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Dr Mary Aiken

IF YOU READ JUST ONE BOOK THIS YEAR…
make it ‘The Cyber Effect’ by Dr Mary Aiken

In a year when we learned to expect the unexpected, one quote stands out for me in 2016. Some of us haven’t had enough of experts and think it is wise and prudent to hear what they have to say. So how about this from Dr Mary Aiken, author of The Cyber Effect, one of the world’s leading cyberpsychologists, on whom the TV series CSI: Cyber bases the character Avery Ryan, played by Patricia Arquette:

“It is time for the tech industry to step up and pay attention to social problems associated with use of its products. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have pledged to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares to the cause of human advancement. That represents about $45 billion at Facebook’s current valuation. I would respectfully suggest that all of this money be directed towards human problems associated with social media” (my italics).

Cyberpsychology is in its infancy, by definition. There is only a little research into the impact of the internet on human behaviour but initial findings are showing up a host of problems. If the professionals are only just getting to grips with this, it is no surprise that the rest of us are clueless. The risk is we think there is no problem because we can’t see one. 

We should resist being either optimistic or pessimistic about the internet. If making that statement in the first place surprises you, it may indicate you fall into the former category. It is tempting to hallow all technological development because it takes effort to think through its detriments and makes us look Luddite if we do. The internet is a human creation. To watch some Silicon Valley product launches is like camping under Mount Sinai as shiny new tablets are handed down by which we can plot our lives. A more critical stance is called for. If human beings created, designed and coded the internet, we can be sure it contains within it their strengths and weaknesses. Like every other significant development in history, it is a mixed blessing. This also requires pessimists to respect and cherish the remarkable leap in human development that the internet represents. Many people have been, and will be, blessed by its genius.

On the whole, we assume that economic developments are largely for the good, with any drawbacks being a small but necessary cost inherent to the process. But what if the cost is much greater than we thought? This is the question that cyberpsychologists are grappling with and The Cyber Effect helps to frame the questions, offering some provisional answers.

We need to see the internet as a real place, for a start. This means we need to regulate it much better than we have been allowed to so far, and to spend more effort protecting children on it. This probably includes how quickly we introduce them to it (as Mary Aiken says when asked how soon it is safe for a parent to give a mobile to their child: how soon do you introduce them to your mobile? Children note what we hold dear and want to copy us when they are not ready to).

There is a huge feedback effect from the internet. What happens online does not stay online, but changes behaviour offline. There is an amplification effect. One of the most serious is the growing addiction to pornography online. The outcomes cannot be contained but must impact on personal intimacy and the value of women, in particular. But it is only one addiction among many which is growing deeper today. And perhaps the greatest addiction of all is to the internet itself. If you doubt me, watch the developing compulsion around the use of your phone. Early results for Facebook in 2016 showed that its users spent an average of fifty minutes a day on the site, which is almost as much as we spend eating and drinking each day.

When we start to see the internet as a real place, there is a chance the Church may wake up to its calling to help people live as disciples online; to navigate with confidence and effectiveness its inherent missional opportunities, pastoral openings and moral dilemmas. To use it to bless others more than to promote ourselves.

When did you last hear your church hold a proper discussion about the internet this way? 

 

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