Alexander Voiskynsky: Psychologist On Informatization

The Information Society Week has just ended at ITMO University. The event included a series of science conferences and open lectures on topics ranging from research in social informatics, sociology and cultural anthropology to theoretical and practical aspects of building smart cities and organizing business processes in a digital environment. During a presentation for the Cyberpsychology section of the Internet and Modern Society International SeminarIMS-2017, Alexander Voiskynsky, director of Psychological Problems of Informatization Laboratory of Moscow State University talked about how psychologists perceive internet activity, how "network thinking" and collective intelligence work, and what are the rules for effectively searching for information on the Internet. ITMO.NEWS asked the expert about how Internet affects our behavior and etiquette, why one shouldn't scold children for poor knowledge of historical dates and if our brain will keep up with rapid development of technology.

Several years ago, you said that cyberpsychology is yet to become a separate subject in psychology. Has the situation changed?

No, it hasn't. Experts from almost all fields of psychology conduct research on cyberpsychology, though. I believe that happens due to students becoming interested in the subject. That is what makes their scientific advisors pick topics that have to do with cyberpsychology.

I doubt that it will soon become a full-fledged research field - that would imply having textbooks, departments, lecturers, prospects of doing a corresponding PhD program and finding work at some university. For now, there isn't anything like that. As far as I know, there's only one textbook on cyberpsychology, written in Ireland. And in 2016, there was only one Master's program on cyberpsychology in the whole world.

Yet, the field has existed for quite some time now. Even the term "cyberpsychology" has been around for more than ten years already.

The first research in this field came around in the 90's; the word itself appeared even earlier. By the way, it's not a correct world - it came from cyberpunk literature, not some science article. I bet you've read Gibson? Even the word "cybernetics" gradually disappeared from scientific vocabulary. Yet, now we have "cyberpsychology". Will the term stay? I don't know. The new generation will decide on that.

What are the most popular research topics in this field about?

One of the most popular topics is internet addiction. And different researchers call it differently –once, I've written down some 12 different terms. Yet, just “internet addiction” is a good as it is, it's just that not everyone accepts it. Some say that they invent new terms so as not to "indulge in arguments about the correct term". Yet, why use new terms if there's a lot of research already using existing ones? How to compare research results, then? Surely, it's possible - but that's still not entirely correct.

There's also a lot of research on communication, social networks, for instance. It's really interesting to students, and the field gradually develops.

A lot has been written about the peculiarities and principles of communication via social networks, about how it differs from real life communication. I think it’s quite arguable, as now you can’t really tell the difference.

Well, that’s true – one is the continuation of the other. Conversations that people have online continue in real-life conditions. Yet, it becomes different if we're talking about children. In their early teens, they need to learn the etiquette of face-to-face interactions. It is similar to how people who moved a lot during their childhood - to different cities and countries - can experience communication problems later on.

The etiquette has surely changed a lot. There's a good research on how telephones entered our lives; in essence, telephones were the tool of mediated communication before computers. Computers changed the etiquette even further. From the very beginning, people who invented the Internet used informal language, like "Hello Jim" or "Get lost!" It has somewhat become a tradition, and that's all right.

Yet, that doesn't work really well for children, who have to learn to communicate politely, not just interrupt each other. They have to learn the rules that work in real life, not just the Internet.

Another interesting research has to do with the so-called Google effect. The term emerged after an experiment conducted among students from the Columbia and Harvard universities showing that people have a tendency to forget the information that can be easily found by using search engines. Some believe that relying on search engines makes people know less. Yet, the researchers explained that it has to do with adapting to the situation when it is easier to look something up than remembering it, which is okay and doesn’t mean that people get stupider. And what do you think?

Well, the term is surely funny. Yet, the problem is quite serious. Google won't go anywhere, as well as servers and such. Kids grow, and the question is - how to teach them? Make them complete particular tasks or teach them to search for data? My favorite question here is: in which month the October Revolution took place?

In November.

Right.It's called the October Revolution, but it was in November. As you remember, it is all due to using different calendars. Yet, most have already forgotten about it.

So, how do we solve such a problem?

Well, do you know any chemists?

Well, I know a couple.

Most of them will tell you Lithium's atomic number. Yet, do you have to know it? I doubt it. Same thing's with the October Revolution or the Day of the Paris Commune. We no longer need to know such data by heart.

Parents and teachers are troubled with the fact that children no longer know something that once seemed important. Yet, do we really have to know exact historical dates? We can look them up. You cellphone knows them, as it knows the birthdays of your relatives and friends. One has to clear their heads from needless data, free it. But the next generations will have to learn how to effectively use the resources saved like this. Surely, my point of view is unpopular with parents and teachers, yet everything I’m talking about already happens, and it is what we need to prepare for.We need to understand how to teach children from now on, what the new textbooks should be like.

Another widely discussed issue is where the border between internet addiction and "living on the Internet" lies, as many people who work on the Internet have to always be online. So, how do we define internet addiction?

Internet addiction is when you start losing something in life - work, family, loved ones. It is, for instance, when you don't go to a job interview because you play a game. This is a real loss, and such behavior is most probably a sign of addiction.

Last week, the conference on Addiction Medicine took place in Moscow, where there was a session on non-chemical addictions like gluttony and the very same internet addiction. Serious experts focused on this issue, so it seems like this field of research is quite promising as well.

Are there any reliable statistics on the amount of internet addicts in Russia and the world?

No. It is deemed that in Northern America and Western Europe, internet addicts constitute 2-3% of the populace, which is a lot less than those with psychic disorders. In the East, the numbers are unconceivable, something like a third of the younger generation. Most research and publications on this topic appear in continental China, Taiwan, Hong-Kong and South Korea.

China was one of the first countries that officially deemed internet addiction a clinical disorder, and they are taking quite drastic measures against it. For instance, there are articles about specialized boot camps for treating internet addiction. Is that true?

Yes. A psychiatrist there holds a camp for troubled teenagers where they live in barracks, get medications and obey military-like discipline. Parents who think that their children spend too much time in front of the computer send them there. In China, that is a problem, especially because they can only have one child in a family, and parents try to make the most of them. In this country, there's a tradition that education is paramount for making a career - for example, if one learns 500 hieroglyphs more than his fellow villager, it is he who will be working for the local administration. So, if something distracts children from studying, parent send them to such Gulag-like boot camps.

What are the normal methods to treating internet addiction, then?

As of now, the only normal method is counseling. No pills or injections. Not everyone can or wants to go to a counselor, be it in St. Petersburg or China, but that is still the only way. One has to re-structure their life, find new interests. That is a slow process. In Russia, different people solve this problem differently.

So, if parents want to solve the problems with counseling, they do it, and if not, they use other methods, sometimes questionable?

Practically, yes. And that can lead to problems in the family.

As of now, many talk about the economics and the society going digital. Facebook and Instagram took 4-5 years to conquer the minds of millions; in future, new technologies will take months, if not days, to enter our lives.  Is our society ready for that?

Up to now, it coped with anything. Once, people thought that moving on trains is impossible for the body's mechanics. Yet everything turned out OK. I remember times when they forbade us to write with ballpoint pens in school. They thought that itwill ruin our generation. Well, I don't think that ruined either me or you, or did it?

 

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