"Human beings have created an entirely new virtual world in which to interact," says Dr. Cynthia Baxter, a forensic psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. "Twenty years ago, there was only a specialized group of people who had access to the Internet; now, everybody's online doing all kinds of things."
Where everyone goes, scientists and researchers follow, to study the kinds of things they do. Cyberpsychology is a sub-field of psychology concerned with the psychological effects and implications of computer and online technologies such as the Internet and virtual reality; "it's about how and why people interact online in the ways they do," says Baxter. That includes behavior on social media, Internet addiction, issues with online dating sites, cyberbullying, and other aspects of how people conduct themselves online. Some also apply it to research into human-computer interaction, or the online delivery of psychotherapy.
The term cyberpsychology may be unfamiliar, but it goes back more than two decades. According to John Suler, professor of psychology at Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ, and author of The Psychology of Cyberspace, "It was a term that surfaced in the mid-1990s among the early researchers who were studying online behavior."
Suhler said to his knowledge,"CyberPsychology & Behavior was the first journal to use the term." Launched in 1998, that U.S.-based journal changed its name to Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking in 2010.
Another journal, Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, launched in the Czech Republic in 2007. The publication's editor, David Smahel, is a professor at the Institute of Children, Youth and Family Research at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. Smahel says he was introduced to the field by reading Suler's book online in the late 1990s.
New to the U.S.
Despite its long pedigree, there are several reasons the term remains unfamiliar in the U.S.
"Cyberpsychology is just an applied psychology," says Scott Debb, assistant professor of psychology at Norfolk State University (NSU) in Norfolk, VA. "It's really not much different in that sense: take psychological theories that have existed, and apply them in this new area." There are a lot of people doing work in cyberpsychology around the country, according to Debb, but on an individual basis, rather than as part of a formal program.
Debb is leading the effort to establish a Master's program in cyberpsychology at NSU, which the school hopes to launch in the fall of 2019 as the first standalone degree program in the field in the U.S.
The study of cyberpsychology is better established overseas, with master's programs at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dublin, Ireland, and in England at the University of Wolverhampton and Nottingham Trent University (NTU).
Jens Binder, a senior lecturer in psychology at NTU, suggests that a greater concern with technology's side effects could be part of what gives cyberpsychology a higher profile in Europe. "There seems to be more institutionalized concern on a range of relevant issues in Europe, from well-being indicators to data protection aspects," he says.
Moreover, the British Psychological Society lists "cyberpsychology" in its taxonomy of areas of study. According to Debb, "The American Psychological Association has a division for Media Psychology and Technology, but not cyberpsychology. A lot of people who work in the area would gravitate toward that because it's established."
Security and profiling
One of the most practical applications of cyberpsychology is in the area of online security. Many of the courses and programs offered in Europe focus on security, which also underlies the program being developed at NSU.
"A couple of years ago, the computer science department was creating a proposal for a 'center of excellence' in cybersecurity," says Debb. "One of the things that they wanted was a social science aspect; that's where I came in. I had done some research and found cyberpsychology was gaining a lot of traction in Europe. I brought this to the attention of the principals on the project and explained that if the university could get into this niche area, we'd be on the cutting edge in the United States."
Last year, Debb and other members of NSU's Center of Excellence in Cyber Security organized a Cyber Analysis Simulation Environment (CASE-V) Cyberpsychology Workshop. Speakers from the cyberpsychology community included Mary Aiken (who appeared via videoconference), adjunct associate professor at University College Dublin's Geary Institute for Public Policy and founder/director of the Cyberpsychology Research Network.
Cybersecurity is also the focus of Baxter's involvement with the field. Her concern is that "where we're catching bad guys or trying to figure out who the bad guys are; if somebody sends a threatening message or a bomb threat or extortion attempt, how do we sort out how much of a threat that person is, and how do we handle them in an online environment? Why and when is this person choosing to interact in this way?"
Baxter works with Vancouver, British Columbia-based online educational institution and investigations firm Toddington International Inc. (TII), which provides training programs in cyberpsychology. At TII's Cyberpsychology and Threat Intelligence: Assessing Risk Online seminar earlier this year, for example, Baxter gave a full-day presentation covering such topics as online identities, the role of anonymity, personality disorders, radicalization, and social engineering.
Currently in the U.S., cyberpsychology remains more an area of interest for some researchers within social and applied psychology rather than a recognized field of its own. "I believe that will change, and likely sooner as opposed to later," says Robin Kowalski, a professor of psychology at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Kowalski explains her reasoning: "First, journals are already using the term. Second, as computer scientists and psychologists increasingly work together in the area of human-computer interaction, it will be only natural that cyberpsychology will become a more recognized field of study." She also points to the availability of funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation for programs in the "conceptually similar" cyber-human systems arena as evidence for its increased importance.
Yet proponents and practitioners of cyberpsychology still face some hurdles.
One of Debb's tasks in developing the proposal for Norfolk State's master's degree program is identifying the jobs for which graduates of the program would be qualified. "One of the major challenges that I've come across is finding jobs that specifically look for someone who's cyberpsychology-trained. There are jobs out there that a cyberpsychology graduate would be uniquely qualified for, whether it's for Google or Microsoft, or for car companies looking at self-driving cars, or fields with HCI (human-computer interaction) aspects. But that's the challenge—to define the cyberpsychology expert."
Smahel identifies the multidisciplinary nature of the field as an obstacle. "Scientists from different disciplines are looking at the same phenomena from different perspectives, but sometimes their language and understanding are so different that it is hard to find a consensus," he says.
Pointing to the potential for cooperation between informatics and psychology, Smahel says, "Cyberpsychology could bring more knowledge to understanding how people behave with computers, such as for improving information and communication security. The language of informatics and psychologists is often very different, though, and it is hard to demonstrate to informatics the advantage of social science methodology."
For Baxter, there's a challenge in simply keeping up; like cyber-everything-else, cyberpsychology evolves at Internet speed.
"This field isn't one where you can do two years of research on a project and then submit it to a journal for approval and nine months later it gets published; by then, it will be out of date." Baxter and her peers rely on meetings and conferences, such as the Association of European Threat Assessment Professionals (AETAP) Conference held in Helsinki, Finland, last April, to stay current with developments in the rapidly evolving field.
Jake Widman is a San Francisco, CA-based freelance writer focusing on connected devices and other Smart Home and Smart City technologies.