Catherine Steiner-Adair is the author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.”
They all lurk out there in the cyber-world: perverts, predators, bullies. But the scariest threat may lie within ourselves. Author Mary Aiken warns that as the Internet increasingly dominates our world, our life online is fundamentally changing the way we behave as humans. We can look away, we can deny it, but the more we’re online, the more compulsive, more secretive, more cruel and more disconnected from our better selves we are liable to become. This cyber-effect not only threatens adults but also is influencing our children and the kind of grown-ups they will be.
Aiken, a leading forensic psychologist, is perhaps more popularly known as the inspiration for the TV crime drama “CSI: Cyber.” In her book, “The Cyber Effect,” she offers a fresh voice and a uniquely compelling perspective that draws from the murky, fascinating depths of her criminal case file and her insight as a cyber-psychologist — an expert on human behavior in the cyber-realm. She shows us the patterns of our online behavior we’re either too close to see or too uncomfortable to acknowledge. Who are we in the impulsive, disinhibiting, unfettered freedom of the cyber-environment, and what’s at stake in the consequences?
Her job, as she says, is to be armed with facts, evidence and insights about potential risks “so I can be prepared for the worst-case scenario. As we say in risk assessment, ‘Start at the apocalypse and work back.’ ” Her book offers a critical crash course in Cyber Psych 101, outlining core risky behaviors, why we engage, why we are vulnerable and why we can’t ignore the evidence of damaging cyber-effects any longer. She’s no alarmist, though she finds the evidence alarming: “From my perspective this is an emergency.”
Aiken is at her best when she uses her forensic lens to interpret material from across disciplines of applied psychology (behavioral, cognitive, social, evolutionary) as well as other fields of science, history, literature and popular culture. She uses the science of human behavior to define cyberspace as a unique environment — an actual space — not simply a virtual extension of the pre-digital world and our characteristic behaviors there. Yes, we still hang out, connect, flirt, fight, learn, do business and do good online. But disinhibition and anonymity in cyberspace foster a particular pattern of impulsivity, careless or inflammatory expression, social cruelty, deception, exploitation — and vulnerability. Consider the unsettling phenomenon of ubiquitous victimology, in which “the criminals are well hidden but you aren’t.” That extends from the ordinary streets of online life to the deep, criminal underground where predators roam and perps hawk illicit wares from drugs, guns and hired assassins to trafficked humans and tools for terrorism. Forget reality TV, this is reality. And it’s a mouse click away from your living room — and your curious child.
Our real-world senses do not serve or protect us adequately in cyberspace, Aiken warns. As humans, we’re caught in the gap between evolution and a sea change in our environment. Our instincts for appraising mates, pals and trustworthy others are visceral, designed by nature for face-to-face, embodied interaction in a physical environment. They fail to pick up signals when we meet in the cyber-realm. Without those protective filters, and unaware that they’ve been disabled, we’re vulnerable in new ways. Connecting online feels so easy and natural that we come to assume a newfound sameness and closeness with strangers.
This phenomenon of “online syndication,” as Aiken calls it — using the Internet to find others we think are like-minded and to normalize and socialize underlying tendencies — is a setup for easy disaster, as Aiken shows in her examples of people caught in cyber-crises: humiliating exchanges or exposure, debt, love affairs, fetishes, porn and gaming addictions, or the lure of criminal behavior. They fail to see the big disconnect between who they are in real life and who they are online, and the gap is fraught with consequences.
We see examples in the headlines every day, but Aiken also supplies more direct summary evidence. For example, earlier this year Britain’s National Crime Agency reported a six-fold increase in online-dating-related rape offenses over the previous five years, with 71 percent of the rapes occurring on the first date. Potential explanations offered in the report included that “people feel disinhibited online and engage in conversations that quickly become sexual in nature, which can lead to ‘mismatched expectations’ on the first date.”
