Bridging the Digital Divide in Australia: The Potential Implications for the Mental Health of Young People Experiencing Marginalisation

Bridging the Digital Divide in Australia: The Potential Implications for the Mental Health of Young People Experiencing Marginalisation

Jane Burns, Michelle Blanchard, Atari Metcalf
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-699-0.ch006
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The rapid uptake of technology offers potentially innovative approaches to promoting mental health amongst young people, addressing a significant public health challenge. The advent of Web 2.0 has seen a shift from text heavy content to the development of communities that foster connectivity. This area of research, its potential to engage young people at risk of isolation, and the mental health benefits it may have, has received little attention. This chapter considers evidence regarding technology’s role in mental health promotion, particularly for marginalized young people. Results are presented from an Australian study, “Bridging the Digital Divide,” which investigated technology access and utilization by young people experiencing marginalization. Finally, Australian policy regarding the digital divide and Internet safety is reviewed. The authors conclude that policy responses should move beyond just access and safety and explore innovative ways of ensuring safe and supportive online communities accessible for all young people.
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In Australia, 90% of 18 to 24 year olds and 92% of 15 to 17 year olds have used the internet (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007), while 88% of 15-25 year olds own a mobile phone (Department of Communications Information Technology and the Arts, 2005). The impact of information communication technologies (ICT) and the role they play in young people’s everyday lives has been fiercely debated in international academia, the general community and the popular press. Take for example the internet: on one hand it has been described as “Cyberia” a virtual wasteland that young people navigate without rules or regulations; a catalyst for bullying, suicide, and anti-social behaviours, including internet addiction (Ha et al., 2007; Mitchell et al., 2007; Tam et al., 2007). On the other, it has been touted as a new community with potential to connect those experiencing isolation and marginalisation and as a tool that has the capacity to redefine the practice of relationships and diversify social interactions (Rideout, 2002; Valentine & Holloway, 2002).

Despite the debate regarding the influence of technology on society and its potential harmful effects on the wellbeing of young people there is no denying that the internet is a dynamic evolving platform. Research exploring its capacity to engage with young people, particularly those who may be vulnerable or at risk of exclusion suggests:

  • young people feel empowered online and are provided a degree of anonymity which means they are more confident talking about sensitive or embarrassing issues, including mental and sexual health (Burns et al., 2007; Nicholas et al., 2004; Suzuki & Calzo, 2004; Valentine & Holloway, 2001);

  • the internet is accessible, anonymous, engaging, and informative and its interactivity allows the delivery of information, health interventions and services in a variety of formats. including traditional text based content, testimonials and fact sheets, both audio and visual podcasts, digital photography and storytelling, gaming, online forums and diagnostic screening with direct links to service providers, ssee for example (Burns et al., 2007; Baranowski et al., 2008; Christensen & Griffiths, 2000);

  • the advent of ‘Web 2.0’ has blurred the boundaries of consumer and producer, enabling individuals to create and publish content themselves through applications such as wikis, blogs, social tagging and networking, aggregative content management and pod/vod-casting (Boulos and Wheelert, 2007); and,

  • open programming interfaces facilitate greater levels of flexibility, agency and democracy, thereby enabling new forms of social organisation while participatory content generation fosters increased collaboration, ownership, and empowerment (Christensen et al., 2002, Crespo, 2007, Wyn et al., 2005, Boulos and Wheelert, 2007, Lefebvre, 2007).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Web 2.0: The term ‘web 2.0’ is used to describe the second incarnation of the World Wide Web. Web 2.0 is also called ‘social Web’ since it is characterized by new applications that enable online activities and user-generated content that was not previously possible. Interestingly, Web 2.0 has been likened to the original purpose of the internet - to share ideas and promote discussion within a scientific community. Web 2.0 has also increased online social interaction through the emergence of wikis, blogs and podcasts. It has been described as a more human approach to interactivity online as it better supports group interaction and is particularly effective in mobilising online communities

