The digital age, robot kids, and conversion therapy

Reports from three keynote presentations in the Student Stream of BPS Conference 2021, beginning with Alice Sims, Deputy Chair, BPS Student Committee, on Dr Amy Orben’s.

The opening talk in this year’s student stream of the annual conference was from Dr Amy Orben (University of Cambridge), ‘Rethinking Psychology in the Digital Age’. Opening with a historical perspective, Orben noted technology-related concerns stretching back to radio use in the 1940s and its addictive nature. She explained that panic around technology appears cyclical, and that the development of each new technology appears to replace others over time.

An industry has sprung up around moral panic over technological advances, including countless research studies looking at video games through a lens of increased aggression and the possibility for addiction. Orben explained how technologies appear to be repeatedly linked to complicated changes within society, and we are quick to connect the two – for example, the use of smartphones and a reduction in mental health. That’s why a historical perspective can help put things in perspective. When reflecting on now and then, Orben did point to the highly individualised and algorithmically determined technologies of today. Their use is more time intensive and spilling over into more areas of our lives, such as health care and education.

Presenting her research around the link between digital technology and well-being in adolescents, Orben showed that specification curve analysis on a large set of cross-sectional data revealed a small negative correlation. She discussed the importance of understanding effect sizes – although small, this may be impactful on a worldwide scale. Understanding correlation and causation is also vital. The default argument is that social media use leads to a reduction of mental health, but that relationship could be reversed, or there could be other driving factors. Orben also stressed that understanding the impact of social media on the adolescent population is complicated due to the vast number of individual differences between people. The field has also not done enough to study diversity, she said.

A point I took away from the talk is that psychology cannot treat every technology that emerges as ‘new’. This has caused a disregard of previous literature, with research restarting every decade or so. Too much time has been spent on questions that are relevant to only a minority of the population. Orben concluded by stressing the importance of an overarching theory to help us progress, as opposed to being guided by the latest societal problem. That’s going to involve resources and expertise from right across the discipline. ‘We urgently need better-quality data,’ she added, ‘including communication with big technology companies for data access’. 

-       Listen to Dr Amy Orben on our podcast episode, ‘Should we worry about screen time?’

Developmental robotics

Our editor Dr Jon Sutton reports.

Demonstrating to the student stream audience that career paths in Psychology often begin or end elsewhere, Dr Angelo Cangelosi (University of Manchester, and The Alan Turing Institute) outlined his journey from ‘real psychologist’ to computational modelling. How can we design robots that are capable of using language to communicate with humans and other robots? Those researching the problem quickly bump up against the indeterminancy of language, and machines that learn can get ‘lost in words, a ‘merry-go-round of amodal symbol systems’ (push = ‘to press force-fully against to move’; force = ‘energy or strength’; energy = ‘strength or force’; strength = ‘the power to resist force’…). 

Robots can be easily pre-programmed to memorise a dictionary, but cannot fully understand the language they use. Children are slow but efficient: they use their body for situated interaction, and their brain integrates language and sensorimotor knowledge. ‘We need to ground a simple symbol system into modalities, into perception and action’, Cangelosi said. That means building and training a ‘three-year-old robot child’. Videos demonstrated how such a robot can learn the meaning of perceptually easy words, but also abstract words, and even the social context. This leads to areas such as trust in human-robot interactions, where Cagelosi’s background clearly comes in handy. ‘My training in psychology was useful to extract knowledge from the computer systems to better understand the performance,’ he concluded.  

A symptom of a culture of stigma

Dr Adam Jowett spoke in the student stream about tackling psychology’s harmful legacy around LGBT+ wellbeing and conversion therapy. Deputy Editor Shaoni Bhattacharya reports.

‘Some of you might be shocked that this is still happening in the UK in 2021 – and not without good reason.’ With this, Dr Adam Jowett, Chair of the BPS Psychology of Sexualities Section, dived into his talk on conversion therapy in the UK.

The UK government is currently bringing forward a bill to ban the harmful practice, which refers to attempts to change somebody from being gay or bisexual to being heterosexual, or to ‘try to convert them from being transgender to identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Jowett was careful to make clear that ‘conversion therapy’ is not a specific therapy and although it may be carried out by psychologists, it is practised widely by others including religious groups.

Conversion therapy should be placed within a broader agenda in psychology to enhance LGBT+ wellbeing, Jowett argued. He noted that: ‘It’s currently all too easy to go through one’s psychological education and never cover these topics.’

Conversion therapy has not been standard practice for over half a century, he said. Homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973 and has not been listed as a mental disorder by the World Health Organization (WHO) since 1990. Being transgender is no longer listed as a mental disorder in the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD). ‘Diversity in sexuality is considered part of normal human variation,’ said Dr Jowett, Associate Head of the School of Psychological, Social and Behavioural Sciences at Coventry University, who is leading research for the Government’s Equalities Office. Yet in a national survey of 108,000 LGBT+ people in 2017, nearly 7 per cent had either undergone or been offered conversion therapy. Some 2000 people across age groups had undergone conversion therapy in the UK.

There was wide variation in who was offered or underwent conversion therapy – with trans people, those of faith, and those from ethnic minorities disproportionately affected. ‘This appears to be an intersectional issue,’ he said.

Conversion therapy is a source of minority stress, he added, because it actively stigmatises LGBT+ people – perpetuating negative stereotypes and exacerbating internal conflict. It can also cut people off from sources of support such as LGBT+ groups.

Psychology has a ‘troublesome past’ and legacy of ‘historically pathologising sexual and gender diversity’, said Dr Jowett. He said that BPS journals published pathologising studies up until the late 1970s, based on his literature review published in the Psychology of Sexualities Section last year.

Banning conversion therapy alone will not ensure the safety and wellbeing of LGBT+ people, urged Dr Jowett. ‘We need to see conversion therapy as part of a bigger problem. It’s a symptom of a culture of stigma.’

-       Catch up with BPS Conference 2021. Get access to talks from some of the greatest thinkers in psychology including 5 keynote presentations, 3 student stream talks and 3 symposia. Register for £50 – watch anytime in July. 

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