But this is more than a catalogue of crime stories, stats and scientific findings. Aiken presents a common language — a glossary of terms — to describe the emerging concepts we need to understand to make headway on these issues. To familiar terms like “cyberspace” and “cyberbullying” she adds more than dozen new ones that effectively define distinct aspects of this evolving behavioral territory. “Cyberromance” and “cyberinfidelity” might seem obvious in their meaning, but they represent more than the addition of a trendy prefix. The behaviors, dynamics and consequences of each present an identifiable pattern in which cyber-actions play a unique, defining and often destructive role in our intimate relationships.
Or if you’ve ever gone online to seek medical information about a cough or a bug bite, you know that in today’s online diagnostic milieu, a quick search of a symptom can deliver an astonishing array of terrible possibilities. Maybe you’ve felt an impulse to keep clicking, keep searching, whether out of curiosity or growing anxiety. It can be a swift, slippery slope to “cyberchondria,” Aiken explains, in which an individual habitually and compulsively conducts health-related searches and finds only more and more catastrophic things to obsess about for themselves. The online ease makes it simple to extend that behavior on behalf of friends — “cyberchondria by proxy.”
Aiken’s psychologically sophisticated delineation of the process of “cyber-migration,” in which online behaviors become socially acceptable in real life, enables us to see clearly the insidious processes that are changing fundamental aspects of human relationships and potentially, she warns, the course of humanity. Since smartphones became ubiquitous appendages, we’ve fragmented our attention continuously, even compulsively, tuning out our immediate surroundings or conversations to text, check emails, shop or play games. We’ll ignore our baby’s gaze or our child’s needs to fixate on our screens. As Aiken notes, our devices “are so compelling that they can overwhelm basic human instincts.”
The chapters devoted to children are more of a look back than fresh reporting. They succeed, however, in sharing long-established evidence for those who aren’t familiar with it, and for those who are, gathering it in one place to make the case again. Aiken is concerned for children’s development, health and safety in a cyber-environment that replaces face-to-face interaction with online engagement and includes easy access to pornography and hyper-stimulating, addictive activity. The evidence is in, she says, and it shows conclusively that “there are windows in the formative years when very specific skills need to be learned. When those developmental windows close, a child may be developmentally or emotionally crippled for life.”
The often-chilling detail from her casework is ample evidence, as she writes, that the Internet “is clearly, unmistakably, and emphatically an adult environment. It simply wasn’t designed for children. So why are they there?” Indeed, why are we giving kids keys to the Internet? Who would ever think it’s a good idea for children to have miniature computers in their pockets that can take them anywhere online, unsupervised and unprotected? Aiken describes the lack of regulation, accountability, privacy and protection for children caught in this digital transition as a “crime against innocence.” It represents a massive seduction of parents and other adults who should know better, she argues. Her forensic perspective compels us all to demand better protection, reminding us that children ages 4 through 12 are the most vulnerable population on the Web.
Aiken laments that public concern and public policy have been muted, or mired in denial or debate over freedom vs. protections, in what she refers to as a lawless cyber-jungle. Fortunately, at least part of her audience is already working as passionately as she is for responsible change. In the past decade, science has given us an impressive body of literature that fuels the conversation about concern and caution. Illuminating books and blogs by psychologists, educators, scientists, physicians, journalists, parents and even kids have brought additional insight and urgency to the mix. An expanding movement in the United States and internationally is engaged in revamping core curriculum to prepare children to be savvy consumers of and participants in the digital domain. “The Cyber Effect” gives activists authoritative evidence and a rallying cry to bolster their work.
This is Aiken’s cyber cri de coeur as a forensic scientist, and she wants everyone on the case. It’s not enough to bemoan our kids’ missteps and vulnerability, or our own, in the cyber-realm. We have to act. As Aiken sees it, we have to hold the tech industry and policymakers to a higher, human standard. It’s not that cyberspace or our devices are malevolent by design, but rather that we need to consider our own proclivities and the cyber-effect that can bring out our most vulnerable selves — or our worst selves. It’s time we used our extraordinary connectivity for collective action to develop policies and regulations that aim to create a safer cyber-environment for children and the rest of us, Aiken writes — a Magna Carta for the cyber-world. “We cannot stand by passively and watch the cyber social experiment play out,” she warns. “In human terms, to wait is to allow for the worst outcomes.”
By Mary Aiken
Spiegel & Grau. 387 pp. $28