As social networks like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram absorb our time and our attention, Dr Mary Aiken - a leading expert in forensic cyberpsychology - explores in her new book The Cyber Effect how the internet is shaping our perception of the world around us, examining what effect this will have on our children’s development, our ability to form new relationships and how much we are willing to share with the world.


How many times have you seen a baby in a pushchair clutching a smartphone? Or a toddler tethered in a restaurant baby chair furiously swiping an iPad? These cyberbabies are clearly absorbed by their virtual pacifiers – but has anybody stopped to think about the impact of technology on the developing infant?

The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends no screen time for children under 18 months (with the exception of video calls). That’s no TV for babies, no apps with funny cartoons on a parent’s or babysitter’s mobile phone, and no animated Disney Movies on an ipad. There is a modern perception (or misconception) that young children need to be kept busy and occupied at all times. Somewhere along the line, a misinterpretation of neuroscience has led parents to believe that all stimulation for a child is good stimulation. They believe, wrongly, that a young brain must be kept constantly challenged and engaged. It’s as if parents fear their toddler will become bored with real life, which I guess means life without a screen.

Young children’s behaviour is changing, British teachers are reporting an escalation of problems associated with pervasive tablet use among preschool-age children including developmental delays in attention span, fine motor skills, dexterity, speaking, and socialisation, as well as an increase in aggressive and antisocial behaviour, obesity, and tiredness. My advice: pay attention to the guidelines - put away the devices until your child is old enough for them.

Making friends in cyberspace

The number of social contacts or “casual friends” with whom an average individual can handle and maintain stable social relationships is around 150, known as Dunbar’s number. This number is consistent throughout human history, and is the size of the modern hunter-gatherer societies, the size of most military companies, most industrial divisions, most Christmas card lists (in Britain, anyway), and most wedding parties. Anything much beyond Dunbar’s number is too complicated to handle at optimal processing levels.

Now imagine the child who has a Facebook page and an Instagram account, who participates on Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Twitter. Throw into that mix all the mobile phone, email, and text contacts. A child who is active online, and interested in social media, could potentially have thousands of contacts. We are not talking about an intimate group of friends. We are talking about an army. And who’s in this army? These aren’t friends in any real-world sense.

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They don’t really know and care about you. They are online contacts, their identity and age and name potentially false. According to Dunbar, if children have grown up spending most of their social time online with thousands of these “friends,” they may not get enough real-world experience in handling social groups of any size, but particularly on a large scale, rendering them even less able to cope with real-world crowds. In other words, spending more time on social media can render children less competent socially, not more.

Me, my selfie and I

In the age of technology, identity appears to be increasingly developed through the gateway of a different self, a less tangible one, a digital creation.

Let’s call this “the cyber self”, or who you are in a digital context. This is the idealised self, the person you wish to be. It is a potential new you that now manifests in a new environment, cyberspace. To an increasing extent, it is the virtual self that today’s teenager is busy assembling, creating, and experimenting with. Each year, as technology becomes a more dominant factor in the lives of teens, the cyber self is what interacts with others, needs a bigger time investment, and has the promise of becoming super popular, or an overnight viral celebrity. The selfie is the frontline cyber self, a highly manipulated artifact that has been created and curated for public consumption.

In behavioural terms how do we explain that weird, vacant, unmistakable expression on the faces of many selfie subjects? The eyes look out but the mind is elsewhere.

The virtual looking glass could be socially isolating, except for one thing. The selfie can’t exist in a vacuum. The selfie needs feedback. A cyberpsychologist might say that’s the whole point of a selfie. Selfies ask a question of their audience: Like me like this?

The Privacy Paradox

The privacy paradox was first introduced by Professor Susan B. Barnes to demonstrate how teenagers exhibit a lack of concern about their privacy online. It’s an interesting shift because so often in the real world, many teens are self-conscious and tend to seek privacy. But online, something else happens - their behaviour changes. Even teenagers who are well versed in the dangers and have read stories of identity theft, sextortion, cyberbullying, cybercrimes, and worse continue to share as though there is no risk.

In 2005, when the Facebook accounts of 4,000 students were studied, it was discovered that only a small percentage had changed the default privacy settings. A more recent study, shows that now almost 55 percent of teenagers have adjusted their Facebook settings to restrict total strangers from viewing their content. While that shows a change to greater concern about privacy, it still is too low a number.

The explanation is lack of interest - teenagers simply don’t care. Why? Because privacy is a generational construct. It means one thing to baby boomers, something else to millennials, and a completely different thing to today’s teenagers. So when we talk about “privacy” concerns on the internet, it would be helpful if we were talking about the same thing - but we aren’t.

But just because teenagers don’t have the same concerns about privacy as their parents and don’t care who knows their age, religion, location, or shopping habits, it doesn’t mean they don’t pay attention to who is seeing their posts and pictures. Teens actively adjust what they present online depending on the audience they want to impress. Everything is calibrated for a specific purpose - to look cool, or tough, or hot.

In other words, when it suits them, teenagers can be enormously savvy about how to protect the things they want kept private, mostly from their parents. Ian Miller, who studies the psychology of online sharing sums it up as follows: “the kind of privacy adolescents want is the same kind of privacy that they have always wanted… they don’t care if Facebook knows their religion, but they do care if their parents find out about their sex life.”

Cyber selection

Nothing in recent years has proven the power of appearance more than the success of the dating app Tinder, which for young adults puts the two most important mating selection factors together quickly and brilliantly - proximity and attractiveness. On Tinder, you adjust your settings to find prospects in a proximal range that makes sense for you. Based on your location, photographs of prospects are provided. If you like a picture you see, you swipe right to learn more.

Tinder claims to have generated 9 billion matches, more than the human population on Earth, which suggests that either the whole world is using the dating app or some people are just really, really active. The stats are impressive: 196 countries, 1.4 billion swipes per day, 26 million matches per day. From a behavioural point of view, the process of swiping right for approval, and learning that your own image has been swiped right by someone else, has been described as “addictive” and even rewarding on a neurological level.

Are we moving toward an era when technology-mediated relationships will be ephemeral, lasting only as long as a swipe? If the swiping behaviour is actually what young adults find neurologically rewarding, it may be that they enjoy that more than actually finding a mate, or love. Some surveys suggest that face-to-face encounters between individuals, romantic or otherwise, are steadily on the decline. We may be moving from natural selection to cyber selection.

The Cyber Effect  by Mary Aiken is out now (John Murray, £9.99)
The Cyber Effect​ by Mary Aiken is out now (John Murray, £9.99)

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