10 Ways the Internet and Psychology Are Intersecting

Computers, the Internet, mobile phones, and massive computing power have fundamentally changed how people live, view themselves, interact with others, and spend their time. The context of human life has been changed dramatically by digital technology, and it's critical to understand how all this influences human psychology, development, and perhaps even the brain.

Cyberpsychology is the branch of psychology dedicated to the study of the intersection of psychology and all facets of technology, particularly digital and computer technology. Read on to see how technology is impacting people socially, how computers and related technology might be changing human cognition, and the less positive sides of technology such as cyberbullying.

Online identity

Humans are social beings — some more than others. However, human evolution has occurred within the context of being together. After all, the survival of the species through sexual reproduction depends on it. Socializing assumes communicating. Although much of human history has been dominated by communicating through speech — talking, storytelling, oral traditions — there has and continues to be a simultaneous use of "technology." Communications ranging from cave paintings, carrier pigeons, written text, books, telegraphs, and on up through telephones, smartphones, and the Internet and its various social media have all been means of connecting.

Computer and digital technology has become a dominant form of communication with e-mail, text messaging, and video conferencing in real time. Computers, mobile phones, and the Internet are many things to many people, but they're most certainly social and communication tools.

You can be anybody you want to be online, right? With the exception of outright deception, there tends to be consistency between online and offline identities. The only caveat is that online personas tend to be just slightly exaggerated in the positive direction as people put forth a more idealized version of themselves.

Social media sites like Facebook have some degree of "social policing" in that your profile gets connected to other people's, which usually lets the truth emerge. In other words, it's relatively easy to lie about who you are, but it's way harder to lie about who you are and who all your friends are when a person can just look at all your online friends and see for themselves. Your online and offline selves merge, depending on how much you share.

Some people take steps to ensure a certain degree of separation or anonymity; others are way more open. Too much openness can have negative consequences. For example, a person may lose a job because bad behavior is displayed on a Facebook page. But unless everybody is lying en masse, there tends to be a fair amount of persona bona fide online.

Digital communication

Strange sights abound in public spaces; people walk down the street seemingly talking to themselves, rooms full of people stare at little rectangles in their hands or bigger rectangles on their laps, and their hands move frantically, rhythmically, and with purpose. People talk to other people through devices. This may look strange to someone unfamiliar with mobile phones, tablets, and laptops. Even to people who are familiar with these devices, it can feel pretty strange, too.

But the basic concept of the activity isn't new or unusual. After all, they're "talking" to other people, reading the thoughts and ideas that others have written, or writing their own messages. People are using the devices to communicate and socialize. Scientists who study these phenomena refer to technology-based types of communications as computer-mediated communication (CMC); the corresponding social dimensions are known as the study of online social networks (to broadly include mobile networks mediated through the Internet).

The reasons people choose to connect through digital technology and the Internet are not all that different from the reasons they connect through face-to-face and analog technology (such as VCRs, turntable record players, and audio cassettes). People want to gossip, keep tabs on each other, catch up, get romantic, look for help, give help, show off, brag, and so on.

The motives between the "two worlds" of communication (online and offline; or virtual and physical) remain very much the same, but for many young people social networking sites are considered the preferred mode of reaching out and interacting with friends, colleagues, and other close personal contacts. So, although the need to network socially remains constant, the preferred medium has shifted. For example, research shows that the once ubiquitous, pervasive, and massive use of e-mail is declining in popularity as it's replaced by Facebook-based communication, Twitter, and other social networking sites.

In late 2012, the Facebook population hit a billion people. So this means everyone is online it right? Well, no. And cyberpsychologists wonder if there's a difference between people who use social networking sites and those who don't, and between those who use this mode of communication a lot and those who just dabble. Research shows that a person's social networking is related to three characteristics:

  • An individual's sense of how effective she is at using the Internet (a characteristic known as Internet self-efficacy)

  • The person's need to belong

  • Collective self-esteem, or how the individual's social network feels about itself as a whole

Extroverts are also more likely to use social networking sites; extroverts are more likely to enjoy socializing offline as well. In addition to meeting social needs, people use the internet to maintain their online social networks as a goal in and of itself.

