News Analysis

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Our children are spending a lot of their time in cyberspace – we have to make it safe for them

Mary Aiken

Published 15/04/2014 | 02:30

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"We are living through one of the largest unregulated social experiments of all time"

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These are the words of Michael Seto, a leading forensic psychologist, referring to the potential impact of online material on young people's psychological development. Can we assume this will be a positive experience?

Children worldwide are now online at a very young age, and are increasingly immersed in cyber environments. For example, a recent UK report highlighted that 28pc of three to four-year-olds now use tablet computers.

In South Korea it was found that 93pc of three to nine-year-olds go online for an average of eight to nine hours a week. In the US 25pc of three-year-olds go online daily, rising to nearly 70pc by age eight, in Australia 79pc of five to eight-year- olds go online, and in Ireland 63pc of children report using the internet several times a day.

The results of these studies pose an important question: who is responsible for protecting the developing child in an age of rapid technological change?

Traditionally parents are designated as being primarily responsible for child welfare and protection. However, in an age of ever-pervasive technologies, and sophisticated access routes and devices, is it really fair to expect parents to shoulder most of the responsibility?

We don't expect parents of young teenagers to guard the entrances to public houses and off-licences, or man the cigarette counter in newsagents: as a society we recognise the collective responsibility for creating an appropriate environment in which to raise children.

The word environment is key, because technology is so often viewed as simply just another communication medium, an evolution of the telegraph or telephone: as cyberpsychologists we disagree. When children have their smartphones in their pockets 24/7 this is no longer simply communicating, but living online.

Our role is to deliver insight at the intersection of technology and human behaviour, in this case the intersection of technology and the child. Online and offline are generational constructs – children nowadays are "always on". Our studies support that youth can consider cyberspace as an environment, somewhere to go and hang out. Even cyber descriptions, domain, chat room, forum etc imply a sense of place.

It's important to recognise that 'real world' and 'virtual world' behaviours can be very different. Professor John Suler highlights that the online disinhibition effect has an impact on behaviour in cyberspace.

He argues that child (and adult) behaviour in virtual environments can be very different to real world behaviours, and this may explain some risk-taking activities online.

Online disinhibition may be compounded by what Suler describes as the "minimisation of status and authority online" in other words, in a real world environment you have older brothers and sisters, parents, relatives, care-givers, neighbours, teachers, policeman and so on, however in cyberspace it can appear that nobody is in charge.

The figures outlining the access to the Internet by very young children support what we already know, and that is, that children have embraced new technologies with great enthusiasm. While the internet provides excellent opportunities for children to be creative, learn, communicate and socialise, it also poses risks.

Some of these risks are apparent such as cyberbullying, and some have not yet been fully investigated.

In the real world, parents and caregivers decide what is suitable for children, but in cyberspace artificial intelligence seems to be in charge.

From the point at which a child logs on, they are in fact interacting with algorithms, from search, to gaming, to social networking.

To be fair to the algorithm, it cannot verify that it is dealing with a child, and this is where perhaps we should consider the ethical implications of this transaction. In fact, there are many ethical issues to be explored concerning the impact of technology on the child.

Psychologists would of course agree that exploration is a healthy and necessary part of the developmental process, however age is very important, 'child' can refer to anybody under the age of 18; 'teen' can vary from 13 to 19. The point is that age is critical in terms of an 'age-appropriate experience' in an online environment. There is very little research and debate regarding the societal impact of machine intelligence on vulnerable populations.

The last 30 years has seen an explosion in the development of information technology, to the point where the younger generation, in particular, spends a lot of its waking life in this new space, in 'cyberspace'.

It is important that this entirely new environment be examined scientifically both to maximise its potential benefits, and to avoid potential risk or harm.

A generation of children have now grown up in a time of unprecedented advances in technology, and only longitudinal studies will provide evidence of any possible impact – but do we really need to wait for evidence? Or can common sense prevail? Children and young people need safe spaces online.

Last night at the TCD Long Room Hub Cyber Ethics debate, I discussed the impact of technology on the developing child, Dr Conor McGuckin, assistant professor in education in Trinity, discussed cyber-bullying focused on how to help children, adults, and educators 'cope' with the both positive and negative issues that new technology brings, and Dr Eoin O'Dell, associate professor in Law at Trinity, talked about the significant challenges the internet poses for our legal, philosophical and ethical conceptions of privacy.

Ultimately an inter-disciplinary approach is needed to address these issues; psychologists, sociologists, legal experts and computer scientists working together to create an optimum environment for children.

This does not necessarily mean turning the internet into a playground for children, or restricting adult freedom online. Rather a collective forum to create smart, workable and practical solutions – just as we do in the real world.

Last night's debate was part of the President Higgins Ethics initiative; the President has said that his would be a 'Presidency of ideas . . . recognising and open to new paradigms of thought and action . . . seeking to develop a public discourse that places. . . an ethic of active citizenship at its heart.'

As cyberpsychologists we are grateful for this opportunity to raise these important issues, and in particular we are interested in "active cyber citizenship" that is, how does an ethically aware society step up in an age of technology, and ensure the well-being and welfare of our younger citizens?

An old proverb reminds us that it "takes a village to raise a child" . . . this is also true in cyberspace.

MARY AIKEN, DIRECTOR OF THE RCSI CYBERPSYCHOLOGY RESEARCH CENTRE, IS A SENSEMAKING FELLOW AT THE US IBM NETWORK SCIENCE RESEARCH CENTRE. SHE IS ALSO AN OBSERVER TO THE INTERPOL GROUP ON CRIMES AGAINST CHILDREN.

Irish Independent

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