‘Communicating can create a virtuous circle’

Ian Florance meets Linda Kaye, Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Cyberpsychology Section.

In Spring 2019, Ian Florance interviewed Simon Bignell about a number of things, not least the establishment of a Cyberpsychology Section within the Society (of which Simon was one of the founders). Ian decided to talk to Linda Kaye, the Chair of the Section, to see how it has developed – and how her interest in the area grew.

Much popular media coverage of digital technologies is unremittingly negative: tales of online addictions, dark web recruitment to sects and cults, the effect of unremitting Zoom conferences on individuals increasingly isolated by lockdowns. I put it to Linda that her research interests stress the positive: for instance ‘how online settings can promote social inclusion and well-being’. ‘I suppose I’m just an optimistic person and my work reflects this,’ she replies. However, she also notes that her own focus on the positives does not preclude that there are harms associated with digital technologies. 

Linda’s early training and education don’t suggest that she was going to move into this exciting new area of psychology. ’I come from a fairly traditional academic background. I enjoyed psychology at A-level although my original choices did not actually include psychology – I had picked Drama, Biology, Physics, and English Literature. But there was a clash and I dropped Biology and took on Psychology as a replacement.’ That range of courses suggests a real mix of humanities and sciences. ‘My Dad is a pharmacist, my Mum is a music teacher by training, so that reflects my upbringing and what appealed to me about psychology: it’s rooted by scientific enquiry but can be creative.’ She goes on to say that this hybrid of interests plays out in her enthusiasm for creative scientific communication; ‘how do you disseminate scientific findings in a way which really engages people?’ Linda’s YouTube channel shows she has grasped how to do this effectively in the various self-made animations of her research studies. 

‘I did my first degree in Leeds and over the first two years decided the practitioner route wasn’t for me. But in the third year I found increasingly that I loved presenting as well as doing my own dissertation research. I knew that if I going to go into lecturing, I would need to do a PhD anyway. Alongside that I did my postgraduate certificate in learning and teaching in higher education. My enthusiasm for teaching has been such a key part of who I am; starting from my previous job as a gymnastics coach to my lecturing career’. 

‘In deciding a topic for my PhD, I got interested in gaming: why was it so popular? I wanted to try to understand the positive experiences involved in gaming rather than simply re-emphasising harm, aggression, addiction, and other negatives. Of course people can experience harm from their online experiences but that’s not the whole story.’ This interest in the psychology of digital gaming has remained a core part of Linda’s research activities and she continues to explore how our social experiences related to gaming are important for identity and well-being. 

I think it’s worth stressing here what the Cyberpsychology Section is about. The Society website summarises:‘Cyberpsychology exists to pursue and formalise a scientific understanding of the impact, dynamic processes and outcomes that democratised digital technologies have enabled in individuals, groups and the wider society. By investigating issues around gaming, social media, virtual reality, online learning, and virtual interest groups, we hope to raise (and answer) questions about the motivations, experiences, and effects surrounding the interactions between humanity and technology. Cyberpsychology also includes the study of the psychological ramifications of cyborgs, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality amongst other things.’

Linda stresses that ‘Cyberpsychology can cross over with areas such as artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction. At its base is the question “What can we understand about the human experience from online behaviour?”’ She explains the attraction this area holds for her. ‘First you have a very wide group of stakeholders, not least the general public. We can establish ourselves as a genuine source of scientific information for the media and other outlets, on issues such as well-being, gaming, and social media. This is particularly relevant now. Covid has affected people’s views of social media for instance: increased use of social media platforms has shown certain groups that they’re a great way to keep in touch – at work and in your personal life. On the other hand, there’s ongoing concern about the mental health implications of this. This leads on to another of the key stakeholder groups: policy makers. I was invited to be the BPS representative, giving oral evidence to the House of Lords Covid-19 committee’. 

