Education Talks: Cyberpsychology in the service of education

"What is seen, cannot be unseen! There is no command 'Delete file' for the brain." In this interview, Dr. Mary Aiken talks about how cyberpsychology, the study of the human mind in the context of human interaction and communication of both man and machine, can serve education.

Dr. Mary Aiken holds many positions at organisations such as the University College Dublin, Geary Institute for Public Policy, European Cyber Crime Centre at Europol, Cyberpsychology Research Network, and the Hague Justice Portal. Her work as a cyberpsychologist has also inspired the CBS primetime show CSI: Cyber.

What is cyberpsychology? 

It is the study of the impact of technology on human behaviour. Our primary focus is Internet psychology, but we also study virtual reality, artifical intelligence, and intelligence amplification. 

What challenges do schools and educators face when using the Internet as part of pupils' learning? 

The thing that we have to remember about the use of the Internet is that it offers incredible access to content: the democratisation of knowledge and information, a wonderful evolution in terms of education, but it also comes with a risk. So I think certainly there are technical challenges. There are challenges in terms of filtering and screening content, and there are also educational challenges in terms of deciding what is appropriate for children at different ages.

And I think it is a very important issue, especially when you talk about younger children. So for younger children, we have the Piaget's stages of development. What I could ask is where are the cyber stages of development, the cyber cognitive stages of development?

How do we recommend what is best for each age group?

So for example, when US studies pointed out that the average age at which a child gets a smartphone is age 6, now as a cyberpsychologist, I would argue that that is far too young. So really, from a policy point of view, we need to have developmental guidelines that could inform practice in terms of children engage with technology at home but also could inform best practicing in terms of engaging with technology in school.

Why is it crucial to guide young people to have responsible interactions with online content? 

The one thing that I really worry about is access to legal but age-inappropriate content. So specifically that would be adult pornography, self-harm content or extreme violence. Whan I am talking to groups of children, I point out that what is seen cannot be unseen.

There is no command 'Delete file' for the brain. 

If a child looks at a distressing or violent image or video clip, then it is almost impossible for them to get rid of that image from their brain, and that is why they need to be very careful about the sort of content that they expose themselves to, and schools have a very important role to place in advising children why they should not look at this content online, and why it is a bad idea to engage with forums on self-harm sites, or forums in sites where extreme violent content is shown.

What advice would you give to schools to tackle cyberbullying?

The thing about cyberbullying is that real-world bullying is actually a problem because there is no evidence: a punch in the playground, a harsh word. That is very difficult to deal with. Cyberbullying is nothing but evidence. In fact, you cannot cyberbully without leaving a trail of evidence. The problem is that as a society we have decided that any monitoring online is surveillance, but actually when it comes to something like cyberbullying and minors, this is not surveillance, this is parenting. 

So effectively I am working on an algorithm, that could be used to detect cyberbullying. It could be offered by a telecommunications service provider. Whereby the point is which the transaction triggers the algorithm, a digital outreach would go to the child to say: you need to get help, and a digital outreach would go to the parent to say: Your child is in trouble. You need to go and talk to them.

So effectively the point is that the good news is that there are technology solutions to technology-facilitated problem-behaviour. We just need to have the will and the focus to pursue the solutions. 

Your advice to parents

If I had one piece of advice to parents, it would be that the point at which your child actually breaks a curfew or does something wrong and you want to punish them, please resist the urge to immediately confiscate all their technologies: take away their phone, take away their computer, because the point at which your child is in trouble and they go to their room and they hate themselves, and they hate the world and they hate you. if you have removed everything, you have also removed their entire support network and you do not want to do that.

The child needs to vent, they need to be able to talk to their friends and this is how they do it. So pick a constructive punishment: get them to mow the lawn or empty the dishwasher, but don't just take the opportunity to vent your frustration on their use of technology.

That is not fair, and it is not smart.