The Cyber Effect

Reading time: 7
Rabbit Hole


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How does our behaviour change online, and what kind of internet do we want for the future?

The average person now checks their phone over 200 times a day. That’s a serious addiction – but because we’re all doing it all the time, it doesn’t seem quite so scary….

The online world, but not as we know it

I have been reading The Cyber Effect by Dr Mary Aiken, an Irish cyberpsychologist who specialises in the impact of technology on human behaviour – I was delighted when she connected and responded to my thoughts on her work. I have found this book interesting for a number of reasons: as a parent, as a teacher, as a former survivor of sexual abuse, as a school leader, as a micro-celebrity and as an academic researcher interested in the use of social media and how it influences teachers for my doctoral studies. It has taken me 4 months to get through the book listening to content via Audible on my dog-walks around London parks.

There is much in this book for anyone to take away, particularly teachers and parents. Not only has it challenged, inspired and made me rethink about my own use of social media, but it has strengthened my own thinking about how we should all reconsider how we view and use social media, especially for young people. In some respects, it has already reshaped how I now behave online, dating back to the very beginnings of reading the book when I was questioning my digital identity.

I think more carefully about the criticism I have received, as well as my online commentary and what mental health harm it may do to another individual. Where I have expressed opinion (or fact) about another person, I have been signposting to others that ‘it is okay to behave inappropriately’, online, which is very different to having a difficult conversation with someone face-to-face.

Do the positives outweigh the negatives?

As I sit at my desk, comfortably expressing ideas and sharing resources onto this website, the most vital and pressing question asked throughout the entirety of this book is: When did it become acceptable for us to ignore the dark side of social media in return for us all profiting from its benefits?

With more and more people working online, profiting from connecting with others, from selling our resources and books to sourcing our next job or loved one, we have all succumbed to the benefits of the internet and social media.

Sadly, the majority of us show little desire to address the serious negative associations with the web, particularly for our younger people.

In my opinion, e-safety day or an annual campaign to eradicate cyberbullying doesn’t quite do the job. An important question Aiken poses in the book: If we keep having to repeat cyberbullying and an e-safety week each academic year, does this suggest that the year before didn’t work?

What we need to do the most is tackle the issues of using the internet and social media at a government level. Here are just a small number of questions Aiken poses throughout her research about the cyberworld we now have around us.

  1. At what age does a baby start watching digital screens?
  2.  Is it okay for a toddler to play with an iPad?
  3. Is there a connection between online gaming and ADHD in young boys?
  4. Should we allow teenagers to spend hours alone in the bathroom with their smartphones?
  5. Does technology contribute to social isolation?
  6. Can real relationships be formed the in cyberspace?
  7. Why do people troll, online?
  8. Should we be afraid of the deep web? E.g. Cybercrime, addiction, sexting

Impact on social media on young people

As well as some fascinating and relevant discussion on the world of social media, education and issues for parents, Aiken provides a comprehensive online analysis of human behaviours, machine intelligence,  artificial intelligence and intelligence amplification. “When an individual moves to a new location, physically and digitally, his or her behaviour will change or adjust. One’s environment has a profound impact on one’s physical bearings” writes Aiken.

On the topic of screen time, the best analogy I can recall from reading the book is that no parent should allow their child to open the front door and walk out onto the street to play with a stranger, nor would we leave them alone in the middle of Times Square to go and explore what New York has to offer. Essentially, when we leave the child alone with a device to navigate the World Wide Web, this is essentially what we are doing.

The greatest issue with all of our use of social media is that government legislation does very little to protect an individual or hold internet service providers to account. Again, I will return to Mary’s original question: When did it become acceptable for us to ignore the dark side of social media in return for us all profiting from its benefits?

How social media impacts on the world

Aiken also offers a plethora of content from the world of medicine, crime and academia, writing that “Academics are great at finding complicated ways to not really say the things we mean…” What I love about her book is how she has made her academic research pragmatic and easy for people to access – a clear call to action for all of us, including parents. Mary suggests that is important for academics to consider stating their opinion based on their research, rather than not given an opinion. She also highlights many new terms which I have found great interests, including cyber-migration, cyberpsychology and cyberchondria: The online medical search.

