A renowned cyberpsychologist (no, I hadn’t heard of that job title either) discusses the impact of the cyberworld which we are all living in, our 24/7 connection to the internet, and the effect that it is having on a generation that are growing up with the internet as a huge part of their lives.
Admittedly, the subtitle of this book, A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist explains how human behaviour changes online – led me to expect something different. I thought it was going to be more about how perfectly decent and reasonable people often descend into bullying, unkind, trolling behaviour when hiding behind the anonymity of their keyboard. There is a chapter that deals with this, but generally speaking the book is more generalised, but still an interesting subject to discuss.
I wanted to read it because I do think this is an important and fascinating subject. Because I find it interesting and upsetting to walk into a restaurant and see a couple eating at the same table, but not really together because both of them have their eyes glued to their phones. Because it’s not unusual to see a group of young friends walking together, each looking at their own smartphone screens. Because there is now a whole wealth of knowledge at people’s fingertips, yet a lot of it is false or biased.
Unfortunately I also found this book to be incredibly biased. Yes, technology is isolating for some people, but there is so much good about it too. Dr Aiken says in the introduction that she wants to keep the book fairly science-light, which she does. This makes it easier to read in many respects, but also means that a lot of what she says comes over as purely her opinion with very little if anything to back it up. There’s a lot of “I would guess…” “It is my belief that…” “I believe…” etc. She does state a couple of times that there are a lot of positives about the internet, but doesn’t really acknowledge what they are, and focusses heavily on the negative.
Some of the subjects raised are vitally important – the aforementioned effect of bullying online, and how it is affecting mainly young people. There was one chapter about the effects of screens at close range to a child’s face and the effect it can have on that child’s vision. Cyberchondria – i.e., the obsessive checking of physical symptoms online and being convinced that you have the most serious disease imaginable. But none of these are new phenomenons. I remember the debates about whether it was right or just lazy to stick a child in front of the tv for very long. Bullying is unfortunately something that has been around as long as humans have, and hypochondria is a long recognised problem for many people – sure the internet has given people a new way to do all of these things, but it hasn’t caused the problems in the first place.
Although there is little anecdotal evidence to support what Dr Aiken says, she does occasionally come up with examples of what she is trying to say – usually tragic, anomalous stories (let’s face it, you can find one story to support almost anything you believe if you look hard enough).
I will say that Dr Aiken has an engaging and readable style and had the book been more balanced I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more. As it was, it comes across as more of a lost opportunity than anything else. An important subject, but a more open-minded discussion would have been nice.