Minister issues call to arms to defend young Australians against perils of social media

Posted on 24 May 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Tanya Plibersek

A senior federal government minister has lamented the corrosive effect that unbridled access to social media and rapidly evolving artificial intelligence is having on the minds of young Australians.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said skewed social media algorithms were driving users toward misogynistic content and porn, resulting in more violence against women and young girls.

And she warned the rapidly evolving impact of AI was set to make things worse.

Ms Plibersek, a mother of three, questioned whether she should have done more to push back against her own children’s use of social media.

“My children are now aged 13, 19 and 23 – but lately I have found myself wondering if I should have restricted their use of social media until they turned 16.” she said.

“As parents we’ve been so vigilant around child safety. But we may not have been vigilant enough when it comes to social media.”

Delivering the annual Joan Kirner Social Justice Oration at the State Library of Victoria, Ms Plibersek likened social media giants' pursuit of profits at all costs to the activities of Big Tobacco and gambling companies.

“The social media giants know they are deliberately reprogramming our kids. Like Big Tobacco companies or gaming companies, they know a lifetime of profits depends on getting customers hooked young.”

Ms Plibersek’s speech on Thursday, May 23 was the keynote address of the 2024 Communities in Control Conference presented by Our Community.

In a powerful and wide-ranging address, Ms Plibersek also:

  • said young men were being radicalised by malign influences and influencers in the "Manosphere,'' fed by anti-feminist algorithms on social media
  • said decades of progress on gender equality were threatened by increasing sexual violence and harassment of women
  • flagged new government legislation to ban the creation and non-consensual distribution of deepfake pornography.

Ms Plibersek said easy access to pornography on social media and sexually graphic AI-generated ‘deepfakes’ were dark and disturbing trends.

“Too many kids are getting their sex ed from online porn. And today with smartphones everywhere, kids have got porn in their pockets.

“Kids are watching choking and anal sex before they’ve even had their first kiss.”

Ms Plibersek said AI-powered deepfake porn apps were being used to torment Australian children and it was time to erect guardrails around the use of AI.

“We can’t allow open slather in AI as we did with social media, because the harms are already becoming apparent.

“These apps and fake images are being used to bully, harass, and cause immense distress to young girls who are being ‘pornified’ by their classmates.”

“We cannot claim to have achieved gender equality while women continue to be unsafe in their homes, or on our street, or in our workplaces.”

Ms Plibersek said the government was taking action to address the issue with plans to introduce legislation to ban the creation and non-consensual distribution of deepfake pornography.

Tanya Plibersek
Tanya Plibersek delivering the Joan Kirner Social Justice Oration at the State Library in Melbourne.

“These reforms will make clear that those who seek to abuse or degrade women through doxxing, deepfakes, or by abusing their privacy online will be subject to serious criminal penalties.”

Ms Plibersek said the pernicious rise of social media and unsavoury use of AI was a significant facilitator of a growing backlash against women across the world.

“We cannot claim to have achieved gender equality while women continue to be unsafe in their homes, or on our street, or in our workplaces.”

She told delegates to the conference that many parents’ assumption that social media was a neutral space that children have control over was false, with social media algorithms pushing users toward misogynistic content and pornography, poisoning young male minds' attitudes towards women.

She said the dark side of social media was also causing significant mental distress to young Australians, some of whom had been driven to suicide.

Ms Plibersek pointed to a commitment by Canberra in the recent federal budget to spend an extra $361 million over four years to expand the range of free mental health services across Australia as one way the government was trying to address the problem.

“But we’ll never be able to catch up if rates of mental distress continue to rise in the way they have.

“And we can’t reach our target of ending violence against women in a generation if the next generation of men is being trained by social media to hate and hurt women.”

Ms Plibersek stressed that she was not against social media, acknowledged the enormous potential of AI to be used for good, and said it was not too late to tip the balance back in favour of young Australians.

“We can control our tech diet. Just like we can choose what to eat, we can monitor what we feed ourselves and what we feed our children.”

Ms Plibersek said federal and state government initiatives such as school phone bans and proposed social media age restrictions were aimed at encouraging kids to spend less time on their phones and more time exploring the world around them.

Canberra had also established a parliamentary inquiry into the influence and impacts of social media on Australian society, brought forward a review of the Online Safety Act, and quadrupled funding for the eSafety Commissioner, she said.

“We can push back [against social media giants]. We can reclaim our time and our brains and our sense of safety.

“And we can reclaim childhood for our kids, who rely on us to help them navigate all the wonders and perils of growing up.”

Ms Plibersek paid tribute to the trailblazing efforts of former Victorian premier Joan Kirner, after whom the annual oration, now in its 13th year, was named.

“Joan was a pioneer. The first woman premier of Victoria, she wanted to support other women, creating a change that would endure long after she had gone.”

Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty paid tribute to the big-thinking, thought-provoking nature of Pilbersek's speech.

"That was one of the most profound speeches I have heard in a long, long time."

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