Saturday 31 January 2015

Virtual insanity: Cyberpsychology and online obsession

Tanya Sweeney investigates the field of cyberpsychology and discovers how our personalities are being reshaped by our online obsession

People's fondness for digitally manipulating their own lives has a very real effect offline
People's fondness for digitally manipulating their own lives has a very real effect offline
Mary Aitken and Ciaran McMahon

It's not every day that Hollywood – specifically, TV giant Jerry Bruckheimer – comes knocking to make a TV show based on one's workplace, but this is precisely what happened to Irishwoman Mary Aiken.

As the director of Dublin's RCSI CyberPsychology Research Centre, Aiken has inspired a 'CSI' spin off, entitled 'CSI:Cyber'. The series, which has just been greenlit, stars Patricia Arquette as Avery Ryan, a special agent at the Cyber Crime Division of the FBI. According to the 'Hollywood Reporter', Ryan and her team will be tasked with solving high-octane crimes that "start in the mind, live online, and play out into the real world".

Speaking of her involvement in the show, Aiken explains: "I was contacted and interviewed by CBS Television Studios, who then set up a meeting with Bruckheimer Television, and the original 'CSI' franchise team Carol Mendelsohn, Ann Donahue and Anthony Zuiker.

"The character is inspired by my work as a cyberpsychologist, so it's a great platform to introduce cyberpsychology to a wider audience."

Scratch the surface of experts working away on computers in Dublin's RCSI CyberPsychology Research Centre, and you find that the team – often working in tandem with the likes of INTERPOL, an Garda Siochana and even the White House – is very much at the coalface of a highly innovative and dynamic field. And while the centre's main concern is to study the impact of emerging technology on human behaviour, there appears to be another objective at the centre: figuring out how to make the internet not just a safer, but a better place.

By its very nature, cyberpsychology is hugely exciting: in the late nineties, scientists predicted that the world would have 'an electronic skin', and that people would frequent cyberspace as much as, if not more than, the real world. And so it has come to pass.

"Your average smartphone has more processing power than the technology needed to put man on the moon," notes Aiken. "As we're using these smartphones as portals to another environment, we have to think of this space as a different place with different rules."

As disciplines go, cyberpsychology is a relatively new one – about 15 years old. It emerged when it became patently clear that the amount of time we spend online is having an impact on our behaviour.

"We look at 'real world' constructs and 'virtual world' constructs," explains Aiken. "On a social networking site, for instance, that's a very carefully managed version of oneself.

"Photographs are manipulated, and we have lots of friends. In terms of our area of study, we notice an increasing gap between the 'real world' and 'virtual self'. If the virtual self is overly edited and managed, you may get an increasing divide between the two. The 'real world self' may not be able to live up to the 'virtual self'."

Aiken concedes that people's fondness for digitally manipulating their own lives has a very real effect offline, not least because many people spend such little time away from their internet devices. She says: "There's an interesting statistic, Dunbar's number, that says that the optimum amount of relationships we can handle as humans is 150. On social networking, the average number of friends amassed ranges from 400 to 500, and over 1,000 in some cases. You need to spend time checking family, friends, colleagues; checking their news, liking people's posts – it's exhausting."

Predictably, other major research interests at the centre are child safety/welfare, the impact of technology on human trafficking and cyberbullying. The centre has recently launched a new cyberbullying initiative in schools: "We looked at the psychological theories out there and we came across the 'bystander effect'," says Dr Ciaran McMahon, research and development co-ordinator at the centre.

"Essentially, this theory implies that the more people that witness a crime, the less likely someone will intervene because of a diffusion of responsibility. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of being online, we've decided on a supportive campaign which empowers kids in a proactive and positive way concerning cyberbullying, entitled 'Be A Cyber-pal', as part of Internet Safety Day 2014."

Aiken offers an interesting posit about just how virulent and sinister cyberbullying can become for youngsters: "If the 'virtual self' is being bullied, and that's as good a version of yourself as you can be, and that's not considered good enough, what impact will that have on a person – on the 'real world self'?" she asks.

In Ireland, where online banter is particularly spirited, things become even more confusing: "If you're slagging someone to their face, and it's a very Irish trait, you can read it in their face, but if you're engaging in posts online, it can be hurtful if you can't read into it properly."

And so the question looms large: is the internet changing our personalities?

"It's very difficult to tease apart the influence of internet behaviour on society, without imagining what would happen if we didn't have the internet," says McMahon. "However, it's naïve to make an assumption that technology isn't in some way changing us."

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