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Virtual insanity: Cyberpsychology and 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

Mary Aitken and Ciaran McMahon


People's fondness for digitally manipulating their own lives has a very real effect offline

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'."

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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.

"This [creating an online persona] is something that people put a lot of time into," she adds. "And while your online self might be virtual, it's still very real."

McMahon says: "Some people might say, 'if you're being abused on Twitter, just log off', but that's quite a regressive way of looking at it. If your Facebook or Twitter is like a shop-front for the self, an attack can be as serious as a face-to-face attack."

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."

According to Aiken, the issue of child welfare online is a "much bigger debate waiting to break".

"In a real world context, everything is age graded, and there's some aspect of protection there," says Aiken. "Online, children can access legal adult pornography, self-harm, pro-ana [anorexia] and gambling sites. The impact of pornography on youth behaviour is an area that is under-researched and requires immediate attention."

As to the question of how they research groups of internet users, Aiken and McMahon explain that online surveys and virtual focus groups – created via chat rooms and web forums – provide many of the answers to the questions they're asking.

"If you want to talk to youths about risk-taking online, for instance, you want the person to replicate the mindset they have when they are immersed in technology," says Aiken. "Also, as Professor John Suler [one of the founding fathers of cyberpsychology] has noted, there's a phenomenon called 'online disinhibition', where you do things in a virtual context you'd never do in the real world."

In his book 'Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality', Stanford University psychiatrist Dr Elias Aboujaoude has pinpointed this new phenomenon, where the internet brings out different aspects of our personality.

"Our e-personalities are an uninhibited version of who we are, a collection of personality traits that make us more childlike, impulsive, darker and narcissistic," he says. "This distorted version of who we are doesn't just stay online; it seeps into our real lives, too".

As to the reasons that someone's e-personality might not be to our liking (even though we like them in real life), he adds: "We might not like one's e-personality because it clashes with what we think is their 'real' personality.

"This can be unsettling and can leave us quite confused. We think we know the person, but then they start behaving online in uncharacteristic, embarrassing, or disinhibited ways.

"The old rules and expectations that governed our offline relationship with them don't apply anymore, and that can be enough for us to start disliking the person.

"Online, rather unpleasant personality traits surface. We often become less mature, more narcissistic and less moral.

"These unattractive traits that people take on in cyberspace can make them more irritating and less fun to be around".

According to Dr Aboujaoude, the veil of anonymity – not to mention a lack of filter – helps the dark underside of people's personalities emerge online.

"Invisibility also plays a role," he says. "If you can't see the person, even if you know well who it is, you are more likely to act in a disrespectful way toward them. Moreover, the lack of any true hierarchy online – such as hierarchy between teacher and student or parent and child – makes it possible for us to think of ourselves as absolutely equal in every way to people that in real life we would normally defer to.

"Instead, the perfect democracy online makes for a free-for-all jungle that unleashes all sorts of traits that normally would be kept under control".

Will it ever come to a point where we as internet users will avail of therapy for our troubled 'online selves', just as we might for our 'real world' selves?

"Online therapy, also known as e-therapy, tele-mental health or cybercounselling, is a relatively new development in mental health in which a therapist provides cyber facilitated psychological advice and support," explains Aiken. "Some therapists simply supplement their in-person practices with email or text conversations, others conduct therapy as avatars [a graphical representation of the user].

"Many professionals believe that online therapy cannot be considered as psychotherapy, and should never replace traditional therapy," she adds. "However, others view cyberpsychotherapy as an extension of our 21st-Century lives.

"Some psychometric tests could be administered online – however most agree that therapists cannot diagnose or treat mental illness online. E-therapy has limitations, but it is quickly becoming an important resource for a growing number of consumers.

"E-therapy does offer mental health professionals another way of providing services to clients, especially patients who are too busy to travel to appointments, separated from the therapist by distance, or suffering from social anxiety which may otherwise impede seeking of treatment.

"Professor John Suler, who is affiliated to our RCSI CyberPsychology Research Centre, has pioneered this research area and has raised understanding of the internet as a psychological space with unique features, such as the disinhibition effect, anonymity, invisibility and dissociative imagination," she adds.

"In terms of our troubled 'online self' versus our 'real world' self, Suler points out that different aspects of people's personalities will come out online, such as areas they want to explore or personal details they may not be comfortable revealing face-to-face.

"The disinhibition effect of non face-to-face communication may enable many people to share more, be more personal and open, and to have a greater potential to benefit from psychotherapy."

Whatever the future may hold, it's certain that cyberpsychology is set to become omnipresent in our everyday lives.

"The next generation will be a very technology influenced generation, as we'll have 'pervasive computing' in our homes by then," says McMahon. "Restaurants will be using iPads as menus, and each appliance in the house will run off a computer. There will be much more of a sense that we're immersed in computers and being connected everywhere. The shift in the way we see each other will be immense."

For more information on the RCSI CyberPsychology Research Centre at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, log onto cypsy.com.

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