One of the more common criticisms of the rise of social networking sites is that they're making people and society more isolated and less sociable. Yet many users say these online communication tools have a reinforcing effect on their social lives offline. Good offline social lives remain good online and vice versa.

Social networking sites are used to strengthen and solidify offline existing relationships. In other words, lots of people build, rebuild, rekindle, and maintain relationships online — often to avoid feelings of loneliness and build a sense of connection. However, research shows that individuals with weak or thin social networks offline do not necessarily gain or create strong or dense networks online. Those who struggle socially do not necessarily gain social prowess or benefits from going online.

Social popularity online looks a lot like it does offline, and it's kind of shallow. For example, people who are physically attractive and have physically attractive friends have more friends all around.

Online dating

Online match-making is widely popular. Some statistics show that nearly one-fifth of all marriages in the United States began as online relationships. It's a multi-billion dollar industry. And there is no shortage of critics on online match-making. Some of the concerns come from a safety perspective; others don't believe that a person can really get to know anybody well enough online. But online dating has its share of advocates. Is online dating really very different from old-school, live dating?

Online match-making is different from its offline version in some important ways. To begin with, the "getting to know you" phase, and sometimes even the courtship phase, of relationships is altered:

  • Meeting: Offline match-making usually begins more slowly than its online counterpart. People tend to meet in less deliberate ways through their typical social circles or daily activities such as church, work, or class (unless you're "set up" by someone). Offline tends to be a function of proximity; in the traditional scenario, you date people in the same town. But online can connect you to potential mates from anywhere in the world; physical proximity isn't an issue.

  • Gathering information: In most offline match-making scenarios, a person gathers information about a potential mate slowly as it emerges or comes up during casual conversation with that person or with mutual friends. After all, no one wants to go on a date and feel like they're being interrogated or interviewed. But online match-making connects you to the facts and salient aspects of a person right from the start in just a few lines of a profile on a dating website.

  • Compatibility: Online data doesn't allow you to see the other person in social action or indicate how your friends may like the potential mate. For that, you have to go offline, where the pace of finding out how you "get along" and interact with each other tends to evolve over time. A few dates can give a person a lot of data on how a potential romantic partner behaves with people and in social situations.

The main thrust of online dating services' marketing is that these sites can connect you to an extremely large number of potential mates. The premise is that seeing a large pool of possible sweetheart candidates facilitates finding "Ms./Mr. Right" because you've conducted an exhaustive search among people who are also actively looking for someone to date. A criticism of this aspect of online dating is that the sheer number of candidates encourages seekers to resort to "quick and dirty" or shallow "rule-out" strategies; people thus make snap judgments based on obvious but perhaps unimportant features in a person's profile.

Some researchers also warn online daters against what they call the assessment mindset, in which other people are perceived as commodities or objects to be consumed instead of as valuable people with a set of attributes and shortcomings. This feature of online dating may lead to a dehumanizing tendency. That is, you might see someone as a means to your end rather than as a real person. This is a stark warning but research lends some credence to the notion.

For example, the more dating profiles a person can access, the more she will engage in searching for the "ideal mate" or "soul mate," which is problematic because basic social psychological and relationship research indicates that when a person expects a mate to be "ideal," that relationship is less likely to succeed when stress or challenge arrives. A large pool of potential mates may also lead online daters to doubt their romantic choices because they perceive somebody better to be out there, waiting among the yet-to-be-explored profiles.

But does finding a mate online work? No scientific data exists to support the notion that online match-making is more or less effective than offline. There are simply two options with a different set of problems and perks. As with other aspects of online versus offline relationships and social networks, the two worlds aren't all that different; perhaps the online versions just deliver a more exaggerated or amplified form of the same stuff you get offline, perhaps faster, simpler, but no data to suggest better (or worse for that matter).

Brain activity

How are people's minds, thinking, and perhaps brains changing in response to digital technology and the Internet? Are they changing they ways people think, reason, problem solve, or learn? The answer to those questions remains a very fertile "it's too soon to tell anything definitive." But there are some initial findings, and they're mostly good news.

Some studies show that surfing the net (browsing websites, connecting to links to other web pages, consuming media on the internet such as video or images) — instead of making people "shallow" or allowing them to "shut off their brains" — actually stimulates the brain in a way that enables people to use a greater proportion of their neural circuitry than when they're offline. In particular, brain circuits involved in decision making and complex reasoning seem to be stimulated. Other research shows that playing video games, even violent ones (the scourge!) can have a positive impact on cognitive performance.

