Friday 23 March 2018

Mary, Queen of Cyberspace - the dangers the Internet poses to children

Mary Aiken tells Barry Egan about the dangers the Internet poses to children and adults alike - plus Tinder, Facebook, and how she deals with fame since CSI based Avery Ryan on her

Mary Aiken is probably the world's most famous cyber-psychologist
Mary Aiken is probably the world's most famous cyber-psychologist

I've known Dr Mary Aiken for over 20 years. She doesn't let a thought rest easily, if at all. She is quick to be absorbed with stuff deep, deep inside her head. Then, when it comes out, it does so in a Niagara Falls-esque torrent of ideas, beliefs, emotions and feelings.

The young woman who left UCD with a psychology degree back in the day, is now the world's foremost cyber-psychologist.

I've been in her house - and she in mine - a fair few times over the years; so it is good to have the world's top cyber-psychologist on speed dial. I had dinner with her and a gang of friends last month in Ballsbridge, where she told me all about her imminent new book The Cyber Effect.

Then, apropos of its release last weekend, we spoke a few hours before Mary boarded a plane to New York last Sunday - she had been on Saturday Night with Miriam the night before - to be interviewed on CBS Good Morning with Charlie Rose, followed by the state-side launch of the book in Manhattan last Tuesday.

Yet as the plane roared skyward for America last Sunday lunchtime with beautiful blonde Mary (she'll probably go through me for a short-cut the next time we meet for being reductive by referring to her as 'blonde' and 'beautiful') on board, my interview tape had very little personal details on it about the woman I've known two decades-plus.

The author of The Cyber Effect is a closed book when it comes to her private life.

It is something in itself that special agent Avery Ryan in American television drama CSI: Cyber, played by Patricia Arquette, is based on our very own Mary Aiken.

As it is something in itself that Mary is doing fancy pants, big network shows in America, writing for Time and getting reviewed in publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times. The publishing rights to The Cyber Effect have already been sold worldwide - in the next year Mary's book tour will take her from South Africa to New Zealand, China to the Middle East.

Despite it all, Mary remains, implacably earthed, implacably herself. Ask the Irish woman whom The Daily Telegraph dubbed 'The real-life spook behind CSI: Cyber' about her global media celebrity and she just laughs."Fame? At the end of the day it's not really about me. It's about my work, my research and my discipline of cyberpsychology, a cutting-edge science, a new research frontier which can help to illuminate that intersection between humans and technology, or as law enforcement say - where humans and technology collide!"

Mary's career is quite a collision: a Professor at the Geary Institute, University College Dublin, as well as a lecturer in Criminology and Research Fellow at the School of Law, Middlesex University, she advises international law enforcement bodies like Europol, the FBI, Scotland Yard, London's Metropolitan Police and the LAPD (among others) and governments (the US government among them) on cybercrime, virtual behavioural profiling, human trafficking, child-protection and other dark issues lurking in the furthermost edges of the Internet.

In 2013, Mary was invited by the Obama administration to head up a White House research team focused on tackling technology-facilitated human-trafficking. She worked on the project for over a year with network scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This project came to the attention of CBS, who got Mary involved in the pilot for the show CSI: Cyber.

The Washington Post wrote in their review of The Cyber Effect that Mary's job is to be armed with facts, evidence and insights about potential risks.

"So I can be prepared for the worst-case scenario," writes Mary in the book. "As we say in risk assessment, 'Start at the apocalypse and work back.' "

I ask her what are the risks. Addiction, then mental illness of varying degrees and types where people's inclination to engage with the real world is not only exponentially reduced but eventually gone?

"Unfortunately, we cannot eliminate risk. It exists in the so-called 'real world 'and in cyberspace.'"

"We can, however, mitigate against risk, that is take measures to moderate or reduce risk - the way we do that is by understanding what the risks are," she says.

"I have been involved in a dozen different research silos from cyber babies to sexting teens, cyberchondria to organised cybercrime.

"The one thing I have observed is that whenever humans come into contact with technology, behaviour tends to be amplified and escalated," Mary says. referring to positive ways (altruism online, donating to charities) and negative ways (trolling.)

"I call this phenomenon The Cyber Effect. There are too many examples of risk to list as we speak, but I do cover a wide range of negative aspects of technology in my book."

How has the internet almost rewired our brains? We'll ignore our baby's gaze or our child's needs to fixate on our screens. As you write, our devices "are so compelling that they can overwhelm basic human instincts."

"Yes," says Mary, who is a wife and mother. "I describe it as an evolutionary blip - in terms of evolution, babies faces are designed to be the most compelling and engaging thing on the planet - that is until the advent of the smartphone. The average adult checks their phone over 200 times a day, and if you are a parent or caregiver of a young child that is 200 times that you have not looked at them."

