A battle cry echoing from media portals

A review of 'The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behaviour Changes Online', by Mary Aiken. Published by John Murray; 2016; Hb £20.00.

Newsagents and general bookstores have found their shelves sagging under an influx in trade books describing online interactions and behaviours in recent years, and there is frequently a focus on the negative repercussions of such technologies, particularly for children. The Cyber Effect was recently added to this emerging trend, covering similar topics to those already explored in other texts (including the potential detrimental impact of technology on attention, health, romance and interpersonal interactions, as well as warnings of dark net activities, cyberbullying, online predators and addictions).

The Cyber Effect takes as one of its recurring themes that ‘Technology is not good or bad in its own right. It is neutral…’. While Melvin Kranzberg’s laws of technology are not cited in Aiken’s book, there are prominent similarities between Aiken’s message and Kranzberg’s First Law – ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral’. Both Aiken and Kranzberg warn that the longer-term effects are frequently unknown when the technologies are first implemented and that aspects of behaviour and societal factors can be highly influential on the eventual consequences and evaluation of advances. Indeed, the book repeatedly laments the lack of academic research on the exposure to certain technologies, using this as a battle-cry for suggestions based on personal observations and case studies gleaned through media portals. There is very limited inclusion of the findings of over two decades of scholarly studies in cyberpsychology, and only occasional mention of the much broader research in developmental, cognitive, social and health psychology that provides insights into technology’s potential impact on human behaviour and abilities.

Aiken writes in a highly accessible manner, which will certainly make assimilation of the message easier for those without a psychological background. It is unfortunate that the book tends strongly towards the description of negative aspects of technology and online life – while it posits that the beneficial aspects of technology are already widely presented by marketing professionals and therefore a book focusing on negative aspects is required to restore equilibrium, it could more accurately be argued that many of the popular psychology books in this field do favour examination of the negative consequences of technology use. Consequently, a more positive approach may have been the more appropriate one, to inform parents and other technology users that psychology has also identified a legion of benefits to users, especially children.

As an academic working in this field of study, I am far from the targeted audience for this book, and it is difficult to concur with an approach that favours extensive speculation, despite the absence of longitudinal research for some topics. Potentially the greatest strength of this text is that it may increase awareness by parents of potential threats to children online, or may encourage users to take more caution with their personal data. Conversely, it is also possible that the majority of those who purchase or read this book are already anxious about such matters, and the book serves to reinforce concern while failing to offer clear description of the counterpoints to this perspective.

- See also Professor Mary Aiken on her work.

- Reviewed by Gráinne Kirwan, Lecturer in Psychology and Co-Chair of the MSc in Cyberpsychology, Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology

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