Social networking sites (e.g.,, As the name suggests, these focus on building online social networks for communities of people who share interests and activities. Often social networking websites contain directories of some categories (such as classmates), means to connect with friends (usually with self-description pages), and recommender systems (allowing users to search for others with similar interests). Generally, social networking websites such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo, allow users to create a profile for themselves. Users can upload a photo and become “friends” with other users. In most cases, both users must confirm that they are friends before they are linked. Some social networking sites also have a “favourites” feature that does not need approval from the other user that displays a list of ‘top friends’ on the user’s profile page. Social networks usually have privacy controls that allow the user to choose who can view their profile or contact them. Additionally, users can create or join groups around common interests or affiliations, upload videos, and hold discussions in forums.

Media sharing websites (e.g. and YouTube is a video sharing website where users can upload view and share video clips. Similarly, Flickr is a photo sharing website that allows users to share personal photographs. Both of these websites incorporate ‘tagging’ technology. Tags are essentially descriptive key words (or metadata) which users assign to media. This allows media to be categorised (and browsed) into what’s called ‘folksonomies’.

Social bookmarking, collaborative tagging (folksonomies) and tag clouds: Social bookmarking involves categorising resources by informally assigned, user-defined keywords, known as tags’. Social bookmarking services enable users to collect and annotate (tag) their favourite web links in an online, open environment, so that they can be shared with others.

Information Communication Technology (ICT): ICT is an umbrella term used to describe information technology (IT) (such as computer hardware and software) and telecommunications (including the internet and mobile and landline phones). While the exact definition is subject to debate, some practitioners in the arts sector also use this term to describe creative technologies such as digital photography, music and film making equipment.

Blogs (e.g. Blogs are websites that are much like diaries or journals in which the blog owner regularly posts entries. The word “blog” can also be used as a verb, meaning ‘’to maintain or add content to. Some blogs provide commentary or news on a particular subject; others function as personal online diaries. They often combine text, images, and links to other blogs, web pages, or online media. Many also have the ability for readers to leave comments. While most blogs are primarily text based, there are emerging trends toward photo-blogging, video-blogging (vlogs), and audio (podcasting). Micro-blogging is also gaining popularity. This involves blogs with very short posts (often entered from mobile phones).

Virtual worlds (e.g. SecondLife and Habbo Hotel): These are online simulated environments that allow users to interact via avatars. Avatars are ‘web based representations’ of a user that generally take the form of 2D or 3D graphical characters that users can customise. ‘Virtual worlds’ are often based on the ‘real world’ and generally combine the concept of chat rooms and ‘massively multiplayer online games’ (see below). Some virtual worlds require users to download and install software whereas others can be accessed from within an internet Browser.

Instant messaging (IM e.g. MSN Messenger): Instant messaging (IM) is a form of real-time communication between two or more people based on typed text (although some applications support communicating through web cams and/or voice over internet). Earlier forms of IM often involved users logging on to web based chat rooms and the use of IRC (Internet Relay Chat) software. Although some young people still use these, the use of IM software such as MSN Messenger appears to be most popular. MSN Messenger requires users to register an account (in which they give themselves an alias or ‘handle’) as well as the installation of free software. Most IM applications allow the user to set an online status or away message so peers are notified when the user is available, busy, or away from the computer. Instant messages are typically logged in a local message history, thus allowing conversations to be saved for later reference. Additionally, users can often adjust privacy settings and ‘block’ other users from being able to message them.

Digital Storytelling: Digital storytelling is a relatively new practice in which individuals tell their own stories (often about life experiences) using ‘moving’ images and sound. Digital stories are usually short (2-5 minutes) and often consist of a narrated piece of personal writing, a soundtrack, photos, still images, and/or video footage. They are produced using simple software (that often comes standard with most computers) such as Windows Movie Maker or iMovie, and therefore enable individuals who may not have a technical background to produce creative works. These kinds of software are capable of animating still images and photos to add movement and depth.

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