If parents think smartphones at the kitchen table are bad, wait until their children sit down to eat wearing virtual headsets.
This is the warning from cyberpsychologist Dr Mary Aiken, author of The Cyber Effect.
She notes that human brains are not wired to deal with the volume of “friends” people have online and that trolling in cyberspace has now become a social norm.
“If parents think it’s bad now that their child turns up to the dinner table with a smartphone, wait until they’re showing up with a HMVU (a head-mounted virtual unit).
“We’re already immersed in a virtual reality so soon we won’t just be dealing with an online world but with a virtual reality environment,” she told the Irish Examiner.
Her new book, The Cyber Effect, has spent the last two weeks in the Irish top 10 and received rave reviews in The Guardian and Washington Post newspapers, as well as on the BBC and CBS in the US.
“The impact of technology on children is one of the core things that’s coming through. A lot of people didn’t know that screens were not recommended for children under two years of age [as recommended by the American Association of Paediatrics],” Dr Aiken said.
She states there is the magic number when it comes to the volume of relationships that humans are able to maintain without becoming overwhelmed, but in cyberspace, the number of “friends” people have far exceeds this figure.
“There is a thing called ‘Dunbar’s number’ and it is the maximum number of relationships we can maintain before we suffer from social stress or exhaustion.
“That number is 150 and it is constant even across a pack of primates. It’s like your Christmas card list or your wedding invitation list. So when children are creating profiles on social media, think of the number of connections they make.
“Say they have 200 or so on each platform across a number of platforms, that could be 2,000 connections, which is more than 10 times the recommended number. That’s a connection overload for any child.
“But what about stepping back and asking who’s driving those connections? The platforms are.
“And what is the motive? It’s to have the highest number of subscribers, which increases the company’s value. It has everything to do with profit,” said the cyberpsychologist.
When explaining to parents the effects of online bullying, she uses a tangible analogy to give them a sense of perspective for what their child is experiencing.
“The metaphor I use to explain to a parent is if a child falls out with their five or six friends in class and how difficult that is, now think about how it would feel for them if they fell out with their whole class.
“Now think about if they fell out with their school and they’re in assembly and 900 people are pointing at them.
“That’s a bit like the internet, that weight of numbers, that weight of opinion — no child can deal with that,” said Dr Aiken.
Aside from children and cyberspace, Dr Aiken has written extensively about the rise of the troll and how Donald Trump’s presidential nomination is a manifestation of how acceptable cruel behaviour has become.
“Trump is a troll who has jumped off the internet and into the real world.
“A couple of years ago, if you had a presidential nominee who engaged in hate-speech, racist speech, and misogyny they would not have progressed. But the internet has normalised that sort of sentiment and now it’s acceptable, it’s the new social norm. He is a real- world troll.
“There was a paper written, ‘Trolls just want to have fun’ (2014). It showed that people who like to troll scored high on metrics for traits of narcissism, sadism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.
“The study concluded that trolling was a manifestation of everyday sadism. So when politicians use cruelty as a strategy and succeed as a result, what kind of an example is that for children who we are teaching about cyberbullying?
“If you can win the highest office in the land, the way he has acted, that is a sad indictment on our society,” she added.
Dr Aiken also queried the role of masculinity in the development of the online world.
“We’ve had hundreds, if not thousands of years of fighting for women’s issues and now we are going on to live in cyberspace, which was designed almost exclusively by men.
“I can’t help thinking that if more women were involved in this, it would be a more nurturing, kind, and inclusive environment.”
In order to improve the world as it is now, Dr Aiken stated that: “We need to understand the essence of what it is to be human and take that with us.”