifying. I've got to say, as a father of three boys, the thought for me that the number one reason why I'd lose my boys as young people is suicide is just terrifying. This has been a statistic that has been unacceptably high now in Australia for a long time. We were successful in bringing down the suicide rate in Australia roughly from about 1998 for the last 10 years, we have really stagnated at a high level. Worryingly it looks like suicide rates for young women are starting to tick up. And it really is now I think the doubling of focus and about our nation saying this is unacceptable and we need to change the trajectory.

The challenge I think for us in the mental health sector is we have great health services, there are services like ReachOut and Beyond Blue and Headspace and others who are very, very good at our job. We aren't taking those services to scale. I've been really pleased that the new Health Minister has talked about mental health as their number one priority. To be honest we need to back that up with far more investment in a national priority around mental health that hasn't come through yet.

Lynne Malcolm: Is there anything known about the link between these high suicide rates and the digital space?

Jono Nicholas: Interestingly there's probably no correlation, but if there is a correlation it's actually a good one, which is if you look at the period, say, from 1998 for the following 10 years where youth suicide rates went down, digital access went up. So what we know is that there are specific instances where there is a correlation and sometimes a causational effect between digital access and suicide, for example, and that might be because of online bullying. That's also true of schools. So there's a correlation where a young person gets bullied at school and then suicides. I think what happens often with digital is because we find it a bit scary our response is to blame digital rather than blame the behaviour. What we also know is that digital access has been incredibly important for isolated groups. So if you look at, say, LGBTI young people, their suicide attempt rate is roughly four times greater than the heterosexual population.

What we are seeing because of online is there's a huge wave of connection and support that can come from a young person who might be questioning their sexuality, who feels very isolated. I look now and it's obviously Mardi Gras in Sydney and just the number of social media posts being really supportive of diversity is wonderful. So the one thing I would say to parents out there and certainly to young people is there's lots of really ugly, hateful things online, but the great thing about online is you can choose to ignore those things. You can actually curate your experience and you can start connecting up with a world that's also wonderful. And if you are finding that your experiences online make you unhappy, disconnect firstly for a period of time. But secondly ask yourself what can I do to curate what I'm seeing so that I'm getting more of the good stuff online, because as much as there's hateful comments, say around diversity, there it is also wonderful stories and comments and interesting content that really reaffirm diversity and reaffirm that many, many people want us to be happy and well.

Lynne Malcolm: Jono Nicholas, CEO of And we'll link to them from the All in the Mind page.

Mia Freedman is the co-founder of the MamaMia women's network, and she hears regularly from parents concerned that their teenagers are vulnerable to having their identities shaped by what happens online.

Mia Freedman: I think one of the biggest challenges about parenting, and my eldest child is 19, and then my youngest is eight and I've got an 11-year-old as well, and I think the biggest shift for us as Gen X or baby boomers, we did not grow up with digital media or technology of this kind in any way. So for us there is a real divide between what goes on in life and what goes on, for example, on social media, whereas for young people, there is no divide. They don't really distinguish between the two, and that's why particularly as a mother of a girl this is something that they can become very vulnerable to, is this idea that their value is determined by the number of likes they have all the number of followers they have.

Lynne Malcolm: There may well be examples, particularly with girls, where when they are young they might post sexy selfies on a social media, and they are rewarded with lots of likes. How do you manage this as a parent, to point out to them that that's not necessarily the goal, to get lots of likes from a sexy post?

Mia Freedman: I know, that's horrifying. As I said, my daughter is 11, so we are not quite there yet. But we have already started talking about it. I think that media literacy, in the same way that it's really important to talk to girls or it used to be important to talk to girls about how magazine images are retouched and how what you see is not really the truth, it's important to have those same conversations about social media and about saying, you know, those images you see of Kylie Jenner or whoever it is, it's gone through a filter and she's had plastic surgery and she's made her legs look skinnier with various apps that you can do.

And it's really important to just keep hammering home the message to girls; you're not what you look like. What you look like it is not who you are, what you do is much more important, and who you are is much more important than how you look. And I think that you can have rules about that, you can have rules that there are no selfies in swimming costumes, there are no selfies in school uniforms, there are no selfies with cleavage showing. And it sounds so prudish, but it's the same kind of battles that our mothers had with us when we came downstairs on a Saturday night and they said you are not going out looking like that.

