The Rise of Cyberpsychology

image of home workstation with pink lighting to determine what people notice first for the purposes of identifying what we observe in our environment from a cyberpsychology perspective

What Do You See?

When you look at the featured image, what do you see?

The magenta lighting? The Apple iMac? The non-Apple keyboard? The content on the screen? The picture of the couple at their wedding? The bust of the thumbs up? Or the cup with boobs?

I’ll wait while you go take a look, but it’s there.

You may have observed the items in the following order:

  1. The magenta lighting;
  2. The content on the screen (and that they’re all variations of purple);
  3. The Apple iMac;
  4. The iPhone;
  5. The keyboard;
  6. The Thumb;
  7. The picture;
  8. The cup.

There is of course a kids camera and a old-skool hi-fi, but did you notice them?

Maybe you didn’t notice any of those things. When I originally selected the image for this post, I didn’t notice all those details. I saw the colour, the screen and knew it could be connected with the content I had planned for this post.

Why discuss this? Well, quite simply what we notice is important. Our attention to detail can be crucial in some circumstances, but the specific reason for choosing this image was in what I could determine about you from what you noticed first.

The colour

Magenta is an important colour. While it relates to universal harmony and emotional balance, it also has a spiritual yet practical, encouraging common sense and a balanced outlook on life. It is also the colour of the non-conformist. It is spontaneous and impulsive, yet resourceful and organised. It is invaluable in negotiating peace and calm in those who are at odds with one another.

You may or may not agree with the psychology of colour, but it does help us to convey meaning. In this photo, there is a peace, calm and balance in the work area and an ongoing playful negotiation in the work-life balance of the owner

The Apple iMac

You are attracted to the overpriced equiopment. You understand intellectually that this device can complete your task just as competently as a mid-range PC, but where is the fun in that? These things are important to you because of the tribe you belong to, as they show outwardly your achievement in life and your affiliation in the Great Tech debate. You are happy to be able to show that you can afford the finer things, even if they are acknowledged to be over-priced and partially responsible for the plunder of the earths’ natural resources.

The content on the screen

You are attracted to details. You enjoy getting into a project and grappling with the finer details of what is required to be successful. Or you’re maybe just a bit nosey. Did you have permission to look at someone elses workscreen?

The iPhone

You are attracted to the status of the accessory. These are important to you, as they show outwardly your achievement in life to be. able to afford the finer things, even if they are acknowledged to be over-priced and partially responsible for the plunder of the earths’ natural resources.

The Thumb

You’re a positive person and this shows you are attracted to the positivity in others.

The couple in the picture

You are nosy.

The boobs.

This means you see boobs in places they shouldn’t be. Including my picture. Go look again, they’re noses.

I’m only kidding – but did you go look?

OK, so that was just a bit of fun. There will be no need to troll me in the comments, but underneath the joking, there is a serious aspect that we can learn from – the details we pay attention to, and how we interact with the technology around us.

So What Is

Cyberpsychology?

How our behaviour and psychological states can be affected by technologies.

How we develop technology to best fit our requirements and desires.

How we interact with others when we use technology (and if it changes over time)

So What is the Long Answer to "What is Cyberpsychology?"

To bring together the three statements above, cyberpsychology is the psychological study of online behaviour. It is “concerned with the psychological effects and implications of computer and online technologies such as the Internet and virtual reality, (Widman, 2018) and “it’s about how and why people interact online in the ways they do,” (Baxter, 2018).

So cyberpsychology is about how we interact with technology (the physical sitting in front of a computer); it’s about how we manufacture technology to fit with our lives (size of mobile phones, maximising screen sizes, new technologies to take better pictures for Instagram etc); and how our behaviour is affected by using technology (how we interact with others online in social media – do we speak the same way online as we do in real life?).

A fuller exploration of what this means and how it plays out in our lives would take quite a long post, which I’m not going to do in one sitting, but the area of study is fascinating. Take for example a topic like The Online Disinhibition Effect, which means that online, people act in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily do in real life.