Aiken also discusses the normalisation of fetishes from sexting to online sexual encounters – Cyberspace provokes people to be more adventurous because we can say what we want online and lose face-to-face contact; people often feel anonymous, lose their inhibitions and ‘act drunk’. This perceived lack of authority, as well as the sense of distance, is (cyberpsychology) bold behaviour on social media, or the online disinhibition effect. Over the years, one example of how social media has supported narcissism is where I have slowly observed exhibitionism expose itself within the teaching profession. I have seen occasions where female teachers have started to experience receiving ‘dick pics’ from male teaching colleagues. Not only is this a criminal act, but it breaches the Teachers’ Standards. We are one click away from being exposed to extreme content online, from sexual disorders leading others down a rabbit hole at the distress of others, where narcissistic behaviour is hungry for feedback, or some reaction.

What are the rewards of being online?

Aiken describes the euphoria of buying a scratchcard. If you win, that feeling is equal to dopamine which she likens this to our use of social media. If I posted a selfie and I receive countless replies, it offers me the same euphoric feedback. If we get a ‘like’ for an image on Instagram, Twitter or a Facebook post, it meets the needs of the individual’s self-esteem. In this research, Aiken suggests that when we go online, the amount of self-disclosure is doubled to about 80 per cent. This affective neuroscience is an arousal of feelings or emotions…

Mary also explains the downsides: “If you have a high profile, this is simply amplified on social media. For example, a politician on stage may mirror the life and deepest desires of the majority of people in the audience. In her content analysis (or forensic analysis work), as one becomes more popular in the public eye and develops a large public profile, your own content reduces as you self identify to share fewer public posts/content with strangers.

I can definitely relate to this in some capacity.

Anonymity, accessibility, affordability

Aiken shares her thoughts on the dark side of the web, offering many solutions and explains her work with various government organisations around the world. She truly has an impressive portfolio and is clearly one of the world’s leading cyberpsychologists. As I explore my own digital sociology, as well as the online behaviours of teachers in my exploration of teacher agency, Aiken shares many tragic stories from suicide pacts to cult, anorexia, murder and victims of cybercrime and sexual abuse. The range is deep as it is in breadth. How long will it be before we become numb to that fact that we are quite happy to accept the current negative associations with social media in return for its benefits? Politicians, drug and sex gangs and well as the common criminal will continue to benefit from anonymity, accessibility and, in general, an affordable internet connection from a mobile phone which offers any individual access to bank accounts, nude pictures of children to online shopping orders for drugs, weapons and even endangered animals.

The dark side of the Internet is best summed up in three-letters which Mary explains personifies why people in positions of influence prefer to keep with the current status quo.

  1. Anonymity – that we all profit from some form of privacy. Meanwhile, gangs profit from exchanging weapons, drugs and people!
  2. Accessibility – having the internet in the palm of our hands allows us to talk with A-list celebrities, book holidays and access pornography or gambling websites. Meanwhile, children are exploited via online websites.
  3. Affordability – that we can all make an online income. Meanwhile, 4 million people live in poverty across the UK with 12 per cent living without you can access to a broadband connection, whilst fake news and online advertising influences that way in which people vote, placing further income and assets into the world’s richest sources.

Take the test?

A simple test to elicit if you (Joe Public) wants to know if you are benefiting from using the Internet is to answer this question: ‘Do you turn your phone on the moment a plane lands?’ is a great question to ask oneself. Do you have the white Apple earbuds which ‘signals’ that you are subscribing to an ideology – a way of living and a visual projection of living within a price bracket? If that is you, then I suspect you do profit from the internet (like myself). We can purchase Apple earbuds online, switch on our WiFi connection and tweet our frustration with our local MPs in return for several hundred likes and retweets. The key question I return to again is, how long will we ignore the dark side of social media in return for us all profiting from its benefits?

There is so much more that I could write about the brilliance of this book, from internet gaming addictions to problems in adolescent boys. My key thoughts are how this book is useful for parents and teachers, particularly in its use within the classroom and at home. Does social media have a place in our school curriculum or will it remain a tool for our young people to discover? And will look back in 10 years about how negligent we all were: How we each discovered the brilliance of social media without recognising how dangerous it was for our young people with no safeguarding/protections put in place?

Mary concludes: As you see more young people creating social media profiles under the age of 13 and with more and more parents pacifying their young babies with digital devices rather than reading to them, “Just wait until your mobile phone devices start to omit hormones and pheromones, designed to elicit even more engagement.”

Soon, even the most-seasoned internet user like you and I will find it difficult to put our devices down.

Read The Cyber Effect by Dr Mary Aiken.

This is a profound book which is predicting the future risks of society at large and what may happen if we do not take immediate action to regulate our social media use.

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