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Social media and young Aussies

9 min read
30 Mar 2016

Aussie youths are increasingly taking to social media to interact with one another. It’s a great space to learn more about your friends, organise catch ups, and keep in touch with the community at large. However, research conducted by the Australian Psychological Society shows that the behaviour and wellbeing of young Aussies is being drastically affected by their usage of social media.

Check out our new infographic to see why young adults may be feeling the pressure, and take a look at the findings in depth.

13-17 years olds are ‘super socials’

Young adults spend up to 2.7 hours of the day clutching their smart phones, virtually all of which feature social media apps that promise to keep them in the loop. This equates to roughly 41 days of the year.

Given this extraordinary amount of time dedicated to staying social, is social media a friend to the young…or foe? The 2015 Australian Psychological Society Stress and Wellbeing in Australia survey looked at when and where young adults are connecting with one another online. Here are some of their findings:

1 in 4 young adults are constantly connected. Whether it’s at the bus stop, in class, or at the dinner table – they’re tethered to social media the entire time. Speaking of the dinner table, a similar percentage engaged with social media during every meal. We wonder how many of them are eating with company?

37% of young adults accessed social media within 15 minutes of waking up. The same percentage admitted they ‘disconnected from real time’ to instead peruse social media – i.e. they opted to jump on social media instead of enjoying reality.

Finally, a little more than half of survey respondents snuck in social media 15 minutes before they went to bed.

From the above, we can gather that young Australians feel compelled to keep their social network close at hand. We wanted to understand why, and – as luck would have it – there’s plenty of research that helps explain everything. A study from the US looked at the behaviours of young teens. They found respondents described social media as an extension to their social lives, with no distinct line between real and online life.

Therefore perhaps it’s unsurprising that young adults are connecting at all times of day and in the presence of others, as they see no boundary between the real and the digital.

According to the Australian Psychological Society:

  • 26% checked 6-10 times a day during the week
  • 22% reported checking between 26-50 times per day on a weekend

80% of respondents admit they check social media because of boredom, followed closely by 71% who just wanti to connect with friends.

How young adults are connecting

So, what are young adults filling their hours on social media with? The image below shows the top 8 social media channels accessed by young Australian’s over a 7 day period, as estimated by Roy Morgan.

Over the last few years, more and more young people are accessing social media on their own devices, especially mobile phones. Mobiles give constant, easy access to all social media channels, so it’s not surprising that a quarter of respondents from the Australian Psychological Society described themselves as feeling “constantly connected”. According to Roy Morgan data, 58% of young adults access the internet using their mobile phone. Computers are used 45% of the time and tablets 24%.

#FoMO – The fear of missing out

Have you ever had the feeling there was a really great party being thrown by a group of your friends, but you missed out on an invite? Or maybe an impromptu trip to the movies was thrown together an hour before it screened, but you weren’t quick enough to respond to the post. “Why didn’t I pay closer attention to my Facebook feed,” you may have cried.

The Fear of Missing Out (FoMO) is well-recognised among the youth of Australia…as it is by their elders.

Interestingly, pop culture has influenced our diction; with the word FoMO added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2015. Kids Helpline, a phone counselling service for kids describe FoMO as,

“An apprehensive feeling of possibly not knowing about something exciting and interesting. It makes people want to stay continuously connected on social media.”

This fear of missing out is highlighted in the same American study which revealed that 36% of teens wanted to check social media to see if their friends were doing things without them. To deal with this fear, 51% of young adults (on average) post status updates to broadcast to others that they are having a good time. Additionally, to validate the confidence of teens (or lack thereof), the study showed that 61% of young adults wanted to check social media to see if their posts were getting likes and comments. The study also found some young adults use social media to create an illusion of popularity, and ended up experiencing more distress in their attempt to direct attention to themselves. This is strengthening a culture of comparison, where our perception of reality is somewhat distorted by the perceived success of others.