The Guardian in its review of The Cyber Effect noted that Mary was 'worryingly persuasive about the potential damage to children of a life online.'

In the book, Mary writes that "there are windows in the formative years when very specific skills need to be learned. When those developmental windows close, a child may be developmentally or emotionally crippled for life."

Mary says now that she is "particularly concerned about infants and young children; those involved in education, school-teachers and primary school administrators are beginning to report a higher incidence of developmental delay in children entering school. This is a worrying development."

Mary adds that the Association of Teachers And Lecturers in Britain have reported an escalation of problems associated with pervasive tablet use among pre- school-age children - "including developmental delays in attention span, fine motor skills and dexterity, speaking, and socialisation- as well as an increase in aggressive and anti-social behaviour, obesity, and tiredness."

What kind of adults will these emotionally crippled children grow into?

"Babies need eye contact," Mary answers. "There is no study of early childhood development that doesn't support this. By experiencing a parent's facial expressions - they bond, thrive and develop.

"This is how emotional attachment style is learned. A baby's emotional template, or attachment style, is created by the baby's earliest experiences with parents and caregivers. When a good secure attachment is formed the infant has a much better chance at becoming a confident and self-possessed individual who is able to easily interact with others."

Mary also writes in her compelling new book that the Internet "is clearly, unmistakably, and emphatically an adult environment. It simply wasn't designed for children."

So why are they there? I ask her.

"It's a good question. The Internet is a great invention in terms of connectivity, creativity and access to information, but it is an adult environment, we need to do more for families-we need to stop expecting parents to paddle their own canoes in cyberspace. Children need government protection in cyberspace," she says, "Just as they are protected in real life, in the real world we have a shallow end of the swimming pool for children. The question is: where is the shallow end of the pool on the Internet?

" I describe the prevailing attitude as 'the elephant in the cyber room'. It's a form of societal cognitive dissonance, that is knowing intuitively that something, like the Internet, is both good and bad for society-but choosing to ignore the bad effects in order not to feel conflicted."

She feels that social media sites should be doing more. She says that they should actively uphold their own rules that no one under the stipulated usage age should be on them. Mary also feels that grown-ups should be protected from themselves on online dating, primarily because our instincts for appraising mates, pals and trustworthy others are visceral - "designed by nature for face-to-face, embodied interaction in a physical environment. They fail to pick up signals when we meet in the cyber-realm.

"Our instincts are honed for the real world," Mary explains, citing as an example when it comes to meeting someone or dating that we make judgements based on real-world cues-facial expressions, posture, dress, body language, smell, tone, but online is a "lean medium. People can engage in what cyberpsychologists describe as hyperpersonal interaction, the over sharing of information - and too much self-disclosure", says Mary, the Queen of Too Little Self-Disclosure. "It's a little like 'stranger on the train syndrome'; it can be easy to disclose a lot of personal information to a stranger."

I ask her to tell me about what she calls the big disconnect between who people are in real life and who they are online.

"On a dating site, it isn't even two 'real' selves who are trying to meet and mate, but two 'virtual' selves - two cyber artefacts, self-consciously constructed and curated for a particular effect. Authenticity is sorely missing."

She cites the late Princess Diana as once saying of her marriage that it was "a bit crowded" because there were three people in it.

Asked why is she pessimistic about allowing artificial intelligence into the equation when it comes to selecting a mate, Mary explains that the process of swiping right for approval, and learning that your own image has been swiped right by someone else, has been described as 'addictive' and even rewarding on a neurological level.

"Tinder's secret ranking algorithm-although they call it a 'desirability score' -is a form of feedback loop. While sophisticated and exotic, it is basically ranking your cyber self - that carefully and consciously curated, filtered, Photoshopped, and otherwise enhanced self that many people now use online. Almost anyone can achieve supermodel levels of beauty in cyber-space, particularly in a photo that captures only one quarter of the face."

Mary also cites the Canadian clinical psychologist Michael Seto who summed up the impact of technology thus: "We are living through the largest unregulated social experiment of all time - a generation of youth who have been exposed to extreme content online."

What will happen to this generation over time? What will be the impact in terms of exposure to the harsher and bleaker aspects of the Internet?

"That's too big a question to answer here," Mary says.

Does she tweet?

"Not very often - and only relating to university work - such as academic conferences or research findings. I will be tweeting a little more now that my book is just published. I just don't find it that attractive as a platform."

Is Mary anti-technology?

"I am absolutely pro-technology!" she protests, "As a cyberpsychologist I could not do my job without it. I believe the answers to most technology- facilitated problem behaviour lies in technology solutions. We should remember that technology in itself is not good or bad. It is either used well or poorly by humans."

The Cyber Effect by Dr Mary Aiken, priced £14.99, is published by John Murray Press,

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