Thursday 14 September 2023
Thank you Professor Saunders for that kind welcome.
I welcome you all to the Australian Parliament, the place where we do our best to tackle societal problems and build prosperity in all aspects of public policy.
I recognise my colleagues in the room, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Sussan Ley, Shadow Minister for Industry, Skills and Training, Shadow Communications Minister, David Coleman and Shadow Assistant Minister for Education, Nola Marino – who has a real and deep expertise in this area, working in the cyber and ICT security space with young people all across her vast electorate in Western Australia.
My name is Zoe McKenzie, I am the Member for Flinders which encompasses the glorious Mornington Peninsula in Victoria.
I am but a humble backbencher in this austere place, but one who is passionate about technology – the good, the bad and the ugly of technology – and its impact on current and future generations.
I pursue that interest through myriad processes and opportunities in this place, but most assiduously through my participation in the House of Representatives Standing Committees on Employment Education and Training and separately Communications and the Arts.
I also am Secretary of both Coalition Policy committees in that space.
But my interest in this topic came largely from two experiences I brought with me into this place. First, as a Director of the National Broadband Network, and second – as the step-parent of three teenage children through the dark days of lockdown in Victoria, which gave me much greater insight into my children, and their friends’, use of technology, as well as the impact it had on their learning and wellbeing, their education, and indeed, on the young adults they are becoming today.
On the NBN Board I was the sole director with teenage children. And as such, I viewed the product: ubiquitous high speed internet into every home, business and campus – through very different eyes.
Like so many parents over lockdown, I watched my reasonably rigid regulation of the internet use in our household get blown to smithereens.
My mastery of mesh systems became worthless, when the digital drug was not just introduced to the lounge and the dining room, but compelled to be there in the pursuit of the kids education and some semblance of a social life.
Our home, like I suspect all others in Australia, has never been the same again.
I spoke about that experience in my Maiden Speech to this place last September.
And, as I am a bit of a girly swat, I did a tonne of research – about education systems’ approach to screens in schooling, about brain development when exposed and indeed over-exposed, to screen-time. I spoke to people all round the world, and in doing so, found a handful of patient and yet determined experts and practitioners close to home.
A month or so before I got to my feet for that first speech, I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald which referred to the 2017 identified “Internet Gaming Disorder”, and hazardous or problematic use of the internet. That article by journalist Jordan Baker referred to “seven experts, ranging from university academics to child psychologists and physiatrists, [who were] signing a joint statement calling on more engagement from governments.”
The joint statement went on:
“These issues affect tens of thousands of Australian children and teens, and there needs to be a coordinated response to better support public education, research, and treatment options for affected families.
Speaking constructively with specialist clinicians and researchers in the field would be a good place to start.”
A day or two thereafter, I reached out to Brad Marshall – who despite being one of the busiest child psychologists in Australia – made time to talk me through what he was seeing among young Australians.
Brad faces up daily to what I might call the ugly side of technology in the simplest sense – the impacts of just too much technology – when the tech tools have gone from teacher, friend-funnel, entertainer or simple time-waster, to an addiction from which parents struggle to retrieve their kids.
I said to Brad, “you called on policy makers to speak with specialist clinicians and researchers, so lets get started: where and when?”
And today, we are here.
Last year, there was a flurry of excitement in many schools systems about the banning of the phone from the school campus. There were promises made in State elections: no more phones in the class room. As parents, we murmured a quiet ‘hurrah’ in the home our kids propensity for deferred gratification, boredom, patience and planning, and heaven forbid, concentration, would return. Only for someone to invent ChatGPT last November, and throw the whole OxyContin of technology back on the dinner table.
In my House of Representative Education Committee, we are looking at the impact of generative AI, and specifically Large Language Models AI, on all aspects of education – from cradle to grave.
It is not impossible that in a year or two, each child will have their own AI LLM teacher avatar, just imagine: Terry the Teacher – who lives in your iPad, speaks your language, understands your culture, treats you like a friend, and can explain Pythagoras and Shakespeare in words, at a pace, each child can understand; who can open a child’s curiosity to new ideas, while making sure she or he also knows how to punctuate.
These models are already here, for those who can afford it.
One of the experts in the panel advising the Committee told us last week, estimated that somewhere between 50 and 80% of school students are already using generative AI in doing their homework, and that at last count, using ChatGPT 4 over ChatGPT 3, gives a student a 30% uplift in marks.
While this is exciting, what is also means, is that we have yet another reason to stuff the tech-toys in the hands of kids for yet another 8 hours a day. And while while we still use bring your own devices alt-tab is the difference between Terry the personalised AI Teacher, and YouTube, Instagram, Reddit, SnapChat, or even the Dark Web … we will continue to struggle to keep “tech-for-good” the key companion to our children’s upbringing.
Yesterday, I asked the Department of Education whether we had any data on the “right amount” of tech or screens in education – do we know how many hours a day that should be? How will we manage that in a generative AI world?
And, at what age do we bring it in? Remember, as kids we were only allowed to use the calculator after we had mastered mathematics? Now we put iPhones in the hands of 2 year olds. We have so little understanding of what this does, and the impact we are having on brain development.
Which leads us to today.
When – a year ago – I asked Brad what he needed, he said, research funding and awareness. And so, I suggested we bring the brains trust to Canberra, and have a conversation. And here we are, having a conversation.
I thank you for trusting me to come and be heard, not just by Members of Parliament, but by members of the public and the Australian media who share this building with us. I know it is not just today, and that separately you have been having meetings with MPs and others while you are here. I hope this helps develop your mission and the critical work you have been doing for years in this space.
I wish you well in your deliberations today, and I hope I can continue to be of help. We need your wisdom and advice today, more than when I raised it in the Parliament almost a year ago.