And of course there are ways that I'm hearing that girls are getting around it, so that they've got secret social media accounts or Instagram accounts under different names, and then they've got a very PG friendly one that their parents know about. So teenagers are nothing if not wily, nothing if not innovative, and they will always find ways to get around the rules that we impose. But I think it's more about talking about values and just keeping on saying you are not the amount of likes you get. And that's something that you need to start teaching kids about when they are super young. And it's something that you need to understand as a parent. And if you are not part of the digital world, if you are not on social media yourself, it's really easy to dismiss it and say, oh selfies, or who cares how many likes you've got, but that's how you become really irrelevant in your child's life and you lose your influence. If you are very dismissive of their world, you become like those old people that used to say, oh, that rock 'n' roll music and you people dancing, moving with your hips, Elvis the pelvis, and you immediately get relegated to the category of fuddy-duddy and they stop listening to you altogether.

So my advice for parents is that you've got to be in the game, and a really good way to do this is to sit down with your kids and say, hey, can you teach me how to use Snapchat, or can you teach me how to use Instagram? And it doesn't mean you have to become an active user, but if you've never played the game, it's really hard also to determine what the rules are.

Lynne Malcolm: But is it a good idea, say, to want to be friends with your kids on Facebook or other social media platforms?

Mia Freedman: That's such a fraught question. It really depends on how old they are. And I always say to parents the most power you will ever have to negotiate with your kids is at that barrier point of entry where you are giving them a phone for the first time, when you are buying them a laptop for the first time, when you are allowing them to join Instagram or Facebook for the first time. That is when you have the power. And I think that when your kids are younger, of course they will let you be friends. And as they get older they won't want that. And I think you have to respect that because it is really important for young people to have secrets. I think we've got more visibility over our children's lives than any generation of parents previously. Between Find My Phone and being able to text your kid at anytime of the day or night and find out where they are, technology is a wonderful thing and it's a wonderful parenting tool.

Lynne Malcolm: And I think you give an example about the X-plan, text X and I will come and get you. Can you just explain that?

Mia Freedman: I love this story so much. I've sent it to everyone I know. So we published a story on MummaMia about the X-plan that a woman wrote about, that it's an agreement that she has with her kids. And, you know, kids now have access to a phone when they are about, I don't know, 10 or 11. And even if they don't, if they are at a friend's house, they can usually borrow someone's phone to call you. So what the plan is is that no matter what time of day or night it is, they can just text you the letter X and you know that means they need you to come and get them or they want you to come and get them.

Because it can be very awkward to have to call in front of your friends and say, 'Hey Mum, can you come and pick me up?' And you just have a plan where that's what it means. All they have to do is text you 'X', and you have an agreement that you will come and get them, no questions asked. Sometimes they need a way for you to intervene, a way that alleviates them of the responsibility of having to say, hey, I need some help. But you do still have to allow kids some secrets and some privacy I think, depending on their age.

Lynne Malcolm: And are there rules about social media use which parents should adhere to, to be respectful of their children?

Mia Freedman: So much so. My son works at MamaMia now and he is 19, as I said, and he wrote a story about 'the social media rules I wish my mum would have followed'. There are those years where your kids are just mortified by your very existence. And I did things like I liked some of his posts or I left comments on Facebook or I friended some of his friends on Instagram. And it caused huge problems with us because I kept overstepping these boundaries, and that's back to what I was saying about kids needing privacy. So I think that it's really important that it goes both ways. Our children are not our property and their lives are not just material for our Facebook pages either.

Lynne Malcolm: Mia Freedman.

You're with All in the Mind on RN, I'm Lynne Malcolm. Digital technology is rapidly changing the way we communicate and interact, particularly for kids and teenagers who don't always distinguish between online and offline worlds.

Sam Yorke is director of public policy at Google, Australia. She explains how one of the biggest internet companies in the world is addressing the needs of young people.

Samantha Yorke: We really are in the business of making information available to people at the time when they need it and they are asking for it. And in the context of mental health we've tried to be very thoughtful about how we can introduce support and understanding when people might be going through a hard time and maybe are looking for information on the search engine about anxiety, for instance.

So we have a program that we call our ad grants program, which is you know when you do a search on Google search, those first couple of results that you see are generally paid advertising slots. We donate those slots to mental health organisations and charities so that they have a monthly budget that they can use for free to promote their services in response to particular keywords that somebody might be entering into that search box. So if somebody is looking for information about anxiety or managing exam stress, then when they get their results, the first couple of results will be for organisations like ReachOut who provide online counselling services to young people who might be feeling stress around exam time or are worrying about HSC. So we try to be very thoughtful in terms of giving people information that they are looking for but also thinking, well, how can we support somebody if they are looking for information that might indicate that they have a concern or a worry, and how can we point them in the direction of some further help and counselling or support, whatever's appropriate.

