Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Cyber Psychology


Patricia Wallace, the author of The Psychology of The Internet

John Suler, the author of The Psychology of the Digital Age

Kent Norman, the author of Cyberpsychology

Raphael Cohen-Almagor, the author of Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side

What roles do digital mainstream media play in amplifying cyberpsychology issues? Do you see this as a positive or negative thing?

Patricia Wallace: When the mainstream media began “going digital” and offering their content online, they opened up an entirely new set of challenges that the media moguls were unprepared to face. At first they offered free content to attract an audience, but the momentum to consume media online gathered steam, to the point that people began dropping their print newspaper subscriptions and bypassing the evening news shows. The Internet bulldozed their revenue models, which relied heavily on print and TV ads. While they added advertising to their online sites, that revenue couldn’t begin to close the gap, especially with widespread use of ad blockers. Layoffs and closings followed swiftly, along with many attempts to create new business models.

As something that seems to have escaped from the lab, cyberspace might do us harm, but might it also miraculously solve our problems?

These industry battles lead to subtle effects on cyberpsychology. For example, thanks to the Internet’s early cultural traditions, people expect online content to be free. We resist any attempt to charge for access, and find clever back doors. But outstanding content is expensive. The mainstream media struggle to produce it, testing all kinds of new revenue models. Some become threats to privacy, as people willingly give up much valuable personal information to continue accessing the content they wanted for “free.”

Another outcome is the explosion of information sources, some launched by the mainstream media in their effort to replace lost revenue, and others as separate start-ups. These cover an enormous range of interests – politics, sports, environmental concerns, Hollywood gossip, and much more. We enjoy almost limitless choices about which media we want to consume, no longer confined to a few TV stations and print newspapers. While that is a clear benefit, it also leads to polarization and echo chambers in which people rarely choose to expose themselves to differing viewpoints.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor: The Internet is a technological platform that has affected virtually every aspect of society. It is a macro system of interconnected private and public spheres: household, literary, military, academic, business and government networks. The Internet has produced major leaps forward in human productivity and has changed the way people work, study and interact with each other. The mix of open standards, diverse networks, and the growing ubiquity of digital devices makes the Internet a revolutionary force that undermines traditional media such as newspapers, broadcasting, and telephone systems, and that challenges existing regulatory institutions based on national boundaries. Its massive potential can be used, and abused, by Netusers.

The Internet affects our behaviour and conduct in many ways. Before the Internet, people had time to digest information before they respond. People resorted to pen and pencil when writing letters. They had time to reflect as they read their own letters, put them in envelopes, and carried them to the post office. Now all this process of thinking, digesting, and sending information is done far more quickly, sometime within minutes and even seconds. The digestion time is very short. Often people respond to messages they receive immediately, as quick as eye blink, without proper consideration. Thus people are more susceptible to send half-baked reflections, comments and thoughts. Many say on the Internet things they would never say face to face. The buffer of the Internet, especially when people are able to hide their identity, provides them with a protective shield (or so they assume). Thus people can easily use, and abuse, this wonderful communication platform.

Kent Norman: For the past four years I have been teaching a course on the psychology of social networking and social computing. Each student is required to keep a weekly journal of sessions and activities on social media sites. From these logs, the time and frequency of sites is in this order: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, Email, GroupMe, and YouTube. Interestingly, their activities on these sites are split between academic use (organizing study sessions, group projects, and clubs) and social interactions. While college students often use Facebook for keeping up with friends and family, it seems to be more often used for school organizations, clubs, fraternities, and sororities. These activities are on the positive side!

Also on the positive side, students are aware of the need for social capitol. The more links that they make, the more people that they can call on for references, backup, and favours. Many of the seniors are already on LinkedIn building their networks and promoting their skill sets.

However, on the negative side, some students obsess with keeping up with latest things posted on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and SnapChat. They seem to suffer from the fear of missing out (FOMO). They report checking social the first thing when they get up, multiple times during the day, and the last thing before they turn out the lights.

I think that I am fortunate dealing with college students rather than K-12. By college, most have learned how to navigate through social media and use it to their advantage by amplifying its positive benefits and minimizing the negative.

John Suler: When I started doing interviews with mainstream media twenty years ago, they focussed on the dark side of cyberspace – for example, Internet addiction, a seeming esoteric problem that has faded in news stories because we now accept our technological fixations. The Internet is indeed one of the most important inventions in history, which is why we are so obsessed with it and why the media should alert us to the emerging dangers, such as violations of privacy, security breaches, and predators of all types. Scary stories do sell, as media companies well know, because they activate our fears about a force propelling us into unknown territories. As something that seems to have escaped from the lab, cyberspace might do us harm, but might it also miraculously solve our problems? The media amplifies this love/hate relationship. It amplifies our cyber mania that swings us back and forth between idealizing then denigrating the Internet.

Rather than focusing on extremes, mainstream media might take to heart the Gartner Hype Cycle. We start off with escalating enthusiasm (as well as counterpoint anxieties) about a new technology. Then we become disappointed when it turns out to not be such a big deal. Eventually, after trial and error, we learn to use it wisely, in a measured way, given its pros and cons. It is that last stage the media should help us with.

That last stage will also help alleviate our culturally accepted addictions to digital realms, such as the compulsive quest for high ratings and popularity in social media – yet another phenomenon the news likes to amplify as it latches onto anything “trending.” Mainstream media has learned that if you can’t beat it, join it. Because cyberspace has sucked up all forms of communication, by selling it mainstream media sells itself.

Read the rest of this 6-part Roundtable Discussion:

Part One: Cyberpsychology
Part Two: Misusing the Internet
Part Three: When Kids Go Online
Part Four: The Future of Online Relationships
Part Five: The single most important issue in cyber psychology today
Part Six: The Future of the Internet

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