Technology has shaped our lives in ways never have imagined before. And it’s become especially visible now many of us made the shift to working remotely. Technological developments have provided us with many opportunities, from new forms of communication to the ability to access and share resources from anywhere on the planet.
Sadly, that’s not the whole story.
Technology also provides cybercriminals with endless new methods for exploitation. It’s no longer enough to manage the struggles of our offline lives. There’s also the added pressure of maintaining our digital selves and online behaviour.
But why do so many of us behave differently online and take risks that we wouldn’t in our everyday lives? It’s exactly these questions that cyberpsychology seeks to answer.
What is cyberpsychology?
Cyberpsychology is a relatively young branch of psychology. It got its start back in the 1990s, but it really began to gain relevance during the 2000s with the rise of social media. The explosion in online communication made it suddenly very important to understand online behaviours.
Cyberpsychology looks at how we behave in cyberspace, how we interact with and through different devices, as well as how our offline behaviours have been affected by the use of technology and the internet.
Experts have been warning about the perils of social media for some time. But, for most of us, the recent Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma” has been a wake-up call in understanding how specific sites, apps and design functionality in cyberspace can be used to target our weaknesses.
Beyond the obvious problems with manipulative design, technology and the internet are also affecting us in a subtler way. With the advent of the internet of things (IoT), our daily lives are carried with us wherever we go. This mobility comes with advantages; constant connectivity and near-endless information at our fingertips. However, it can also lead to us feeling overwhelmed, saturated with information and obligated to constantly ‘keep up’ with whatever is happening in the news cycle or on social media.
For many of us, cyberspace is not as tangible as physical space. In the ‘real’ world we can clearly identify hazards and avoid them. Online, this becomes trickier. This can lead us to have an imaginary sense of security, despite the countless risks we are exposed to online daily. But, being aware of the psychology behind our actions can help us better manage our digital existence and approach it more mindfully.
What are the psychological features of technology?
One of the key features to watch out for in cyberspace is ‘recordability’. Everything we do online, from the content we share publicly or not so publicly to private conversations and our location, is documented and recorded. Our digital experiences can be analysed, revisited and even re-experienced. This can have many positive effects, but can also backfire and be used against us if it’s accessed by someone with malicious intent. So it’s important to always consider not only what we are sharing, but who might have the access to our digital traces.
Another feature of online life is the ability to manage our impressions and identity. The lack of physical characteristics in communication, such as appearance, body language and emotional expressions can be a limitation to understanding each other. But they can also give us the flexibility to tailor our digital selves to different audiences.
However, it can also be used for behaviours of misleading, malicious and even criminal natures. For example,
identity fraud or phishing scams. In combination with records of your digital activities, the offender could use available personal information to build a closer and, seemingly, more trustworthy relationship with you.
The Disinhibition effect
The last key cyberpsychology theory for analysing our behaviour is the disinhibition effect. It explains how the ways we act change in digital environments. In short, we’re less inhibited and composed and more open and confident. So much so, that researchers often compare this effect to being drunk.
This might sound like a good thing; a society-wide ‘coming out of our shells’. However, it has a darker side. Many of us have
have poorer judgement online and are more prone to making bad decisions.
For example, we are more open to sharing our whereabouts or discussing intimate and private details. This can be influenced by the idea of us as being invisible, anonymous and a belief that offline interactions are ‘real’ and online as ‘not or less real’. And this can often lead to us behaving more irresponsible online and failing to consider the consequences of our actions.
Why is cyberpsychology important?
It’s clear that the internet and technology have given us greater freedom, convenience, and connectivity. But, at the same time, it’s important to be cautious of its possible negative effects. By better understanding our psychological weaknesses as humans interacting with technology we can become more aware, responsible and secure online.
Looking to improve your cybersecurity but not sure where to begin? Start 2021 the right way, by getting certified in Cyber Essentials, the UK government scheme that covers all the fundamentals of cyber hygiene.