How policing online is becoming more challenging and what can be done?
If you have children, stop what you are doing and pick up a copy of The Cyber Effect, a fascinating book that explores how human behaviour changes online. Mary Aiken is an expert in forensic cyber psychology, a new discipline that combines psychology, criminology and technology – The Times
Dr Aiken has written a two-part blog for the College of Policing newsletter which explores behaviour online.
I am a Forensic Cyberpsychologist, which means that I specialise in the impact of technology on humans - particularly abnormal, criminal and deviant aspects of behaviour.
I have been involved in a dozen different research silos, and have studied everything from teen sexting to organised cybercrime, the one thing I have observed repeatedly is that human behavior is often amplified and accelerated online by what I believe to be an almost predictable mathematical multiplier, the cyber effect, the E = mc2 of this century.
We all know about the incredible benefits of the Internet - the convenience, connectedness, creativity, altruism, educational and commercial opportunities. An army of marketing experts working for all the biggest tech companies do nothing but try and convince us of the benefits.
My job isn't to criticise technology. Good science focuses on balance. If I focus on some of the negative aspects of technology, it is to bring the debate back to the balanced centre, rather than have one driven by utopian idealism or commercialism. My job is to provide insight, based on what we know about human beings and how their cognitive, behavioural, physiological, social, developmental, affective, and motivational capabilities have been exploited or compromised or changed by technology.
Technology is not good or bad, it is neutral and mediates behaviour—which means it can be used well or poorly by humans. This understanding is fundamental, and is no different from how we regard automobiles and drunk driving.
Any technology can be misused. My concern is that we appear to adopt each new emerging technology with the collective wisdom of lemmings leaping off a cliff. Society has been blindsided by rapid tech evolutions - however just because it is new, does not mean it is good, and technology does not always mean progress.
Problem behaviours such as youth sexting and hacking do not suddenly manifest at 15 years of age - there is a developmental pathway. Let's start at the beginning; the American Academy of Paediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of 18 months, yet infants are routinely given ipads and mobile phones as virtual pacifiers. In Britain, an escalation of problems associated with pervasive tablet use among preschool-age children has been reported by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, including developmental delays in attention span, fine motor skills and dexterity, speaking, and socialization, as well as an increase in obesity, tiredness and importantly aggressive antisocial behaviour.
Kent Police recently reported that children as young as nine are exchanging explicit sexts which De Facto means they are generating and distributing child abuse imagery, albeit of themselves.
Sexual curiosity is normative in young adolescents, however circulating explicit images not only renders young people vulnerable to bullying and sextortion, but also obfuscates the serious problem of online child abuse material, making the policing of this criminal activity more challenging.
There are other solutions that we could consider, such as the need to invest in machine intelligence amplification (I.A.) innovation, that is, technology solutions to technology facilitated criminal behaviour.
App developers that encrypt images exchanged between minors are facilitating covert, and in the case of explicit sexting illegal behaviour by minors. Last December Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, said that mobile operators and social networks should ban sexting for those under 18, pointing out that there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent them from being transmitted. I would support such an initiative, in fact, parents could give consent regarding monitoring and intervention. The problem is that we are so hung up on surveillance that we forget we are talking about minors – this is not surveillance - it is parenting.
These problem areas are connected, recent statistics published by the Ministry of Justice showed a surge in sex attacks by children - the number of under-17s convicted of rape has almost doubled in four years. Justice minister Phillip Lee said 'We are seeing an Internet age driving greater access to more worrying imagery online. In the extreme, the sexualisation of youth is manifesting itself in younger conviction ages for rape.' What did we think would happen to a generation raised with almost unrestricted access to 'legal but age-inappropriate' online content - from hard core adult pornography to extreme violence?
Myself and a number of colleagues have just completed a Europol research project "Youth Pathways into Cybercrime" which has flagged up an increase in cyber juvenile delinquency specifically in terms of hacking. Teenagers and younger children are increasingly accessing the Deep Web, as an environment this is a very high risk neighbourhood for youth to explore. Cyberpsychologists describe a phenomenon of "the minimisation and status of authority online," perhaps the reason we see cyber feral behaviour, from cyberbullying to trolling, hacking to cyber fraud is that when it comes to the Internet there is a perception that no one is in charge - and the reality is that no one is in charge.
In next month's edition Dr Aiken will talk about a possible 'tsunami of criminality' heading our way.
The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behaviour Changes Online by Mary Aiken, £20