Take Twitter for example, in the last 6 months in Northern Ireland we have seen a new abortion law enforced upon us. I’m not going to discuss abortion here at all, so regardless of your opinion, we can hopefully agree that laws being enforced upon any nation, by anyone is not good for the rule of law, or democracy. The will of the people has not been consulted, or the capability of the people providing such a service was not considered (I understand that the health service in Northern Ireland is another topic as well for another day) and so, many will feel aggrieved that there was not a referendum at the very least on the topic.

Look at the results in social media – visceral online shouting, vile anger (on both sides) and threats.

But would the same people have acted the same way if they were sitting in a room together? It has been found (albeit in a small study)  that most trolls – the ones who threaten vile actions on women, may be:

  1. more likely to be male and score highly on the Dark Triad (psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism) personality test.
  2. will have little affective empathy (i.e. they can’t feel the suffering of others) but high cognitive empathy (they can understand what makes people suffer).
  3. they are likely to suffer from poor social skills.

(Sest & March, 2017)

Referring back to the Online Disinhibition Effect, would trolls speak the same way in real life? Do we view what we say online as separate to who we are in the real? There is something about the online world that can encourage behaviours in a person that we wouldn’t necessarily see elsewhere. Of course, this type of disinhibition does not always have to be negative, or toxic. Toxic disnhibition is the headline grabbing type (take a look here), but benign disinhibition should be an aspect of this effect to be encouraged.

Benign disinhibition involves the “attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find new ways of being” (Suler, 2004). This can be messy – the journey to understanding yourself and working through the problems we face in life is rarely a tidy or simple process! But having the space to do this is beneficial, and may on occasion include some toxic disinhibition, when viewed as a kind of catharsis.

The study of cyberpsychology, in one area wants to understand how we deal with the behaviour of individuals online, how we can educate, learn and develop as a race.

How Technology Shapes Human Psychology

Modern technology has created an environment where our online behaviours can now have an immense effect on our mental health and well being, as well as offline consequences. To put it another way, technology is dramatically changing the way people think and feel. Think about the notion of the life exhibited by our friends, colleagues or acquaintances on Facebook. Does it reflect real life? When we see friends getting pregnant, promoted, losing weight or recording lovely experiences with their children, do we feel envious? Jealous? Annoyed? Or pleased? Modern technology has put these images in front of us and they do have an effect – for better of for worse they do have an effect.

As Baughman (2016) commented, “the way that we interact with each other and our perceptions of reality have dramatically shifted because of the effect of technology on our thinking.” They focus on how buying and selling things, dating, planning a doctor visit, and even waiting in line has changed. If you think critically about your life, you probably share too much on Facebook (location data, who you’re with, where you take holidays, how you have voted); you share too much information when you sell things on Gumtree (location data, pictures relating to your home);  you spend more time on your LinkedIn profile than you do on your actual CV. This might hold importance for getting a job, but your employment history is online and visible. How does this sit with you for personal identity fraud/theft? Suddenly your online behaviour might have you feeling a little uneasy.

As a result, our approach to the world and ourselves has taken on an entirely new form where we’re constantly inundated by new information. In previous generations there was a period of time between the emergence of a new idea and its widespread adoption. That is time is quickening, shortening and gaining momentum. here is less time between the emergence of an idea and its’ placement in mainstream thought. Look at the historical journey of transgenderism. The concept of a transgender community existed in 1984 and in 20 years the Gender Recognition Act was passed into law in 2004 in the UK. Compare this to the scientific concept of the earth orbiting the sun. This was first mentioned in 1543 by Copernicus, but took more than a century to become widely accepted.

Contributing to this is a constant news cycle, an endless feed of text and images, be it on Instagram, Twitter or Google News; added to the unending exposure and craving to celebrity and influencer culture, our ways of thinking have been, for better or worse, undeniably linked to technology and affected by it.

Three Major Examples

  1. Social Media Addictions
  2. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
  3. Online Gaming Addictions

Social media addiction is a concept that is baked right into the code of most social media platforms. Sean Parker, an early investor (and inventor of Napster – if you’re of an age to remember that) commented here (in 2017) that Mark Zuckerberg “knowingly created a monster… [to] consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.” Leah Pearlman, an employee of Facebook and co-inventor of the ‘like’ button has told BBC that “she had become hooked on Facebook because she had begun basing her sense of self-worth on the number of “likes” she had.”

