30/10/2015 5:43 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

You're Not The Only Unhappy Person On Facebook

As we confront a national emergency in suicide with some seven preventable deaths every day and suicide fatalities far exceeding road fatalities, we need to ask ourselves what role new technology is playing -- is it helping or harming?

Justin Lewis via Getty Images
People on phones with social media icon chalkboard

Fifteen years ago, you would likely be reading this on a dead tree rather than on the screen you are using right now. That puts you among your fellow Australian adults who now own an average of three digital devices -- typically a laptop, a smartphone and a tablet.

Studies suggest we're spending some 24 hours per week online, up to half of which could be spent on social media. Facebook status updates, Tweets, Instagram posts, LinkedIn profiles, and endless emails have become personal habits like coffee in the morning.

Again, 15 years ago, few foresaw the liberation many feel on setting up the "Out-of-Office" auto-reply for leave days.

Indeed, in the 21st century, we have probably become the most connected group of people that has ever existed. At the same time, without care, we risk being the most disconnected and possibly discontent.

Recently appointed as CEO of Lifeline Australia, the community-based crisis support service founded some 50 years ago as telephones became ubiquitous in our homes, I've been thinking about what our increasingly technological lives may be doing to our emotional lives.

For Lifeline, technology has been and is a huge enabler of help for our fellow everyday Australians, including the 900,000-plus calls (and growing) this year from help seekers. The phone has been a beacon of hope for many. And, we've been expanding our web-based crisis support.

But as we confront a national emergency in suicide, with some seven preventable deaths every day and suicide fatalities far exceeding road fatalities, we need to ask ourselves what role new technology is playing -- is it helping or harming?

Some argue that when looked at from a simple time-management perspective there must be emotional implications: more time spent with devices is less time spent with humans. As suggested elsewhere, URL may be replacing IRL ("in real life"). The argument goes that human contact is instinctive and irreplaceable, and it's a hard one to refute when we look at the importance of close relationships and families to our wellbeing.

On the other hand, the Internet gives many people the opportunity to connect and be in relationships that time and place limit. Many of us now belong to virtual communities based on our needs and interests rather than our locations. However, perhaps as a part result, many no longer know our neighbours, and it's hard to see neighbourhoods thrive when that is the case.

Equally, there's the phenomenon some call "digital amnesia", whereby some among us at least partly confect or curate an online persona, or one that appeals or compares well. Or, as one single mum said to me, am I the only unhappy person on Facebook?

Of course she's not, but her comment highlights the isolation and self doubt many experience in the digital domain, and that can fuel poor wellbeing. I've heard shocking stories of young women who ask their Instagram followers to vote on different possible outfits for school mufti days; I've seen data showing hospitalisation of young women for self-harming up by 50 percent in the past 15 years.

Then, there's the matter of Internet content itself, ranging from cesspool to Sistine Chapel. We see new technology-enabled addictions arising, such as online gambling or pornography, at the same time that there's never been as many sites and apps providing information and services about emotional and mental health and well-being.

Watch a group of young blokes at a pub on a Friday night and you'll sadly see someone losing that week's pay cheque on punts on their smartphone. At the same time, service providers know from site visit data that young people in particular look to the Internet for guidance when they need it.

Moreover, Internet information about emotional and mental health is clearly part of it being increasingly okay to talk about one's own issues, and okay to get help. At the same time, there's a tendency in some pop-generated content to wrongly mythologise permanent happiness while not acknowledging the inevitable realities of anxiousness, sadness, grief and other not-so-comfortable emotions. That's just somebody in the self-help industry making themselves happy and wealthy at the expense of those ultimately seeking compassion and listening.

Worryingly, research studies about online content regarding the topic of suicide indicate that negative, destructive and explicit suicide-related content dominates content that offers help, hope and prevention of suicide.

So then, what to make of this two-edge digital sword? For mine, technology is neutral, but we shouldn't be. We should harness the digital world for the good of our emotional world. We need to have "care-ware" to match software and hardware -- or a greater mindfulness about our usage of the Internet and our devices.

Technology expert Alex Pang calls it "contemplative computing" and it can look like: checking in on how much time we and our loved ones spend online; examining if what we're consuming online is about our hopes or our hatreds; testing ourselves to lead daily life without needing daily digital shares; having at least one or two good friends to personally talk to rather than thousands of Facebook friends to play with, or; taking a weekly "digital Sabbath". And, if we are in crisis, seeking out the services and sites of organisations who have been and would be helping even if the Internet was somehow unplugged.

And, because online won't go offline anytime soon, we also need public policy that recognises the role of technology, including that of compassionate crisis tele-web lines, in promoting wellbeing.

So, by now you've probably scrolled to the bottom of the screen, and there's no worries with that. There's no rolling the digital clock back on the 21st century. But maybe have a good chat with your barista -- or your spouse, your kid, or your workmate -- too.

It could do you both some good.


For 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit

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