Lynne Malcolm: Sam Yorke. Google is researching the techniques people use to search the net.

Samantha Yorke: People do search differently. I think young people generally are a lot more conversational with their search terms than maybe older people might be where we might be much more sparing with how many words we put in the search box, whereas young people might put a full sentence or a question. So there are differences. It's an area that I think we should be exploring more because it's certainly very instructive in terms of how we innovate, in terms of the search product.

We know, for instance, when we were researching our YouTube Kids product, that we understood that children, especially very young children aged between three and eight, which is kind of the target demographic for the YouTube Kids app, that often many of those kids aren't actually writing yet, so they would be searching for information using voice, so introducing a voice search element to that product was very important. And then thinking about the different way that young people articulate themselves in terms of the syntax they use and the vocabulary they might be using. So we designed the voice search within YouTube Kids to be responsive to those different requirements when searching.

Lynne Malcolm: YouTube for Kids is an app which provides a curated safe experience for kids between 3 and 8. There's also a restricted mode setting on the broader YouTube app, to filter out any material which is more appropriate for adults. Google search has a restricted mode option too.

An e-safety commissioner's office was set up almost two years ago. Its role is to respond to complaints of cyber bullying from children and to educate the public on how to use the web safely and responsibly. The office collaborates with Google, Twitter, Facebook and other social networks to make the web safer for children.

Google's Sam Yorke has an 11-year-old son herself. How does she parent in the digital world?

Samantha Yorke: I guess I venture into this conversation by acknowledging that I feel very lucky to be working in this industry, so I don't feel that I am necessarily representative of all parents out there, but my son is 11, as you mentioned, so he is kind of on the cusp of this magical age that children are allowed to start using social networking services, which is 13. And a lot of his friends are already using different social platforms. And there's a lot of peer pressure to be on these platforms and to have a place where you can continue engaging with your friends when you are not physically together. So managing his expectations around when he will be able to contribute on those platforms has been tricky.

The solution that we've come up with is that he and I actually share an Instagram account. I created an account and I allow him to participate in that account with me. So sometimes he will publish photographs, I'll publish photographs, sometimes he will comment on photos that his friends have shared, but I'm able to oversee all of the activity in the account obviously and to just very gently start teaching him about things like do we have an open or a closed profile, what to do when somebody asks to follow us and we don't know who they are. So to start having these conversations which are clearly very relevant when they start using social networking more broadly, just to introduce these checks and balances I guess about how to just navigate that space safely.

Lynne Malcolm: Sam Yorke, director of public policy at Google in Australia.

CEO of Jono Nicholas has three sons under 8. How does he suggest parents should approach their kids if they're concerned about them?

Jono Nicholas: The most consistent conversation that I would have with children, I have with my own children, is focus on goals, that the number one job of me as a parent is to make sure my kids are safe, happy and well. And it does go in that order. I'd much rather you be safe and unhappy than very happy and unsafe. But if I see you being unsafe, then I'm going to intervene. And that simply changes what does unsafe look like is different from a teenager than a toddler, but it does set up the challenge I think for your teenagers to say what are the points of intervention? My mum or my dad may intervene if they see me doing unsafe things or they see me being unhappy, but they will probably give me some space if they see I'm doing pretty well. So aligning around goals is often good because it helps your teenager predict when you will intervene and why you will intervene. They may still be unhappy but it won't be unexpected.

The second thing is to ask questions. Often parents assume an answer and intervene on is the answer, and it's a very disempowering feeling for a teenager. And then the third thing is be very careful about disconnecting them from the digital world. This is the way in which teenagers navigate social relationships now, it's how they find each other, it's how they get to the movies. So, often the response, particularly say if a young person is being bullied, is the answer is, well, we will just cut off all your technology. And that actually is very rarely a helpful thing, it's actually about how you can help them regulate and intervene and also support them rather than just disconnecting as the major solution.

Lynne Malcolm: But how do you get the opportunity to have these…you know, in a lot of ways they are confronting chats, aren't they.

Jono Nicholas: My main advice is have all important conversations in the car. Car rides are wonderful, it means we don't make eye contact, and eye contact in a difficult conversation can come across as very threatening. Car rides end, so your child will know when they get to escape. But also having other things occurring around you often means that we can just focus on having conversations and chats.

