Cyberpsychology (also known as Internet psychology, web psychology, or digital psychology) is a developing field that encompasses all psychological phenomena associated with or affected by emerging technology. Cyber comes from the word cyberspace, the study of the operation of control and communication; psychology is the study of the mind and behavior.


Cyberpsychology is the study of the human mind and behavior and how the culture of technology, specifically, virtual reality, and social media affect them.[1] Mainstream research studies focus on the effect of the Internet and cyberspace on the psychology of individuals and groups. Some hot topics include: online identity, online relationships, personality types in cyberspace, transference to computers, addiction to computers and Internet, regressive behavior in cyberspace, online gender-switching, etc. Media Psychology is an emerging specialty and the Society for Media Psychology and Technology of the American Psychological Association, i.e., APA division 46 includes many cyber-psychologists among its members.[2]

While statistical and theoretical research in this field are based around Internet usage, cyberpsychology also includes the study of the psychological ramifications of cyborgs, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. Although some of these topics may appear to be the stuff of science fiction, they are quickly becoming science fact as evidenced by interdisciplinary approaches in the fields of biology, engineering, and mathematics. The field of cyberpsychology remains open to refinement, including inquiry into the nature of current and future trends in mental illness associated with technological advances.

It was around the turn of the millennium that the United States broke the 50 percent mark in Internet use, personal computer use, and cell phone use.[3] With such a broad exposure to computers and their displays, our perceptions go beyond objects and images in our natural environment to now include graphics and images on the computer screen. As the overlaps between man and machine expand, the relevance of human–computer interaction (HCI) research within the field of cyberpsychology will become more visible and necessary in understanding the current modern lifestyles of many people. With the rising number of Internet and computer users around the world, computer technology's effects on the human psyche will continue to significantly shape both our interactions with each other and our perceptions of a world literally "at our fingertips".

Social media and cyberpsychological behaviorEdit

Social media use is rapidly growing. What is its impact? That is what cyberpsychology seeks to find out.

Although cyberpsychology includes other technological platforms such as cybertherapy and the ramifications of virtual reality, the following section is focused on the effect of social media on human behavior, as it is the most prevalent platform for technology use.

Facebook, the leading online social media platform globally,[4] affects users' psychological status in multiple ways. Facebook follows the pattern of one-to-many communication which allows users to share information about their lives, including social activities and photographs.[5] This feature was enhanced in 2012, when Facebook Messenger was implemented to allow users more one-on-one communication merging with the Facebook Chat feature.[6] While Facebook users enjoy the sense of being connected,[7] frequent use of Facebook is threatening users' mental health. Comparison, low self-esteem, depression, loneliness, and negative relationships are all possible detrimental consequences associated with frequent use of Facebook or other social media platforms.

Comparison and low self-esteemEdit

Due to the nature of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., social media users often compare the lives of their friends with their own. This can be deceptive when the social media user sees only the joyous or entertaining experiences in a friend's life and compares them to his or her own lesser experiences. According to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,[8] Alexander Jordan, and his colleagues at Stanford University asked 80 freshmen to report whether they or their peers had recently experienced various negative or positive emotional events. Consistently, participants underestimated how many negative experiences ("had a distressing fight", "felt sad because they missed people", etc.) their peers were having while overestimating how much fun ("going out with friends", "attending parties", etc.) these same peers experienced. A similar study conducted at Stanford University showed that underestimating peers negative experiences correlated with greater loneliness and lower overall life satisfaction.[9] Inviting constant comparisons inevitably lowers self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, hence, Facebook and other social media accounts appear to exploit an Achilles' heel of human nature.[10]


Decreased self-esteem can increase depression. Facebook specifically is criticized for causing depression, especially among teenage users. A study conducted by Michigan University consisting of 82 Facebook users over a two-week period, concluded that frequent Facebook use invoked feelings of depression and inadequacy. Social psychologist Ethan Kross, the lead author of the study, stated that the research tracked (on a moment-to-moment basis throughout the day) how a person's mood fluctuated during time spent on Facebook, and whether or not they modified their Facebook usage.[11] Results suggest that as participants spent more time on Facebook, their feelings of well-being decreased and feelings of depression increased.[12] Similarly, a study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh consisting of 1,787 participants between 19–32 years of age showed that participants in the highest quartile for social media site visits per week were at an increased likelihood of experiencing depression.[13]

Social isolation and ostracismEdit

According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, social interaction and belonging are important aspects of psychological and emotional well-being. Although it is relatively common to have hundreds of friends on Facebook, it is unlikely that any one individual has that many solid person to person relationships. This can create social disconnect. Different from meeting friends face to face, chatting with an acquaintance or a total stranger online can increase feelings of loneliness instead of increasing feelings of social connection. This may be because Facebook uses of the "like" and "comment" button as means of interaction is too brief and does not show lasting concern. In the 2016 University of Pittsburgh study mentioned previously[13] researched found that excessive social media usage increased feelings of social isolation, that is, as authentic social interactions were replaced by virtual relationships.[14] Additionally, a 2011 study conducted at the University College of London examined the fMRI brain scans of 125 frequent Facebook users and found that the size of an individual's online social network is closely linked to brain structure associated with social cognition.[15] This research provides evidence that social media platforms, such as Facebook, are changing the way people socialize, and that it may not be fulfilling social needs.

