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Cyberpsychology, Digital and technology

‘Cybersecurity does not protect what it is to be human online’

Ella Rhodes spoke to Mary Aiken, Professor of Forensic Cyberpsychology at University of East London, about her recent work with the UK government on protecting people from harm online, and the areas of cyberpsychology which need more attention from researchers and policymakers.

24 August 2021

How did you become interested in cyberpsychology?

I first came across AI in the mid 90s in the form of one of the world's first chatbots, which a colleague of mine was developing. At the time, I was working in consumer behavioural profiling for a US public company in the marketing and advertising services sector when the fascinating and then new 'digital marketing' phenomenon began to emerge on the West Coast.

I quickly realised that my studies, up to that point, in psychology did not equip me to understand the potentially profound and pervasive impact of these new technologies. I reviewed the literature over time and in the late 90's came across the work of Professor John Suler, an acknowledged founder of the discipline of Cyberpsychology. I decided to resign from my job in industry, return to academia, and then went on to complete an MSc in Cyberpsychology and a PhD in Forensic Cyberpsychology.  

Cyberpsychology has come a long way since the late 90's; many academics worldwide have contributed to the establishment of the discipline. I had the honour of working with and being mentored by Professor Suler, an inspirational thought leader and educator. My vision for cyberpsychology has always been inclusive, encouraging people from various academic backgrounds to take higher degrees in the subject.

Some two decades following my introduction to cyberpsychology, I am delighted to share that I have been appointed as Professor of Cyberpsychology, and Chair of the new Department of Cyberpsychology at Capitol Technology University, Washington D.C.'s premier STEM University. In a global first, we are offering both online Masters (M.Res) and Doctoral degrees in Cyberpsychology. We hope to have a broad range of applicants for our programs, particularly in areas relevant to cyberpsychology that require further research, such as forensic cyberpsychology and cybercriminality, cyber ethics, AI and Virtual Reality, developmental cyberpsychology, eHealth, human factors in cybersecurity, infosec and online safety technologies.

Do you think cyberpsychologists could play more of a role in informing policy, as you have? 

Yes, absolutely, academics who are qualified in cyberpsychology are very well placed to advise and inform policy initiatives. I have worked closely with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) in terms of investigating and helping to establish the new online safety technology sector, or as we describe it 'Safety Tech'. Cybersecurity focuses on protecting data, information, networks and systems, but it does not protect what it is to be human online. Notably, your data is never going to suffer from low self-esteem or feel the need for revenge. Conversely cyber safety, or Safety Tech, delivers technology solutions to facilitate safer online experiences and protects users from harmful content, contact or conduct. It's a focus on protecting people – and therein lies the opportunity for cyberpsychologists, to deliver insight at the intersection between humans and technology. It is critical that networks and systems are robust, resilient and secure, it is equally important that people are psychologically robust, resilient, secure and safe in cyber contexts.

We all acknowledge that digital advances will drive our economies and enrich our societies, but to fully harness the internet's advantages, we must confront the online threats and harms it can propagate. We need to ensure the safety and security of those online – particularly those who are vulnerable.

Can you give examples of where this focus on online harms and online safety technologies has led? 

Our research team at the UEL Institute of Connected Communities explores technology solutions to technology-facilitated harmful and criminal behaviours. The study of cyberpsychology is an interdisciplinary scientific endeavour by design, which arguably counters the risk of subject-specific myopia. However, complex policy issues require an even broader transdisciplinary approach.

In 2020, cyber criminologist Professor Julia Davidson and I collaborated with a team of economic advisors and DCMS to produce a comprehensive sectoral analysis of online safety technologies in the UK. Our report investigated the UK online safety technology ecosystem, and developed a taxonomy of Safety Tech solutions delivering services at a system, platform, and endpoint level.

Building on this work we were commissioned by Ofcom, the UK regulator of online harms, to conduct research to help to inform their regulatory role in issuing guidance on appropriate measures to video-sharing platforms, specifically concerning harms that may impair the 'physical, mental and moral development' of minors. Our research project considered both quantitative and qualitative evidence and our findings informed a new conceptual framework.

