World of difference between real-life and online conduct

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Have you been online today? Maybe you just posted something to a social networking site, sent an email to someone, played a game or searched a term that didn’t make sense to you.

As we spend more of our working and leisure time online, technology can present many new dilemmas and scenarios. Cue the emergence of a whole new branch of psychology – “cyberpsychology” – that seeks to look at how our interaction with technology can have an impact on how we feel and what we do, including potentially damaging phenomena like cyberbullying, criminal activities and heightened anxiety.

“Cyberpsychology as a discipline is concerned with the impact of emerging technology on human behaviour,” explains Mary Aiken, a cyberpsychologist at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland’s Institute of Leadership, who will give a public talk in Dublin next week.

Understanding the difference

Of course not all behaviours associated with going online are negative, but by analysing the human component the hope is that research could point to more human-friendly technology designs, according to Aiken. In particular, she stresses the need to consider how the virtual world can accelerate or amplify behaviours that generally don’t have a happy outcome, such as cyberstalking, cyberbullying, online sex offending, adolescent risk taking, eating disorders or excessive gaming.

“Unique factors can combine online that can significantly alter human behaviour, for example in the case of cyberbullying, anonymity and online disinhibition can lead to youths and adults saying and doing things that they would never consider in a real-world context,” says Aiken. “And understanding this difference is key to addressing and moving towards eliminating maladaptive behaviours.”

One of Aiken’s own areas of research is cyberchondria, which describes anxiety as a result of the “escalation” of online medical or health-related searches.

“Escalation means for example going online with a headache and escalating from searching headache to searching migraine, and escalating from searching migraine to searching brain tumour.

“If you perform an online search and stay around headache, that’s not cyberchondria. But to review morbid or serious medical content and suffer anxiety or feel anxious as a result of the search, that could be considered ‘cyberchondriacal-type’ behaviour.”

Frequent symptoms

Findings suggest that the most frequently queried symptoms online are headache, muscle twitches and chest pain, and that they can escalate to brain tumour, neurological disease and heart attack accordingly. And because search results are ranked, checking out the worst-case scenarios can push them closer to the top of the results pile, then other people who search are more likely to see the serious conditions prioritised, notes Aiken.

Her own research previously carried out at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT) shows that curiosity is a big driver for people to carry out health-related searches online.

Pressure on

There’s emerging evidence too from other studies that when people search for medical terms, some also search for a local healthcare provider, which could in turn put pressure on healthcare provision, says Aiken.

There are some positive signs though: if you plug terms that appear to be symptoms into one of the major search engines, it now picks up on the medical nature of the query and offers a link to a page which explains how symptom search works and that the information is not medical advice. “It would appear the research in this area is having some positive impact when we see this sort of modification,” says Aiken.

But, more generally, she suggests that if a person has concerns about symptoms or is getting anxious from online searches, they should talk to their doctor: “Ask them what, if any, websites they would recommend where you can get positive and constructive information that is delivered in a way that’s not likely to cause anxiety.”

Cyberchondria: The talk

On the evening of November 28th, Mary Aiken will give a talk on Cyberchondria: the Internet and Self-diagnosis at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, as part of the ongoing MiniMed School Open Lecture Series.

Kate Kelly, chief librarian at the RCSI, will talk about Finding health information on the internet: the consumer approach as part of the same lecture session.

The talks are free but booking is essential, see rcsi.ie/minimed

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