Additionally, 2012 research data from Purdue University indicates that social rejection or ostracism in an immersive virtual environment threatens four basic fundamental needs (i.e., belonging, control, self-esteem, and meaningful existence) and thus, has a negative impact on affect (emotion). This research suggests the possibility that individuals who use virtual environments (e.g., MMORPGs, massively multiplayer online role-playing games) may have everyday experiences with ostracism in these environments. This study presents the first known evidence of ostracism in virtual environments and revealed the effects of ostracism in virtual environments as powerful with effect sizes medium to large in magnitude.[16]

Negative relationshipsEdit

Facebook has also been linked to the increased divorce and break-up rates.[17] Couples that fit this trend tend to express feelings of jealousy when their partner comment on a person of the opposite gender's wall. To cope with the uncertainty of a suspected romantic relationship, partner surveillance on Facebook is becoming more popular.[18] However, skepticism between couples may inevitably cause the end of relationship. Russell B. Clayton, Alexander Nagurney and Jessica R. Smith, surveyed 205 Facebook users aged 18–82 to determine if frequent Facebook use predicated negative relationship outcomes. Furthermore, the researchers examined length of relationship as a moderator variable in the aforementioned model. The results indicate that a high level of Facebook usage is associated with negative relationship outcomes, and that these relationships are indeed mediated by Facebook-related conflict. This series of relationships only holds for those who are, or have been, in relatively newer relationships of 3 years or less. The current study adds to the growing body of literature investigating Internet use and relationship outcomes, and may be a precursor to further research investigating whether Facebook use attributes to the divorce rate, emotional cheating, and physical cheating.

It is important to note that these findings do not demonstrate causality. A similar study demonstrated that relationship maintenance behaviors, such as surveillance and monitoring, were indicators of current levels of trust within the relationship.[19] This suggests that certain behaviors on social media may be predicting these negative relationships, rather than causing them. Further, the study also showed that Facebook can be a tool in strengthening and reaffirming a relationship, as it allows for positive expressions of trust, affection and commitment.[19]

Fear of missing out (FOMO)Edit

A byproduct of social media addiction is the "fear of missing out", or FOMO.[20] This fear develops from a user's repetitive and obsessive status-checking of "friend" status updates and posts related to social events or celebrations resulting in a feeling of being "left out" if these events are not experienced. There is also the closely related fear of being missed (FOBM), or the fear of invisibility.[21] This fear involves an obsessive need to provide constant status updates on one's own personal, day-to-day life, movements, travel, events, etc. unable to "un-plug". There is evidence that suggests this type of anxiety is a mediating factor in both increased social media use and decreased self-esteem.[22]

Sleep deprivationEdit

Research suggests that social networking can lead to sleep deprivation. A study commissioned by Travelodge hotels[23] in the United Kingdom surveyed 6,000 adults to explore the nation's bedtime habits and key findings revealed 'we' have become a nation of 'Online-A-Holics'. On average each night Britons are spending 16 minutes in bed socially networking with pals – with the peak chatting time being 9:45 pm. This time spent social networking is affecting Britons sleep quota as on average respondents reported they are getting just six hours and 21 minutes sleep per night. (This is one hour and 39 minutes below the recommended quota of eight hours of sleep per night.) Further research findings revealed that 65% respondents stated the very last thing they do before nodding off at night is checking their mobile phone for text messages. On average Britons will spend around nine minutes every night texting before falling asleep, and four out of ten adults reported they have a regular text communication with friends in bed every night.[24]

Addictive behaviorEdit

Recent studies have shown a connection between online social media such as Facebook use to addictive behaviors, emotion regulation, impulse control, and substance abuse. This may be because people are learning to access and process information more rapidly and to shift attention quickly from one task to the next. All this access and vast selection is causing some entertainment seekers to develop the constant need for instant gratification with a loss of patience.[25] Results from a survey of university undergraduates showed that almost 10% met criteria for what investigators describe as "disordered social networking use".[26] Respondents who met criteria for "Facebook addiction" also reported statistically significant symptoms commonly linked to addiction, such as tolerance (increased Facebook use over time), withdrawal (irritability when unable to access Facebook), and cravings to access the site. "Our findings suggest that there may be shared mechanisms underlying both substance and behavioral addictions," Hormes added.[27]

The results of a study in the journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking (2014) provided evidence that the prevalence of internet addiction varies considerably between countries and is inversely related to quality of life.[28]

Eating disordersEdit

A study conducted by the University of Haifa in 2011 showed that the more time teenage girls spend on Facebook, the higher their risk of developing negative body images and eating disorders. A more recent study by researchers at Florida State University found a correlation between Facebook use and disordered eating.[29][30]