Reading reports of this committee meeting, it was clear that Linda stressed the needs for better designed research to really understand the motivations and effects of life online. She argued that technology companies need to be more open to sharing data for research and that organisations need to look at their employees’ health and safety more carefully. ‘Which stresses an even wider range of stakeholders – including charities and commercial companies.’

This and other experiences of communicating with diverse groups perhaps underlies Linda’s “2021 Cyberpsychology Tour”. It offers 10 lessons from cyberpsychology which she has presented many times over the last few months, ranging from Manchester, Leeds, Staffordshire, Bristol, Nottingham, Bournemouth and Belfast. ‘This talk really helped me draw together a lot of issues which had been buzzing around in my head from the different activities I’ve been involved in. It included issues such as why dichotomies between online vs offline are becoming problematic in the context of interconnected living, and how understanding technology use must go beyond volume (e.g. time spent using social media) to help us understand anything psychologically interesting. I love doing these sorts of things: I’ve presented at events like Psychology in the Pub and SciBar and that sort of outreach is something I really enjoy doing. Communicating in this way has a cumulative effect and can create a virtuous circle: the interest generated by public engagement raises new questions, which lead into new research projects, the findings of which can, in turn, be communicated widely.’

All these points – the importance of communicating, the diversity of stakeholders, the particular relevance of cyberpsychology now – are reflected in the Section whose first conference will be taking place online in the Summer. ‘The Section and its conference are about connectedness – bringing people together to talk about key issues. It’s interdisciplinary with people in the community who represent a range of subject areas and who work in a range of sectors. The obvious point is that we’re not a Division so we’re open to members from other member networks. Certainly, there is a large cross-over with members who are also in the Defence and Security Section and who work in this sector.’

I’m an associated member of the coaching psychology special interest group, where the issue of how non-psychologist coaches get involved is a topic of debate and specific proposals. Should non-psychologists be allowed to join the cyberpsychology section? ‘It’s a bone of contention at the moment: having non-psychologists involved would be invaluable. We certainly welcome people from other networks and the wider community and this might, in the end, result in subfields – clinical, education and occupational cyberpsychology for instance. We hope that our membership will reflect the diversity of our audience and the issues we look at, which cross divisional boundaries. We’ll see.’ 

Presently Linda is involved in further research into emoji, such as asking what may seem like an obvious question: ‘Are emoji emotional?’ Linda says she is working with collaborators in Madrid, Australia and the UK to run a series of experiments which measure processing of emoji stimuli and whether this is similar to how we process other emotional stimuli such as faces or emotional words. ‘So far, we are finding that emoji aren’t processed at an automatic level in the way we may expect from emotional stimuli, so maybe they aren’t as emotional as we thought! Maybe they just operate at a social processing level.’ Linda is also working with her PhD researchers on topics related to digital gaming. ‘One of these projects is studying digital games with a purpose and how these may help receptivity of prosocial messages. The gaming industry is huge and games have a significant potential to be powerful tools to support the way we work, live and function. Why wouldn’t we want to capitalise on those opportunities?’ And outside work? ‘I sing in two community choirs and love walking in nature. If the sun is out; I’m out.’

To conclude, Linda returns to her recent experiences. ‘As you can see, I’ve become more proactive in working with the media and communication experts to get key messages out there rather than waiting to be contacted. Working with people who understand communications both in my university and in the BPS has been invaluable. I must say that the policy and media teams at the BPS have been brilliant on this. Using non-traditional media – YouTube and Twitter for research findings – is also critical to getting to wider and non-academic audiences. And this activity has positive implications for the university… our recent Research Excellent Framework (REF) submission included an impact case study based on much of this outreach work. A lot of the media and public engagement has been a catalyst for my work being visible to key stakeholders. This has led to opportunities to work with charities and practitioners who are looking for technological solutions which apply (cyber)psychology insights. All these activities can help evidence the wider impact of our work to non-academic stakeholders, and highlights the value of being proactive on this not just for me personally, but the cyberpsychology field and my university.’ 

Register now for the Cyberpsychology Section online conference.

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