Psychological principles and practices are central in the development and delivery of interventions to help young victims of internet-mediated negative experiences, and when appropriate, involving their families and schools.
Michael Berger, of the European Federation of Psychologists' Associations (EFPA), discusses the contributions of psychology in better protecting young people in their use of new technologies…
Going online and the use of newer technologies such as smartphones and tablet computers are now well-embedded in the lives of most European children and young people – hereafter young people.1
The associated opportunities and risks they encounter online are well-documented, particularly through the recent seminal surveys across 25 European countries by EU Kids Online.2
Fortunately, the majority of these young people report not being bothered on encountering the risks (although the longer term impact of such experiences needs to be investigated). A small but important minority however, for instance 12 per cent of nine to 16 year olds, are affected by the material they have been exposed to.3
Although the percentage is relatively small, translated across populations into individuals, the actual number affected is large. Also noteworthy in the findings of the EU Kids Online report are the percentages of those with psychological problems who are affected and those who report forms of internet use (addiction-type behaviours) that impact adversely on their social, educational and physical functioning.
Initiatives to address and manage such concerns have been mounted by many, including not-for-profit organisations across the EU, national governments, the European Commission, service providers, software and games developers, and the major equipment manufacturers, social networking, search and other content providers. Noteworthy among these is the EU Initiative to Make the Internet a Better Place for Kids, currently sponsoring a collaboration of the involved organisations, with a major goal being the reduction in the occurrence and impact of negative internet experiences.
The core tasks focus on deriving pragmatic solutions to some of the diverse problems arising from internet use that diminish the benefits of the new communication technologies and services. Doing so effectively will enable young people to freely access and benefit from the internet and their use of increasingly sophisticated mobile and other devices. The focus of the collaboration is on five key areas, including making available simple and robust tools to report concerns, parental controls (and the use thereof), age appropriate privacy settings, and wider use of content classification.
The importance of collaborative involvement in realising the aims of such initiatives cannot be overemphasised. At the same time it also needs to be recognised that the effectiveness of whatever is developed and put in place to manage the concerns ultimately depends on how the targeted users of these preventative measures behave – what and how they think, feel and, ultimately, act. Essentially this is about their 'psychology' transacting with the safety systems: how they understand why they need to adhere to the proposed procedures, their motivation to do so, skills in managing the systems, and what gets in the way of doing so, including the functionality of the safety systems. These key factors, while not exclusively to do with the academic and applied sub-disciplines of psychology, are nevertheless preponderantly within their compass: psychology provides at least four fundamental components that are relevant to the design, use and effectiveness of the safety measures, and will also be involved when, as will inevitably happen, the measures are ignored or prove ineffectual, probably in many instances.
Psychological theory refined through ongoing research provides the most robust models to help understand the psychological mechanisms and processes involved in internet use and use of safety measures. Psychological knowledge and principles are also very relevant in guiding the design of proposed safety measures and in evaluating their effectiveness in systematic in-field studies. Developmental psychology in particular – given its focus on pre-adult development – is especially germane.
Empirically-based evidence from developmental studies can offer insights and provide pointers to the factors involved in adherence to safety protocols, can quantify the extent of their relative contribution, and elucidate how to translate such research into practical application. Further, established psychological research methodology and statistical analysis procedures are key to undertaking sound relevant research to identify the human factors involved and for the evaluation of interventions that have psychological components.
Finally, psychological principles and practices are central in the development and delivery of interventions to help young victims of internet-mediated negative experiences, and when appropriate, involving their families and schools.
As one example, consider the issue of age-based access criteria to websites or in the classification of content. From the perspective of the psychology of individual differences (and some common sense), it is recognised that age is used as a proxy for intellectual and probably emotional maturity. Both domains show age related qualitative and quantitative changes and substantial overlap as well as individual differences within age bands. For instance, there are detectable differences in cognitive abilities among 12 year olds, so that even those say aged between 12 and 12.25 years will differ in their abilities from those in the 12.75 to 13 year band. There will also be overlaps between the 11 to 12 year bands and the 12 to 13 year bands, instanced in the normative data for ability tests for example. Hence, setting an access criterion at 12 years of age ignores this variability and risks alienating the more able 11 and 12 year olds, even challenging them to breach the restriction.
Other well-researched individual differences such as temperament or personal style will also be important alongside age and other criteria. There are, for instance, important differences in impulsivity that would need to be taken into account. In addition, many other factors – such as peer pressure and susceptibility to peer influences – could be involved. Essentially, psychological models will emphasise the multifactorial nature of what is involved and point to how risk might change as a function of the number of variables taken into account. Further insights will also derive from established research: studies of adherence to medical regimes for instance are possible analogues for adherence to internet safety procedures. These are among the many resources that psychology can contribute to the development and testing of age or other criteria and the other safety proposals aimed at preventing and protecting young people from harmful internet experiences.
In conclusion, it is important to note that in addition to the contribution of theory and research in developmental psychology, there are a number of applied sub-disciplines focusing on young people whose knowledge and experience are very relevant to advancing the effectiveness of a cross-discipline approach to making the internet a safer place. Among these are educational, clinical and health psychology. Each has a strong tradition of applying psychological theory and research to improving our understanding of the roles of psychological dimensions in these contexts and in devising interventions to improve the effectiveness of techniques that facilitate behaviour change. They are also the disciplines involved in offering help for young people who become victims of internet-mediated abuses, the prevention and management of which are the core underlying challenges in making the internet safer for younger people.
Livingstone S, Haddon L, Görzig A & Ólafsson, and the members of the EU Kids Online Network (2011). EU Kids Online. Final Report EU Kids Online II. ISSN 2045-256X: London School of Economics
Michael Berger is a representative on the EU Coalition to Make the Internet a Safer Place for Kids. This article originally appeared on Publicservice.co.uk: A safer place to surf