The dangers here of social media addiction are clear – Kuss and Griffiths (2011) found that the more people have an unhealthy engagement with social media, the more likely they are to have a lower standard of academic achievement, lower job performance, and greater real-life relationship problems – each of which are indicative of potential addictive behaviours.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is a psychological, social, and technological phenomenon where individuals who use social media experience severe mental health consequences such as anxiety, lower self-esteem, and depression because of the affect content posted on social media has on them. In other words, users feel FOMO when they see friends or followers post content that has excluded them in some way, either intentionally or unintentionally. Either of these notions will further exacerbates feelings of isolation. The concept is sometimes expressed jokingly when an individual convinces themselves to attend an event so that they don’t experience FOMO. The impact this can have on an individual can be cumulative and have a major impact on their mental health and well being.

Online Gaming Addictions (OGA) is a controversial area in the field of psychology. The World Health Organisation has identified gaming disorder as an area that warrants further interest, but psychologists are divided on how best to approach the topic from a clinical viewpoint. Contrast this with a cultural phenomenon which is at some level encouraging the practice. The Fortnite World Cup proved the financial strength to be found in this area and shows no sign of shrinking. Around 40 million of Fortnite’s 250 million registered players competed in online qualifying over 10 weeks for the chance to contest the final in New York. The 200 finalists (average age: 16) hailed from 34 different countries (more here). A cursory search of the term “excessive gaming death in the news” will show results on numerous stories in which gamers have been found dead after long gaming sessions. A majority will also be teenagers. This may be at the tragic end of the scale, but where a global health organisation has identified a serious risk, we must proceed carefully when e-sports and other online games are encouraging more time to be spent in these online worlds.

The Significance of Cyberpsychology

As technology advances and increasingly continues to affect the way we think, psychologists focused their attentions to a new area of interest. The result is cyberpsychology, which has become a meeting point for psychologists and scientists representing a vast array of disciplinary concentrations.

Cyberpsychology.org, a resource created by and for academics for whom the worlds of technology and psychology collide, intersect and create new areas of intellectual opportunity to learn more about the way in which we interact with and use technology. It also providesus with a clear definition for cyberpsychology. It defines cyberpsychology as “the psychological phenomena which emerge as a result of the human interaction with digital technology, particularly the internet. ” This interdisciplinary approach has a significant amount of attention in academic circles because of its exploration of topics like:

  • Online dating and relationships.
  • Self-perception in an online space.
  • Social media and cyberspace addiction.
  • Regressive and problematic behavior types online.

The field of study is rising in popularity so much that a peer-reviewed, scholarly journal has been developed to confront these issues of pervasive technology and its effect on our psyches. The Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, looks to provide empirical, quantitative and qualitative research on a number of known or unknown problems that are present in the digital landscape. In this, the foundations are being laid for future exploration of the ongoing and ever-developing intersection of technology and psychology, where serious and pressing topics can be explored by authorities across a number of fields.

In summary, cyberpsychology exists to explore answers to research questions concerning the strengthening link between technology and psychology to help improve the human experience. In collecting raw data and applying that data to solid psychological conclusions, people can be much better equipped to confront contemporary psychological problems that arise in our constantly connected world.

Future Implications

Technology will only continue to develop, improve and grow in complexity.  As it does, more attention will have to be given at the ways that our psychological makeups are changing because of those advancements. The internet and consumer products like the iPad have already changed the way we interact with information, and changed the way we learn and think. But at what cost and how does this affect other parts of our life? Outside of the obvious research benefits that come from the rise of cyberpsychology in the field, there are many real-world, immediate applications for the field.

Of course not all of these questions receive negative answers. There are many aspects of learning that have benefitted from technology. Another aspect of technology improving our lives fro a psychological perspective is in the rise of online therapy. The development and widespread integration of smartphones into our lives has allowed for the development of apps that focus on wellbeing and positive mental health. Such initiatives did obviously not exist previously.

References

Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

Michael Johnston is a Lecturer in Computing and the Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. Michael has research interests in the areas of technology enhanced learning, instructional learning design, blended learning and education. Michael currently specialises in the computing areas of web development technologies, cyber security, software development and IoT. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution. Michael is currently studying a PhD in Cyberpsychology.

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