Who are we — and who are we becoming — in the cyber-world?

They all lurk out there in the cyber-world: perverts, predators, bullies. But the scariest threat may lie within ourselves. Author Mary Aiken warns that as the Internet increasingly dominates our world, our life online is fundamentally changing the way we behave as humans. We can look away, we can deny it, but the more we’re online, the more compulsive, more secretive, more cruel and more disconnected from our better selves we are liable to become. This cyber-effect not only threatens adults but also is influencing our children and the kind of grown-ups they will be...

A cyberpsychologist is worryingly persuasive about the potential damage to children of a life online

A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behaviour Changes Online; and the potted bio, informing us that “Dr Mary Aiken is the world’s foremost forensic cyberpsychologist” – all clues indicating that this is a book targeted at the US market, another addition to that sprawling genre of books by folks with professional qualifications using pop science to frighten the hoi polloi....

Obesity, aggression, developmental delays: what tablets and mobiles are doing to our children

Not long ago I was sitting on a train going from Dublin to Galway. A mother and baby came to sit across the aisle and began feeding. In a wonderful display of dexterity, she held the bottle in one hand and clutched a mobile phone in the other.

Books in brief

In this incisive tour of sociotechnology and its discontents, forensic cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken has much to say about children and the digital world. Parents addicted to mobile phones, for instance, fail to give babies the 'face time' they need to develop non-verbal communication skills; and the UK Association of Teachers and Lecturers has linked toddlers' tablet use with delays in speaking. With “compulsion loops” built into online games, and cybercommunities focused on extreme behaviours luring people in through online disinhibition, it's time for industrial accountability, she argues.

The age of cyber-feral children is upon us

The baby gazed adoringly at the mother's jaw as the mother continued to gaze adoringly at her device. For half an hour, as the feeding went on, the mother did not make eye contact with the infant or once pull her attention from the screen of her phone.

How many millions of mums and dads around the world no longer look into the eyes of their babies while they feed or talk to them? How will this seemingly small behavioural shift play out over time? Would a generation of babies be affected? Could it change the human race?

Nobody seems to be talking about this risk, except those with an interest in cyberpsychology, but some day there might be writing on the screen of all cellphones that says: "Warning: Not Looking at Your Baby Could Cause Significant Developmental Delays".

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages screen use for children under two. No TV for babies. No apps with funny cartoons on a parent's cellphone.

And yet there's been an explosion in electronic media marketed directly at infants: a multimillion-dollar industry selling computer games for very young children - some as young as nine months.

The tablet is now ubiquitous as a "toy" for toddlers - and parents often marvel at the swiftness with which their child learns to swipe a touchscreen.

The problem is the perception (or misconception) that children need to be kept busy at all times. Giving a child a tablet is a convenient way for parents to grab a few minutes for themselves. What's the harm?

Besides, what about all those other parents giving their children these little handy screens? Millions of people can't be wrong, can they?

But they are. Somewhere along the line, a misinterpretation of neuroscience has led parents to believe that all stimulation for a child is good stimulation. Even if these devices in themselves are not proven to be harmful, there is significant harm simply in the lack of time spent doing things in the real world that are known to be important for development.

It has been shown that at least 60 minutes a day of unstructured play - when children entertain themselves without adult or technological interference - is essential. This is when a child uses imagination and creativity, practises decision-making and problem-solving, develops early maths concepts, fine motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination.

More problems associated with tablet use among pre-school-age children have been reported by the UK Association of Teachers and Lecturers, including developmental delays in attention span, fine motor skills and dexterity, speaking and socialisation - as well as more aggressive and antisocial behaviour, obesity and tiredness.

Too many young children begin school without enough dexterity to pick up and play with building blocks. A teacher in Northern Ireland described young students who were allowed to play computer games excessively before bed arriving at class the next day with what you might call a "digital hangover", and attention spans "so limited that they might as well not be there".

A 2015 consumer report shows that most US children get their first cellphone when they are six years old. This is before what in psychology we call the age of reason, when a child enters a new state of logic and begins to learn the difference between right and wrong, good and bad.

Now, with a phone in hand, these children are being catapulted into cyberspace before they are psychologically capable of making sense of it.

A large US study of 8 - 12 year-olds in 2014 found that a quarter reported using Facebook, even though you must be 13 or older to be eligible for an account.

The report concluded that the results were troubling: "Engaging in these online social interactions prior to necessary cognitive and emotional development that occurs throughout middle childhood could lead to negative encounters or poor decision-making."

Facebook and other social networks claim it is "almost impossible" to identify a child, and, therefore, they can't police their own rules.

There is an urgent need to develop effective ways of verifying the age of a user on social networks. The real-world example would be a pub that's not allowed to sell alcohol to underage individuals. Would it be OK if the barman didn't believe it was necessary to ask for proof of legal age for drinking?

Kids are kept from buying tickets to movies with sexual and violent content. Printed pornography is sold in special stores. So why is it so easy to find online?

Not long ago I was sitting on a train going from Dublin to Galway. A mother and baby came to sit across the aisle and began feeding. In a wonderful display of dexterity, she held the bottle in one hand and clutched a cellphone in the other.

Perhaps the fact that cyberspace is not a physical space with tangible dangers creates an illusion of safety. But cyberspace offers countless risks. Even the basic laws that the government applies to gambling, drugs, pornography and breast implants are not in place.

We need to do more for families - and stop expecting parents to paddle their own canoes. Children need government protection in cyberspace, just as they are protected in real life.

Many experts argue that the positives of the internet outweigh the damage. If we accept that children are online, will be staying online for greater and greater amounts of their lives, and are by and large having useful and positive experiences there - learning to read, learning to make friends, and improving fine motor skills and hand-eye co-ordination - then can we accept responsibility for the damaging things, the disturbing content that could have lasting ill effects on an entire generation?

I would argue that this gamble is too great. We cannot gamble with the development of children who will some day be adults who weren't cared for and raised in the best way. A generation of what I describe as "cyber-feral children".

Adapted from 'The Cyber Effect' by Dr Mary Aiken (John Murray)

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