Attention spans

Certainly those digital kids can't pay attention though. They all have ADHD right? After all, multitasking is a way of being for many digital people. The stereotype is a teenager on the phone, surfing the net, and downloading a movie all while listening to a professor lecture in an Introduction to Psychology class. And unfortunately, the research in this area actually leans toward the critics. There's no credible data or evidence to suggest that attention capacity or ability to focus is better in the digital population; the claim that they've learned to multitask is unsubstantiated. Data, however, does show that attention suffers in multitasking situations and, as a consequence, so does overall performance. The evidence so far suggests that it is more efficient to focus on one specific task than to divide your attention across a variety of tasks.

On the other hand, many people present a lower attention span through impulsivity or impatience. The digital generation gets information fast — faster than any other generation ever. But no scientific evidence proves that digital technology and the Internet are making people more impatient.

Memory

People have become concerned that because "everything" is on the Internet, humans will stop memorizing information because we can just Google it. Columbia University researchers reviewed four studies looking at the impact of Internet use on memory and found that when people know they will have access to information later, they recall or remember less but instead remember where they can access the information. This could be nothing more than an "open book test" phenomenon. If you know the test is going to be open book, you might not "bother" memorizing the material.

Trust in information

Researchers have examined whether the digital generation (people born after the advent of digital technology and the Internet) judges information from peers' opinions as expressed on the Internet as more credible than information from authority figures. So far, the data doesn't support this claim — not yet anyway. Although people do seem to value peer opinions found on social networking sites (SNSs) more when it comes to entertainment and preference purchases, other studies show that when it comes to learning and getting information for academic assignments, for example, even the digital generation still value the authority of teachers, parents, and textbooks over peers.

What about Wikipedia, Ask Jeeves, and any number of "Q&A" threads, chats, and advice sites on the web? Certainly these are accessed on a regular basis, but what does the research say about people's trust in these sources? These sources are sometimes referred to as collaborative repositories or crowdsourcing — getting information from an online group of people or community. How do I know that "pancakeBob" or "Awesome42SSFred" from the advice forum are reliable sources? This is not an easy question to answer, but one way this is addressed is through user comments on the reliability and validity of information posted by others and not allowing those comments to be changed once posted. So basically, trustworthiness is established by others commenting on it. Wikipedia relies on "tagging" articles with problems and notifying the user and reader of these issues, usually requesting an author make some fixes to remedy the situation.

Okay, so if you get the wrong advice from the web about how to fix a computer glitch or prepare an exotic meal, nobody dies — but what about the health information people get from the web? Certainly the trustworthiness of online health information is critical. In many respects, health information from the Internet should be evaluated the same way health information is evaluated offline: references to scientific research, credible sources such as licensed professionals, bias such as who is paying for the site, and how current the information is.

Lowering helpful inhibitions

Digital technology — computers, mobile phones, iPads, iPods, the Internet, and the like — are turning out to be less harmful than helpful overall. But these technologies do have some "dark sides." Cybertheft and crime is a multi-billion dollar industry. Did your long lost uncle in Nigeria almost get your last $10,000?

Unfortunately, numerous news stories report children and adolescents being lured into dangerous (offline) situations by online predators through chat rooms, e-mails, and other online ploys. In some ways the power, reach, speed, and anonymity of digital technology and the Internet make it much easier to commit certain types of crimes and offenses and even facilitate new crimes such as Internet child pornography. And they've also expanded the realm of application for offline problems such as addiction and bullying.

Anonymity can lower a person's inhibitions and make it much easier to lie and deceive. Digital technology in general and the Internet in particular make anonymity much easier to come by. Have you ever noticed how rude and downright nasty some of the comments on YouTube can be? What about book reviews on Amazon? It appears that computer-mediated communication has a tendency to facilitate less-inhibited communication. Cyberpsychologist, John Suler calls this type of unrestrained communication toxic disinhibition.

Dr. Suler outlines several factors that contribute to the unrestrained verbal behavior sometimes encountered online:

  • Anonymity: A person's actions or words cannot be directly traced to him online in many cases, making it easier to act or speak in ways that he would not otherwise.