We found a lack of consensus in the literature regarding risks and harms, tension between these concepts, issues surrounding correlation and causation, compounded by mediating factors and individual differences. This led us to conclude that 'creating a hierarchy or taxonomy of harms, was neither feasible, useful, practicable or proportionate in trying to create a system of the relative magnitudes of harms'. Therefore our findings informed an interconnected frameworks model, mapping both benefits and risks, along with social and technology solutions. 

Are there areas of cyberpsychology which are under-researched, or that will become more important in the future? 

There are several areas in cyberpsychology that are under-researched. The first is forensic cyberpsychology which focuses on the study of criminal, deviant, and abnormal behaviour online, a research and practice area of particular interest from my perspective. Our current University of East London (UEL) Horizon 2020 pan-European research project investigates human and technical drivers of cybercrime, our intention is to add to the emerging body of literature in forensic cyberpsychology, build empirical evidence to inform the study of criminal behaviour mediated by technology, and encourage a broad spectrum of researchers to contribute to this growing research field.

The second area could be broadly described as eHealth – technology-enabled healthcare solutions ranging from e-therapy to telehealth. Over a decade ago I conducted research investigating anxiety induced by health-related search online, an increasingly differentiated activity known in the field of cyberpsychology as cyberchondria, which has explanatory value regarding the impact of technology on both mental and physical well-being in the general population, and specifically those predisposed to health anxiety. A topical issue given what the World Health Organisation has described as an 'infodemic,' namely, 'too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak'.

We are currently researching the relationship between coronavirus, cyberchondria and cybercrime, or as we describe it 'the perfect storm'. Whilst the Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Sydney has a Cyberpsychology Research Group dedicated to training in the field of cyberpsychology and eHealth, as we advance more international research and centres of excellence are required.

Could you tell me more about some of your current research projects?

My current research efforts are primarily focused on the psychology of cybercrime. I am a co-lead investigator on a Horizon 2020 funded pan European project titled 'CCDriver', which focuses on understanding drivers of cybercriminality, along with investigation of new methods to prevent, investigate and mitigate cybercriminal behaviour. Notably, at five million euros of funding this is the largest international grant awarded to a cyberpsychology informed project to date.

We are surveying a stratified sample of youth population in eight EU countries (N=8000). Our project will contribute to the development of prevention strategies and practice guidance and will strengthen the research field by informing and adapting existing theoretical models regarding cybercriminality and juvenile cyber delinquency. Findings will inform evidence-based awareness, education and intervention initiatives and will build on our previous research, 'Youth Pathways into Cybercrime', undertaken for Europol's European Cybercrime Centre.

Our research group at UEL is currently working on various research proposals in the area of countering online harms, specific areas of interest are the measurement of psychological and physiological aspects of online harms, along with assessment of 'cyber developmental' factors. I am also an advisor to the UK Online Safety Data Initiative, a project bringing together expertise from tech industry suppliers and a range of government, academic, and civil society stakeholders. The initiative aims to drive innovation in the Safety Tech sector by 'providing companies with access to the vital data needed to develop world-class safety tools to identify and remove harmful content online'.

In terms of publishing – it's been busy, I have just completed a report for Europol titled 'The Cyber Blue Line' which was published in June 2021. It's a position paper that seeks to question the social contract between police and civil society, in a globalised world, in the cyberspace era. I am also the Principal Investigator on a research study currently investigating the US online safety technology or Safety Tech sector: our report will be published at the end of 2021. Additionally, I'm a member of an international research group developing AI-informed biometric solutions for age verification and security online – our findings have just been published, and last but not least I have just co-authored a book chapter 'Nature, Structure and Science of Cyberspace' in a book 'Cyberpsychiatry', the first academic publication to make a case for a cyber sub-discipline of psychiatry.

Key reading

Safer technology, safer users: The UK as a world leader in Safety Tech

Online safety data initiative

Ofcom to regulate online content

UEL report on protection of minors, plus research

Youth pathways to cybercrime

New law enforcement frontier