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Column What is the psychological impact of spending so much time in 'cyberspace'?

There are serious legal, ethical and philosophical challenges to protecting children in this technological age, writes Mary Aiken.

MICHAEL SETO, the well-known Canadian forensic psychologist recently said, “We are living through one of the largest unregulated social experiments of all time,” he was referring to the potential impact of online harmful content on youth development. Technology is now ever-present, 2.7 billion people, almost 40 per cent of the world’s current population are now online. Internet use is a central part of young peoples’ lives, they are now online at a very young age, and are increasingly immersed in cyber environments.

A recent UK report has highlighted that 28 per cent of three to four-year-olds now use tablet computers, and tablet use has tripled among five to 15-year-olds since 2012. The study found that the majority of parents felt that they knew enough to keep their child safe online, but around half felt that their child knew more about the internet than they do, and surprisingly 14 per cent of parents of infants aged three to four said that they knew less about the internet than their child. Studies like this help to inform a greater debate as to who is responsible for protecting the developing child in an age of rapid technological change.

The intersection between the child and technology

CyberPsychology can help to deliver insight at the intersection between the child and technology. Danah Boyd a researcher at Microsoft recently published an article in Time magazine asking that parents should “let their kids run wild online”, she argued that young people were essentially trapped by ‘helicopter parents’ and teens were desperate to carve out a space of their own, a place where they could ‘make mistakes’.

Boyd argues that “As teens have moved online, parents have projected their fears onto the internet, imagining all the potential dangers that youth might face from violent strangers to cruel peers to pictures or words that could haunt them on Google for the rest of their lives.” 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.

‘Real world’ and ‘virtual world’ behaviours can be dissimilar; my colleague Professor John Suler at the RCSI CyberPsychology research centre 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. We have considered online disinhibition as an aspect of behaviour in recent so-called ‘neknomination’ cases.

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, police and so on, however in cyberspace it can appear that nobody is in charge. While the internet provides excellent opportunities for young people to learn, communicate, share and socialise, it also poses risks. Some of these risks are apparent, such as cyberbullying, and some have not yet been fully investigated.

Who’s in charge?

In the real world parents and caregivers decide what is suitable for children, whereas in cyberspace artificial intelligence would appear to be in charge. From the point at which a child logs on, they are in fact interacting with algorithms, from search to social networking platforms, 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 Web 2.0; search engines the so-called ‘gatekeepers of the Web’, associative indices, search-engine bias, children’s digital rights, privacy, consent and the unprotected child user as a ‘data subject’.

There is very little research and debate regarding the societal impact of machine intelligence on vulnerable populations, and the ethics of this impact on the developing child. 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 a 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. There is a pressing need to understand youth behaviour in cyberspace, and to investigate the impact of technology on child development.

Legal, philosophical and ethical conceptions of privacy

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?  Tonight I will be discussing the impact of technology on children, Dr Conor Mc Guckin, Assistant Professor in Education in Trinity, will discuss cyberbullying and will focus 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, will focus on the significant challenges the internet poses for our legal, philosophical and ethical conceptions of privacy.

We would invite everybody that has an interest in humanity and technology, to attend a Cyber Ethics Public Forum taking place today, Monday 14th of April in Trinity College Dublin, organised as part of Trinity’s contribution to the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative, and to join in the debate. The event, hosted by Trinity Long Room Hub, is free, open to the public, and takes place tonight at 6pm in the Stanley Quek Hall, Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute. We would welcome your input in the discussion. They say that it takes a village to raise a child – well, this also applies in cyberspace.

Read more about tonight’s Cyber Ethics Public Forum here>>

Mary Aiken is the Director of the RCSI CyberPsychology Research Centre. She is a Sensemaking Fellow at the US IBM Network Science Research Center, and a Research Fellow and Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University School of Law. Mary is an Observer to the INTERPOL Specialists Group on Crimes against Children.

Follow Opinion & Insight on Twitter: @TJ_Opinions

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