  • Asynchronicity: Online communications often do not occur in real time, so the emotional impact of a heated situation may not factor into someone's thinking.

  • Minimization of status and authority: Online, everyone is an equal (or so it seems), so communications tend to be a bit more brazen than that may be offline.

Online deception

Unfortunately, inappropriate and potentially damaging behavior doesn't stop with name-calling and verbal insults. Deception has become a somewhat ubiquitous online phenomenon as well. People pretending to be completely different people, online financial scams, and outright fraud occur every day online. A 2010 movie titled Catfish took a look at online dating and romance scamming, and the word "catfish" is now synonymous with this type of behavior. Essentially, deceptive individuals set up fake dating or social media profiles, lure unsuspecting suitors in, and then engage in sometimes very long online relationships with victims all while being somebody completely different.

Is the online environment just full of sociopaths? Cyberpsychologists Avner Caspi and Paul Gorsky call this identity play. Their research found that frequent Internet users are more likely to deceive through online activity than less frequent users and, in contrast to face-to-face deception, some perpetrators view online deception as enjoyable in its own right. These cyberpsychologists propose the existence of an altered online morality that perpetuates deceitful online behavior.

Cyberbullying

Lawsuits and even criminal charges follow teen suicides over cyberbullying all over the United States. There's no question, cyberbullying is a problem. Cyberbullying as an aggressive, intentional act carried out by a group or individual, using electronic forms of contact, repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself. Cyberbullying can occur in chat rooms, e-mail, SNSs, and any other CMC medium. It can be repetitive or happen only once. It can take the form of verbal threats, posting of pictures or videos, and any other verbal (textual) behavior that fits the definition (such as lambasting someone's reputation or spreading lies).

An obvious difference between cyberbullying and face-to-face bullying can be that physical power differences are less relevant online. Yet motives to inflict harm and fear appear to be similar in the two versions of bullying. Another difference is that face-to-face bullying offers the perpetrator some form of immediate reinforcement; reinforcement in cyberbullying may be delayed or experienced more indirectly.

With face-to-face bullying, males tend to be the vast majority of perpetrators. However, some studies show that females and males engage in cyberbullying at the same rates of perpetration; other research indicates only slightly higher rates for males. Other similarities are the underlying motivations to bully: social control, dominance, and entertainment.

What can people do? First of all, bullying of any kind should never be ignored by witnesses. However, there are instances where you could ignore a single case of cyberbullying and then wait and see if the bully simply moves on. If you are being cyberbullied, here are a few more tips to keep in mind:

  • Tell someone else and talk about it.

  • Never retaliate because it could feed into the bully's motivation.

  • Tell the perpetuator(s) to stop, unequivocally.

  • Save the evidence and document incidents.

  • Block the bully's access to you through security settings on social media or e-mail.

  • Report incidents to the content provider or network administrator.

  • Call the police.

Online addictions

Comedian Aziz Ansari takes a humorous jab at himself for being what appears to be addicted to the Internet. He tells the story of how he, when working at his computer, often stops what he's doing and decides he needs to know everything there is to know about the actor Joe Pesci. This can take hours; at some point he realizes he has to get back to work — but not before he keeps looking up more and more and more and more.

Internet addiction is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a formally diagnosed mental disorder. However, it is recognized as a problem in the health field; people experience and suffer from Internet addiction and often need treatment for it. Internet addiction can be understood as obsessive and compulsive overuse that interferes with functioning. Here are a few more clues that a person might be addicted to the Internet:

  • The Internet is the most important thing in the his life.

  • His mood changes substantially in response to use or non-use.

  • He requires more and more time online to reach the same level of satisfaction.

  • He becomes sad or angry if he cannot be online.

  • His personal relationships suffer or his school or work performance declines due to Internet use.

  • He has a tendency to relapse after periods of controlling Internet usage, and returns to addictive behavior.

Risk factors for becoming addicted to the Internet include being male, alcohol consumption, dissatisfaction with family life, and recent stress. Notably, similar factors are found for all addictions. Because it's not viewed as necessarily different from other addictions, perhaps the issue is not the properties of the Internet itself but rather an individual's seeking refuge from stress in the online universe. Fortunately, treatment programs for Internet addiction are available in the United States and many other countries throughout the world.

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