Woman in a dark space wearing a VR headset

What is cyberpsychology?

Posted on: February 22, 2022

As we wander the digital landscape interacting with other people, websites, and social media platforms, it’s become evident that we behave in ways different to how we may behave in the real world when we’re face to face with others. The British Psychological Society (BPS) describes the field of cyberpsychology as “a scientific inter-disciplinary domain that focuses on the psychological phenomena which emerge as a result of human interaction with digital technology, particularly the Internet.” 

Although a lot of research projects may focus solely on internet use, cyberpsychology also looks at our relationship with artificial intelligence, cyborgs, and virtual reality. As well as this, it looks at the effects that digital technologies have on groups and wider society, not just the individual.

VR: the new frontier in cyberspace?

Virtual reality is an area that has had a few false starts in its history. Originally, the computer-generated simulated experience could be used to help create a realistic experience of driving or flying to help safely train pilots, soldiers, or astronauts. It could also be used in a healthcare setting so that doctors in training could practice procedures such as surgery. 

It was then co-opted by video games to create a more immersive experience. However, in the early days of the then-new technology’s existence, the equipment was prohibitively expensive. Virtuality’s networked multiplayer VR entertainment systems could set back gamers up to $73,000 per multi-pod system. Dr Jonathan D. Waldern founded Virtuality Inc. after originally pioneering the technology through his PhD research in VR.

When the Oculus Rift headset appeared in 2012 as a Kickstarter campaign started by Oculus VR, digital technologies of this kind were becoming more viable. The campaign raised almost $2.5 million from around 10,000 contributors before Oculus VR was bought by Facebook (now Meta) in 2014 for $2 billion. The cyberpsychology of virtual reality may become even more relevant as Meta’s take on the metaverse concept has now launched. The most immediate application for the metaverse has been to create a virtual office where co-workers can meet and interact while various pandemic restrictions have come in and out of play across the world. However, the opportunities for business are multiple and with a large section of society already used to the virtual settings of games such as Fortnite, for some, the shift has already occurred.

Others are more sceptical and there are various concerns to do with cybersecurity that haven’t been fully assessed. These include issues to do with a marketplace without boundaries, digital divides, data protection, and interactions that involve illegality such as burglary, assault, rape, and even the murder of an avatar. There have already been reports of sexual harassment experienced while in the metaverse during beta testing. These kinds of cybercrimes pose a challenge for the metaverse and how and if we choose to use it. As the possibility of serious cybercrime increases, a whole field of digital forensic psychology is growing alongside it.

Mental health and online behaviour

Although the metaverse may simply be the next iteration of human-computer interaction, the difference is the perceived embodiment of virtual reality. The way that we interact as avatars could just magnify everything that’s worst about antisocial behaviour. 

Technology use for social networking has made us increasingly aware of cyberbullying and identity theft, and the anonymity of platforms such as Twitter have allowed for abuse, death threats, and pile-ons. This has led to the creation of new laws in the United Kingdom such as the Online Safety Bill. But the damage to mental health and wellbeing can happen well before any law can be called upon, which raises questions about how digital citizens protect themselves. In particular, how can we mentor children and young adults who may be going through crucial developmental stages to navigate social interactions and online relationships safely?

We all have access to mobile devices that have increased internet use in our daily lives, so we need to facilitate ways to safeguard those who are vulnerable that are not unnecessarily restrictive. A recent backlash in what was once seen as sex-positivism feminism questions how online dating potentially exposes young women to unwanted and abusive behaviour. The need for accountability is highlighted rather than the need for governance or policing: how can we cultivate a sense of responsibility for people’s behaviours both online and offline?

An increase in internet use during the Covid-19 lockdown was associated with reduced risk of hikikomori (extreme social isolation), according to a study published in the open-access peer-reviewed journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. So it’s not all bad news for social media – its ability to connect people over distance and through lockdowns demonstrates its beneficial use.

Artificial intelligence and the singularity

Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, discussed artificial intelligence and how it would affect the future of humanity. He predicted a rapid acceleration in the use of technologies such as computers, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, and artificial intelligence in the next few decades from when the book was written. 

He also predicted that by 2029 computers could reach a human level of intelligence when AI would be able to pass the Turing test. 2045 is the year that Kurzweil originally believed that the capabilities of a computer would overtake those of the human brain. However, a paper published in 2019 by Gale et al entitled “Will recent advances in AI result in a paradigm shift in Astrobiology and SETI?” (doi:10.1017/S1473550419000260) expressed the possibility that the Singularity could arrive even earlier due to huge advances in quantum computing.

Steven Hawking feared that AI’s overtaking of human intelligence could lead to the extinction of the human race. However, others such as Bryan Johnson of Kernel, believe the merging of the human brain with AI could do progressive things such as bringing an end to Alzheimer’s. He has commented that, “We have very little access to our own brains, limiting our ability to co-evolve with silicon-based machines in powerful ways.” Ultimately, the aim of computer chip brain implants would be to program our neural code and co-evolve with AI. The implications of this on human cognition are huge and we rely on cyberpsychology research to understand what the repercussions of such a change could be.

Hive mind and groupthink

There has long been discussion in the field of social psychology around what the use of the internet and continuously living within cyberspace does to our synapses. The 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma highlighted how social media platforms are designed to proliferate internet addiction through the dopamine hits that “likes” bring. The documentary also discussed with former employees of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Mozilla, the manipulation of emotions, behaviours, and beliefs, as well as the spread of conspiracy theories. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it has emerged that Breitbart received special treatment, further confirming the political influence of social media posts.

Hive mind has been likened to a collective consciousness and can be helpful when we’re asking the collective for information or recommendations through Twitter, for example. However, it can also be likened to groupthink and confirmation bias when people purely want to be part of a consensus.

Eblen Moglen, Guardian of the General Public Licence (GPL) told an audience in 2016, “We are changing the human environment very rapidly and we are becoming a connected superorganism, ants in a hill…and we are connecting us not to free each of us for higher functioning but to enable an intermediary organism, the technology of the attention market, and to have access to our minds all the time. When we do that, we begin to change the nature of human thought.”

The role of social networking sites in circulating misinformation about Covid-19 has led US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy to recommend that social media comes with a warning. The introduction to the 2021 document Confronting Health Misinformation states that, “Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.”

Take your next steps into the world of cyberpsychology

Human-computer interaction (HCI) research methods need to keep pace with advances in social media, AI, and VR and how they shape human behaviour. The speed at which these changes are occurring though, calls into question the lack of regulation around big tech. And yet the moral and ethical implications can also be considered by the individual and essentially, we each have the power to shape the future landscape of cyberspace by the decisions we make.

As Facebook recently lost users for the first time in its history, there is a possibility that its decline signals a move to other forms of connecting and communicating such as TikTok. Or have we reached a point of social network fatigue? Do people want more real-life experiences as a consequence of the pandemic? 

These and many other intriguing questions can be explored with a Master’s degree in Psychology from the University of Wolverhampton. With the option to study 100% online and part-time, discover what you’ll learn through the MSc Psychology course’s diverse module topics and find out how you can register today.

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