Navigating your way through cyberspace

An Oxford-educated Israeli psychologist explains the benefits and risks of the Internet to the English-speaking public with a new book.

PROF. YAIR AMICHAI-HAMBURGER (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is no way to put the genie back into the bottle. Now that the Internet has changed the way people think, are informed and behave and created a tool that offers both good and bad, there is no turning back. Mankind will have to learn to deal with the benefits and dangers of the digital media as a form of human communication.
The online world can be used to educate and find love, treat patients from afar and empower the disabled, but it can also make it easier for terrorists to organize and spread aggression, mayhem and death.
Prof. Yair Amichai-Hamburger has devoted almost two decades to the study of how the Internet influences our lives. Head of the Center of Internet Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center’s Sammy Ofer School of Communication in Herzliya, Amichai-Hamburger has taught courses on psychology and the Internet, management and leadership.
Having earned his doctorate in psychology at Oxford University, the award-winning Israeli has worked as a leading industrial consultant and senior adviser to the Education Ministry and has written widely on the impact of the Internet on wellbeing. Amichai- Hamburger was one of the earliest commentators to note the potential power and significance of online social networks. His first book, The Social Net: Human Behavior in Cyberspace, was published by Oxford University Press in 2005. His second book, Technology and Wellbeing, was published three years later by Cambridge University Press.
The researcher’s third book, The Social Net: Understanding Our Online Behavior, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013.
Now he has written Internet Psychology: The Basics, just published by Routledge of London and New York, which is geared to an intelligent laymen audience but is nevertheless based on scientific studies and backed up by hundreds of references in its 201 pages. The volume is well written, organized and documented.
Few Internet users know or care about its origin way back in the 1950s with the development of electronic computers and networking among them in computer science labs in the US, Britain and France.
“AMICHAI-HAMBURGER notes that the Internet was actually “conceived by accident… at a time when the superpowers were at the height of their arms race. Filled with the spirit of the times, researchers at the US Department of Defense were preparing for the worst. They wanted to develop a form of communication that could keep data unharmed through a nuclear holocaust.”
They reasoned that if data were centralized in one location and destroyed by the enemy, they could not be reconstructed. “Time passed, and the decentralized military computer network evolved into an academic network. From there to today’s Internet, the journey was a short one.”
British computer scientist Time Berners- Lee worked at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research and created the World Wide Web (www), linking hypertext documents into an information system accessible from any node on the network.
This rapidly blossomed into instant communication by email, free interactive video calls (Skype), discussion forums, blogs, online shopping and social networks.
Smartphones have been turned into any adult or child’s personal communications, gaming and information device.
The eight chapters of the book (softcover for a general audience and hardcover for libraries) cover these topics: Who are we online?; Does our personality affect our online behavior; Is true love obtainable via the Internet; Violence on the Internet; Youth and the Internet: Entering the enchanted forest; Groups and leaders; How we can use the Internet to create a better world; and how we can successfully navigate our way through the digital jungle.
“I started working in the field of Internet psychology in 1998, the author recalled.
“I had noticed that psychologists had almost nothing to say about the Internet, despite the fact that psychology was integrally linked to it. At a cocktail party at his university a year later, a senior professor said in a scathing voice in front of colleagues: “Yair, can you tell me what on earth psychology has to do with the Internet?” Amichai-Hamburger was determined.
“What indeed! The Internet is an inherent part of our lives. We do almost everything via the Internet – checking the weather in the morning in order to dress appropriately; making hotel reservations for a London holiday or organizing our social arrangements, as professionals, we use it to keep up with our own specialized fields. For children and young people born into a digital world, Internet use is as much a part of life as drinking water and breathing air.”
Since 1998, the author has invested all his time in the subject. Around the world, thousands of academic articles on the subject have appeared.
THE INTERNET, he continues, has created a unique psychological space by providing users with a feeling of anonymity; control over one’s level of physical exposure; high control over communication; ease in locating like-minded people; accessibility and availability at all times and places; feeling of equality; and the fun of Web surfing.
A famous cartoon in the magazine The New Yorker back in 1993 depicted two dogs, one in front of a computer keyboard and the other looking at him quizzically. The dog, notes the author, says: On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Today, the cartoon “still expresses the enormous power of the anonymity that the Web brings.”
It can bring emancipation to the overweight, unattractive, disabled and others who feel uncomfortable in the presence of new people, but this condition of impersonality also makes it easy for pedophiles to attack children, extremists to promote hate and terrorist organizations to lure attackers.
Amichai-Hamburger tackles questions such as why our self-control sometimes abandons us on the Internet? Why does the online environment create a separate realm of social and personal relationships? How does all that change us as people? Are youngsters really as exposed and threatened on the Web as people think? Interspersed among the chapters are mini-biographies of outstanding psychologists and psychiatrists, including Sigmund Freud, Carl Rogers, Albert Bandura, Solomon Eliot Asch, Gordon Allport, John Bowlby and others. Sometimes the author suggests how they would regard the changes wrought by the Internet.
