When worlds collide: The cyberpsychology of our online lives

31 Aug 2022

Image: Dr Nicola Fox Hamilton

Cyberpsychologist Dr Nicola Fox Hamilton discusses how what we do online can affect us offline and the ongoing dangers of sophisticated scams.

As more of our lives are spent online, there’s a whole other realm of human psychology that is being examined.

From the effects of social media and online gaming to the social engineering that goes on behind online scams, having a greater understanding of the cyber world and how we interact with it has never been more important.

Dr Nicola Fox Hamilton is a cyberpsychologist and a lecturer at Dublin’s Institute of Art, Design and Technology. Her research has focused on communication through technology, particularly in the areas of online dating, relationships and attraction.

She told SiliconRepublic.com that cyberpsychology includes studying who we are, how we behave and how we communicate online, and how that might be different to the offline world.

“It also looks at virtual reality, including for example, how it can be used to treat anxiety disorders, phobias or eating disorders,” she said.

“It is key that we understand whether or not various kinds of technology are affecting us positively or negatively, and what benefits we can gain from technology use.”

‘The idea that the offline world is more real than the online world is quite outdated now’

There have been plenty of discussions over the years that have “spawned moral panic” when it comes to online behaviour, Fox Hamilton said, in areas such as screen time and mental health, and gaming addiction and violence.

But recently there has been a move towards more open science practices and rigour in research of these topics.

“What we’re seeing from this is that social media, screen time and gaming have very small, or no, negative effect on the vast majority of people. This clarity will allow researchers to focus on those who do have mental health issues, and to look at the root causes of those, and whether or not technology might exacerbate their problems or in fact help them,” she explained.

“There has been a huge interest in research on misinformation and disinformation online too, particularly in the last 10 years as it has increasingly become an issue.”

Education in cybersecurity

Another major trend in the online world is the ever-increasing volume of cyberattacks, data breaches and scams.

The attack on Ireland’s HSE last year was just one of many major global hacks and cybergangs are becoming increasingly prominent.

One thing many security experts talk about when it comes to defending against these attacks is education, because humans are often the weak link in the chain when it comes to breaches.

While Fox Hamilton said more people have knowledge about scams and cybersecurity, this knowledge can lead to complacency – leaving the door open to be duped by more sophisticated attacks.

“For most people, the main issue is not a lack of awareness, but that scammers are adept at catching us at a moment of distraction or cognitive overload and taking advantage of that lapse. Everyone has the potential to fall for scams in the right conditions.”

Despite the growth in knowledge, the biggest mistake people are making when it comes to online safety continues to be ignoring the most basic of rules.

“Using weak passwords or the same password across many platforms. Using information like pet or children’s names for example and then sharing that information online,” said Fox Hamilton.

“Given that my area of research is online dating, I think the most dangerous thing to do is to meet strangers for the first time in non-public spaces, and not let anyone know where you’re going. The first date from online dating is essentially a screening meeting to make sure they are who they say they are and to pick up on red flags or negative cues about a person.

“Meeting in a public place and letting people know where you’re going is really important. If someone keeps pushing you to go to their home or yours when you’ve said you don’t want to, they are pushing boundaries you’ve set out and that in itself is a red flag to be very careful of.”

A whole new (online) world

Personal responsibility is important, but Fox Hamilton said social media giants, gaming companies and other such platforms have a responsibility to protect the people who use their products.

“Often very harmful comments or messages get reported and the response from platforms is that they don’t violate community guidelines. Much of this is automated and risks misunderstanding the nuance of language that people use to avoid being shut down. However, human moderation takes a significant toll on the people employed for that purpose too, so automated systems really need to be improved.

“Crowdsourcing can also be helpful. Having laws that penalise harmful behaviour online is also helpful because it sends a clear message that this kind of behaviour is seen as unacceptable by our society.”

She also said the idea that the online world is seen as something outside of reality needs to change.

“I think that the idea that the offline world is more real than the online world is quite outdated now. So much of our lives are lived through a mix of on and offline interactions. We wouldn’t say that telephone calls are not in the real world, and so talking to people online is no less real than offline.”

However, while online interactions should still be considered ‘real’, how people behave online can often be vastly different to how they behave offline. The information we have access to is also vastly different.

“This has benefits and downsides. For example, people in minority groups can connect and advocate for themselves and find support effectively online which benefits them offline. However, people can also find more negative connections online and become radicalised, for example, which can of course impact their offline behaviour,” said Fox Hamilton.

“Technology has the potential to amplify and facilitate certain behaviours or tendencies that have long existed.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic