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Applying Cyberpsychology Research for a Positive Internet Experience

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There is a lot of opinion and not enough fact on how we use the internet and the effect of the internet on our lives; the goal of cyberpsychology is to establish the facts, said Oonagh O’Brien. At RebelCon.io 2019 she spoke about her cyberpsychology research on the use of the internet and its effects on student well-being and academic performance, which aims to inform policy and guidelines for positive use of the internet and positive development on the internet.

O’Brien mentioned that there’s concern in society about the negative effect of using the internet – outrage, polarization, vanity, election manipulation, disinformation, child development, mental health issues, and much more. She stated that awareness of the internet’s positive and negative impacts is needed to guide the development of policy in education, government and industry, as well as inform and develop individual awareness to enable effective management of mental and physical health while using the internet.

Research results in cyberpsychology focus on positive development on the internet, said O’Brien. In an example, she highlighted research that demonstrated that time spent browsing the internet and social media as a distraction activity can lead to self-comparison and negative self-assessment, while time spent contributing to the internet can have a positive effect on feelings of wellbeing (Gerson, Plagnol, & Corr,2017); and that suggested application development, where users are encouraged or incentivised to contribute rather than browse, could positively affect feelings of well-being experienced from use of the internet.

There is a lot of supposition about students’ behaviour on the internet; O’Brien questioned whether they are spending their time on our integrated learning system, or whether they are looking at cat videos. Her research analysing their actual activity will establish what the students are doing on the internet and how much of their time they spend online. Results from psychometric tests completed by the students will give an assessment of how internet activities are impacting students’ feelings of well-being and their academic performance. O’Brien highlighted that her research will also help her to identify the gap, if any, between what the students are reporting they are doing and what they are actually doing.

Initial examination of the findings on the level of internet addiction, problematic pornography use and gaming addiction at rates under 5% was comparable to results found in similar research; measures for Smartphone usage and social media engagement were in instances much greater than expected, as compared against similar research from similar participant cohorts, and results need further investigation; the students report very high levels of loneliness, and there is a correlation between loneliness and well-being, with an increase in loneliness showing a decrease in well-being, said O’Brien.

Oonagh O’Brien, a lecturer at Cork Institute of Technology, spoke about her research on cyberpsychology at RebelCon.io 2019, the conference that aims to bring together the Cork Software Engineering community over two days of workshops and talks on the "latest technology, culture and development practices in the software industry". InfoQ interviewed O’Brian about her research.

InfoQ: What is cyberpsychology research?

Oonagh O’Brien: Cyberpsychology is an emerging discipline that studies internet behaviour and its effects; how humans are impacted by internet technology, their behaviour online and what they see online, and effects on their well-being. The goal is to understand what people do online and how it impacts their lives.

InfoQ: What approaches are you using to do the research?

O’Brien: Cyberpsychology research is predominantly done by psychologists who rely on interviews and surveys to gather their data. Research is often limited by the volume of data available, as enrolling participants in surveys is difficult. The information provided from survey data is also self-assessed, rather than based on cold facts. In my research, I am using actual data gathered on every internet interaction of 12,000 students on the CIT network for over a year. I have distributed a survey electronically, to the same student body. The students in the psychometric tests in the survey assess their behaviour on the internet and the impact of that behaviour over that same time period. Using the data gathered, I can estimate levels of addiction and problematic behaviour in the respondents, and the psychometric tests assess Smartphone addiction, internet addiction, social addiction, fear of missing out, problematic use of pornography, well being, and loneliness.

My background is in computer science; my PhD supervisory team consists predominantly of psychologists, who research addiction and have a particular interest in cyber addiction. Their expertise is invaluable in interpreting and questioning the data that I gather.

I am taking an agile approach to managing the research project; there is an overall project goal, a project backlog and bite-size deliverables in sprints of a few weeks. The Agile approach works as I am continually making measurable progress; I stay focused on goals and firm time commitments.

The goal of my research is to identify problematic behaviour in a student body. Because of my job as a lecturer, I am in constant contact with students, which is very useful for my research as observing and interacting with them gives me ideas about what is problematic behaviour on the internet and gives me opportunities to talk to them about my ideas. I have created student projects which fulfill the module’s learning objectives, and also inform my research. For example, in a student project on human-computer interface design, the students analysed Smartphone usage apps. There were able to give me very interesting insight into their behaviour on the internet, and their opinions on interference with that behaviour. The students analysed the usability and the interface to a "Smartphone usage" app, and the students all said that they discovered they actually used the internet far more than they had estimated, and were frustrated and annoyed by the app’s attempt to interfere with their usage.

InfoQ: How can organizations apply the findings from your research? What can they do if they want to impact the well-being of people using their products and services?

O’Brien: Research is showing that internet use can be problematic or addictive. Companies need to consider evidence of the effect of technology they are developing or delivering, and how it is affecting the mental and physical health of their users - they have a duty of care. I have been discussing technology at a high level, however "humane technologists" are suggesting that recommendations and behavioural advertising are a key problem; human weakness is being overwhelmed by an extractive attention economy which is resulting in the downgrading of attention spans, relationships, civility, community and habits.

The Center for Humane Technology, a group set up by concerned technologists in Silicon Valley, is recommending a move to technology design which focuses on:

  • Engendering calm
  • Enabling focus and learning
  • Allowing more authentic and meaningful connections with others
  • Promoting feelings of cooperation and connection with others

And away from:

  • Artificial social systems
  • Overwhelming AI
  • Extractive attention systems

Technologies are overwhelming human weakness by overloading dopaminergic systems, and manipulating our basic instincts and our cognitive biases.

Companies can use research on positive and negative effects of behavior on the internet to ensure they develop technology that enhances their customers’ lives.

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