Websites and chat groups on a variety of subjects from railroads to saving endangered species to Mickey Mouse and Elvis Presley give people who used to think they were odd and ostracized a feeling of belonging.
“They form ties, and they understand that they are not alone.”
They get the feeling that there are others like them.
Internet gives people the freedom to review a book, movie, restaurant or hotel even if they are not experts. It also enables them to give a voice to oppressed minorities whose words are obliterated by authoritarian regimes.
You can post photos on Instagram and a video on YouTube or express outrage on Facebook. These are even used daily by presidents and prime ministers to reach the public directly without the “interference” of the press, sometimes causing their too-speedy comments to make them look idiotic.
“People nowadays believe the expression ‘I’m the media.’ You are no longer a mere consumer of media but rather a provider of media.”
Years ago, Amichai-Hamburger first learned that online communications is a two-edged sword, when the response of some readers to an academic article on Internet psychology that he wrote elicited talkbacks personally calling him a “moron” and even less-kind names.
GETTING INTO e-therapy, in which psychologists and psychiatrists are now advising and analyzing patients via their computer screens without even shaking their hands, the author notes that such treatment can have great advantages. Counseling online is considered by many a safer, more secure environment. People ashamed of being seen in a psychologist’s waiting room are likely to prefer getting advice that way, as would people who live in the periphery of the country and unable to reach the office of a professional.
While it is harder for a therapist to decipher body language of a patient, there is even a possibility of the him attaching sensors to his body to monitor pulse or perspiration.
Skype sessions can give the therapist the feeling he is there with the patient.
Most people can name couples who married as a result of being introduced on the Internet. “I believe that the Web is a very significant place in which to find love,” he writes.
While the Internet provides an easy way for people – especially those to shy in the real world – to get together, many of them exaggerate their personal assets. People looking for love may fall in love with a fantasy rather than a real person. The fact that there are so many potential mates on display on dating sites may discourage working hard to get to know somebody, because there are always more profiles to view.
Amichai-Hamburger also warns against abuse, such as the case of the Ashley Madison website, which encouraged people to have extramarital affairs.
“Life is short; have an affair.”
But the author notes that two years ago, hackers broke into the site and stole names, addresses and credit card details of those who used it. In addition, staff members of Ashley Madison were found to have invented hundreds of fake female profiles to make the site seem more popular than it was.
“As always, there is an interplay between revelation and concealment, between fantasy and reality. These are the factors that make romance online possible, but they are also the very same factors that make online pursuits (or something like it) so very fraught with danger.”
The election of US President Donald Trump led to a resurgence on the social networks of extreme statements by previously marginal groups who suddenly came out of the woodwork. Social psychologist Bandura studied the roots of violence by dividing a group of children into two. One group watched a video of an adult hitting and shouting at an inflatable doll weighted at the bottom so that, if tipped, it rights itself. The other group watched an adult calmly arranging some toys. When he put both groups together in a room full of toys and dolls, children who viewed the violence themselves became violent against the dolls, imitating the actions of the person they saw.
The greatest aggression was seen among the group that watched the adult who received an award for his nasty behavior.
The ease of finding like-minded people “creates a hothouse for nurturing violence.
On the Internet, the aggressor can find soul mates to share any particular hatred and any campaign of harassment – against people of any ethnicity or religion, for example.
These friends,” writes Amichai-Hamburger, “will provide positive reinforcement, which acts as a reward for the violence expressed toward the hated group.”
But he does not agree with those who claim that the Internet can turn good people into bad ones, except that it may serve as a school for teaching violence to non-aggressive people.
As an Israeli, Amichai-Hamburger notes how the Center for Multiculturalism brought together religious and secular young Israeli Jews and Arabs – future teachers in colleges.
They communicated with each other under supervision, and the result was a reduction in stereotyping and prejudice Cyberbullying, encouraging anorexia and other eating disorders, pornography and other online dangers are discussed on detail by the author, who urges parents to take a role in the Internet use of their children. As they get older, they are likely to deceive their parents about the things to which they are exposed.
He advises setting up a regular, fixed time for parents and children to spend time together – turning off smartphones, tablets, laptops and TV.
“Be present both physically and mentally. Really listen to what they say. Be non-judgmental. Ask only clarifying questions, reflect their answers back to them, and do not discuss your personal history. Ensure the focus is completely on them,” he counsels.
The book ends with a look into the future – at robots that will be able to “act human” and Internet sites that will provide additional senses of taste, smell and touch through virtual reality. One will in future be able to “visit” Niagara Falls while sitting in your living room, feeling a refreshing spray of water on your face and smelling the air.
“The digital world we inhabit is dynamic, challenging and sometimes frightening,” he concludes. “But we have many choices: we can choose to drift or be tossed around in our boat, at the mercy of the ocean, or we can invest in an efficient navigation system.”