The second part to that would be allow your child some time beforehand to know that the conversation is coming. Often something might be building in your head and not in your child's head, and then in the car ride you will launch into a very serious topic which blindsides them, and they won't respond well because it's unpredictable.

So I would often say to parents, say, 'look, we need to have a conversation about that, let's do that in the morning when everyone is a bit calmer or on our way to school, but I do want to have that conversation with you'. And just knowing that conversation is coming up, when it will happen, often gives your child time to prepare but also allows the conversation to take place in an environment which isn't emotionally charged, which is a really important way to have a difficult conversation.

Lynne Malcolm: And what about getting into their world perhaps and texting them?

Jono Nicholas: Texting is great. What I would say is understand how teenagers navigate digital worlds. And the biggest generational difference around digital use is we who grew up in the pre-digital world make a hierarchy of texting is less connected than phone, it's less connected than face-to-face. So an older person will almost always say it's better we have a face-to-face conversation. Teenagers don't think like that. They think we use the most appropriate mechanism to have the conversation at this time.

So, often understanding how your teenagers use technology, how they use texting, allows you to map your interaction onto a world in which they are comfortable. So if you get a great response from your teenager through text, great. It's all about the outcomes for me. You obviously want to have great face-to-face conversations as well, but often that also gives them a time to feel safe and protected and often just record the conversation.

Lynne Malcolm: You also have a really nice suggestion about…anytime text your child about their worth.

Jono Nicholas: This is one of the great opportunities that technology provides, that if you have a teenager with a phone, just at random points send them a message saying 'I really love you', 'I think you're fantastic because…' And the 'because' then focuses on a behaviour; 'because I noticed that you did something really nice for your younger sister', 'because I noticed that you tried really hard in your swimming carnival'. And by focusing on behaviour it allows the teenager to feel valued, but valued for how they engage in the world, not just their identity, which is a really important skill for them to learn.

The great thing about doing that via text is they also get to save it. It's their private phone. And just knowing that someone is thinking about you and sending you a nice message will, I guarantee, give them a really warm rush, and you a warm rush as well.

Lynne Malcolm: Jono Nicholas, CEO of

Check out the All in the Mind website for a comprehensive list of links to resources for kids and parents to help them navigate digital life.

Production today by Diane Dean, Judy Rapley and Isabella Troppiano.

I'm Lynne Malcolm, thanks for joining us. Catch you next time.


Samantha Yorke
Director of Public Policy
Google Australia
Jono Nicholas
CEO of
Mia Freedman
Co-founder of the Mamamia Womens Network


Lynne Malcolm
Diane Dean
Sound Engineer
Isabella Tropiano / Judy Rapley

Comments (5)

Add your comment

  • william :

    12 Mar 2017 11:18:36pm

    Could you please tell me the name of the song?

    Moderator: The sections of music played on this program are from the tracks "Ubu" by Methyl Ethyl & "Don't apply compression gently" by Courtney Barnett.

  • Mat Quintana :

    15 Mar 2017 12:01:59pm

    A healthy well rounded program on kids and digital access, however perhaps next time the voice of kids themselves might have added something to the discussion.

  • lisa :

    26 Mar 2017 5:21:29pm

    An voice activated app for children too young to read and write??? Words fail me.

    Lisa (predictably, aged 50)

  • Dave Robinson :

    27 Mar 2017 10:07:25pm

    Hi Lyn,

    I have not had a chance to hear all of this section yet, but I was most interested in the part on the increase of suicides in young people. I have been assuming there would be an increase soon, but I was not aware that there was already a signal in the statistics.

    I believe there may be more of a link to 'automation' not really just to 'digital'. I know the implication is to find increased use of social media as being partly responsible, and I am sure there is some component that would support that. My conjecture is slightly different though - that the increased use of automation is removing the old "raison d'etre", taking away the reason for life itself. I'd be interested to see the areas where these suicides are taking place. If I am right they will be predominantly where automation has taken the most jobs.

    Maybe I am wrong, but it would be worth thinking outside the box for long enough to find out if there is a correlation. The next step would be to drill deeper to establish causation. Maybe under a different title though.

  • Liviu Poenaru :

    01 Apr 2017 6:56:34pm

    The effects of early, excessive and unaccompanied use of screens have been demonstrated by the French Academy of Sciences: development of a passive attitude towards the world, loss of spatial references, language lag, concentration and attention deficits, tyrannical attitudes, etc.