The Australian Psychological Society say that one in two teens experience FoMO. A study further illustrates their need to be in the know:

  • 78% say it is important to understand the “in jokes” of their friends
  • 71% admit that when they go on vacation, they continue to keep tabs on what their friends are doing
  • 66% explain it bothers them when they miss an opportunity to meet up with friends
  • 63% are bothered when they miss out on a planned get-together
  • 60% confess they get worried when their friends are having fun without them

The health effects of FoMO

This constant worry can have negative health effects on young people, with mental anxiety presenting as physical symptoms.

Trouble sleeping

For example, social media use can impact our sleeping patterns, with 57% of young teens reporting difficulty sleeping or relaxing after being on social media.

A Kids Helpline Counsellor explains, “Lack of sleep can contribute to depression and anxiety. Take time to rest and switch off. You’ll be better able to handle stress in real life”.

Research from the University of Pittsburgh has shown that young adults who frequently check social media experience sleep disturbance. This particular research identified sleep disturbance as:

  • Social media eating into sleep time
  • Arousing an emotional, cognitive or physiological response
  • The blue light interrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythm

It’s well established that looking at blue light, such as on a digital device can inhibit sleep. Looking at blue light effects the levels of a hormone called melatonin, which can have an alarming effect on the body’s natural clock, or circadian rhythm – for more information, this article from Scientific American is a good starting point.

Mood changes

For heavy social media users, experts explain that overuse can lead to depressive mood and fatigue, which impacts long-term wellbeing. Both FoMO and poor sleep can contribute to this, though as this article form Murdoch University explains, young people often look to social media to feel better, creating a cycle of poor sleep and bad moods.

How adults feel the younger generation are affected

When it comes to how parents perceive the impacts of social media it’s evident a ‘seismic generational gap’ is occurring. The language young adults use on social media is unrecognisable by 86% of parents, which includes the use of emoticon and slang words, or acronyms.

Related: What’s stressing Australia?

Online safety is another major concern of Australian parents, with one in three reporting searching the internet to find information on their child. For parents with their own social media accounts, teenagers were less likely to be online ‘friends’, which reduced the opportunity for them to review information on their children’s page.

Brain burnout

84% of young adults (on average) believe social media has helped strengthen their relationships with friends, and 82% feel included or connected to like-minded people through participating in online forums and content-sharing sites.

Despite these positive facts, 45% still believe their peers are having more rewarding experiences than them.

Completely shutting off from social media probably isn’t a realistic solution, but reducing its use has been shown as a suitable antidote to dealing with the negative outcomes it can pose. The Australian Psychological Society survey explains that the less time young adults spend on social media, the less they feel they are missing out.

Additionally, they are less concerned that people will post ugly pictures of them when they reduce their social media use. Their self-esteem also has a chance to be restored, as they are less likely to feel bad about themselves if people didn’t ‘like’ their social media posts. The statistics show that the less time teens spend on social media, the less they feel burnt out by it.

To help reinforce the benefits of social media and counteract the negative impacts, taking a different approach to online platforms may be useful for some. For example, remove people from your network who conjure negative feelings or induce poor self-confidence. Instead, add people to online social networks who are uplifting and motivating.

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There’s no doubt that social media has been a great tool in expanding our horizon of communication, however the extent to which young adults spend on it could be reduced. Creating good habits around the use of social media for young adults such as, switching off before bed may help curb their addictive behaviour towards it. There can be a lot of good in how we use social media, but we should also be mindful to take everything with a grain of salt, because not everything is as it appears.

Here are 5 closing tips from Kid Help Line on how to have positive social media experiences:

  1. Be a good friend! Be supportive, and add friends to your network that encourage and care about you.
  2. Live your own life! Never compare your life with someone’s newsfeed. Not everything is as it appears.
  3. Switch off before bed! Don’t get distracted, take time to unwind.
  4. Protect yourself! Keep your data private and don’t accept friends requests from strangers
  5. Ask for help! If you’re feeling stressed or worried, let someone know.
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