The future of our children vs Big Tech

By Matt Berriman
May 24 2024 - 5:30am

For over a decade now, I've said social media will in time be seen as the new big tobacco, but worse.

The social media platforms have lobbyists, spend more per capita on defending their profits and trample over all societal norms to put profits ahead of people's safety. After accepting the role as Chair of Mental Health Australia in late 2021, I appeared at a Senate committee examining big tech and social media harm. I was there at the invitation of then minister for mental health and suicide prevention David Coleman.

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It was clear to us, and the committee agreed, that we needed age restrictions. For there to be, as I said, "no harm or further harm", significant policies would be needed, especially after the Wall Street Journal exposed shocking, disgusting practices at Meta, whose products were working to harm teens, including leading to self-harm and eating disorders, in the pursuit of profits.

In the nearly three years as chair, our calls for action restrict young people's access to social media fell on deaf ears. When you understand the media landscape that intersects with social media algorithms, it would take a brave crossbench and government to take on such an issue. It can swing votes.

But now it seems the tide it turning towards action, and I thank all sides of government and the media outlets, including News Corp, Nine News, ACM, ABC, Seven Group and other outlets who all backed it.

I'm pleased that after seeing media leadership on the issue of holding big tech companies to account, there is finally a bipartisan response that puts people over politics.

I'm sure Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Sundar at Google only worry to a small degree as Australia is just a small market for them. But the profits derived from Australia as an ARPU (average revenue per user) are the highest in the world. The taxes they avoid paying (thanks to some consulting firms assisting that process) mean they pull billions of free cash flow from our families, all at the expense of children's health.

Our kids need protecting from the dark intentions of social media giants trying to make profits. Picture Shutterstock
Our kids need protecting from the dark intentions of social media giants trying to make profits. Picture Shutterstock

That must stop now, as must their stripping of media content for free, whether through news or AI, which is another issue that needs addressing. It's time all media companies looked at these global platforms as their competitors, not their peers. Having close relationships and discussions with many of their leaders, I can see this becoming a reality.

As a priority to lead the world in how we protect our country, there are a few simple initiatives all sides of politics and business (other than the platforms) need to agree:

  1. Put the protection of children and the support of their parents at the forefront of decision-making (it'll save health costs and mental health, suicide and many other addiction-led issues as a result)
  2. Collect and mandate tax on revenue. Profit is a cross-border price transferring issue, which means no taxes to the people who create the revenue and profit for them. We wouldn't let other industries do this, so it's time to tax the top line.
  3. A system of fines to ensure any harm or further harm has substantial business costs to Big Tech. It's the only way for them to change their practices. If they don't want to play by the rules in Australia, they should go somewhere else. Smart entrepreneurs will create products to fill the void. ACCC and the E-safety commission need to stand up and be counted.
  4. We need all government in both houses to finally take a bipartisan position, and this isn't a time for vote hunting into the next election. The country will respect our politicians if they do.

Our future for generations depends on it. For our children, nephews, nieces, grandchildren and a country that deserves a safe future for all.

  • Matt Berriman is the former chair of Mental Health Australia.