Researchers examined the relationship between college women's media use and two sets of variables (disordered-eating symptomatology and a set of related variables, including body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness) and assessed the relationship between college men's media use and their endorsement of thinness for themselves and for women. We expected to find consumption of thinness-depicting and thinness-promoting (TDP) media related to disordered eating and thinness endorsement, with the social learning process of modeling accounting for the relationships. For women, media use predicted disordered-eating symptomatology, drive for thinness, body dissatisfaction, and ineffectiveness. For men, media use predicted endorsement of personal thinness and dieting and select attitudes in favor of thinness and dieting for women.[31]

Social media and ADHDEdit

In the view of Dr. Robert Melillo, a chiropractic neurologist and founder of the Brain Balance Program, the environment strongly affects the development of ADHD. Although many factors contribute to ADHD (including genes, teratogens, parenting styles, etc.) a sedentary lifestyle centered on television, computer games, and mobile devices may increase the risk for ADHD. Specifically, "When kids play computer games, their minds are processing information in a much different way than kids who are, say, running around on a playground... Recent studies have shown that playing computer games only builds very short-term attention that needs to be rewarded frequently." [32]

Clinical psychologist Michelle Frank, who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD in college students, young adults, and women, stated, "The ADHD brain is already one that struggles with motivation, activation, organizing behaviors, managing time, and maintaining focus...Technology, left un-managed, makes these struggles considerably more difficult. The unique challenges that result are prime vulnerabilities to the common pitfalls of technology use."[33] Frank explained that an individual with ADHD has structural, functional, and chemical differences compared to a neurotypical brain.

These differences explain why ADHD individuals may be more prone to engage in risky or unhelpful behaviors online and struggle to control spontaneous impulses without thinking of future consequences. The ADHD brain is primed to seek out more stimulation than neurotypical brains, and technology is a ripe source of engagement. For these reasons, there is an emerging body of research that suggests that internet addiction and unhealthy social media activity may be more prevalent in ADHD individuals.[33] Another compounding piece of the social media puzzle is related to time management. Individuals with ADHD have trouble with awareness of time, procrastination, avoidant behaviors, and staying on task. Frank explains that ADHD individuals often misperceive time and have trouble thinking into the future; NOW is the dominant time zone. Therefore, time management is a challenge.[33]

In addition, Ju-Yu Yen at Kaohsiung Medical University Hospital in Taiwan discovered that being easily bored rather than easily distracted is the core symptom of inattentive ADHD. Internet activities are based highly upon their interactivity levels and immediate response rates; these quick actions relieve the feeling of boredom. In other words, the internet becomes a coping mechanism for those who cannot focus. Research concluded that male college students are more likely to be screened positively for adult ADHD; however, the overall association between Internet addiction and attention deficit is more significant in females.[34]

Positive correlates of social media useEdit

Research conducted by Australian researchers demonstrated that a number of positive psychological outcomes are related to Facebook use.[7][35] These researchers established that people can derive a sense of social connectedness and belongingness in the online environment. Importantly, this online social connectedness was associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety, and greater levels of subjective well-being. These findings suggest that the nature of online social networking determines the outcomes of online social network use.

Social media and memesEdit

A consequent component of the social media experience is internet memes. As the internet acquired its own variety of memes and language, intellectual convergence became apparently existent in the minds of internet users. Digital inhabitants have voluntarily created various requirements and standards that must be met for a successful interaction. The distinguishing judgment of others is implied in the sharing of memes, and this judgment leads to differences in social existence.[36] The phenomenon of information infection through internet memes can influence the ways internet users will acquire and interpret data. This in turn affects their participation, interactions, and behaviors online and offline.

While internet memes appear to be simple pop culture references, they allow a glimpse into the formation of culture and language when more closely observed.[37] These snippets of pop-culture serve to demonstrate how the collective mind of internet users relate to one another through seemingly ridiculous images and text. Despite the absurdity of some memes, they allow connections to be built through a shared experience. This shared experience is central to the development of the culture of the modern internet and those who primarily connect with others through it. This also shapes the culture of future generations as they become more enmeshed within this globalized culture and psyche.[37]

Psychotherapy in cyberspaceEdit

Psychotherapy in cyberspace, also known as cybertherapy or e-therapy, is a controversial matter with a history of doubts related to efficiency, validity and effectiveness.[38] The first instance of this practice did not include interaction with a human, but rather a program called ELIZA, which was designed by Joseph Weizenbaum to answer questions and concerns with basic Rogerian responses.[39] ELIZA proved to be so effective that many people either mistook the program for human, or became emotionally attached to it.[40]

In today's most common computer-mediated form of counseling, a person e-mails or chats online with a therapist (online counseling). E-therapy may be particularly effective when conducted via video conferencing, as important cues such as facial expression and body language may be conveyed albeit in a less present way. At the same time, there are new applications of technology within psychology and healthcare which utilize augmented and virtual reality components—for example in pain management treatment, PTSD treatment, use of avatars in virtual environments, and self- and clinician-guided computerized cognitive behavior therapies.[41] The voluminous work of Azy Barak[42] (University of Haifa) and a growing number of researchers in the US and UK gives strong evidence to the efficacy (and sometimes superiority) of Internet-facilitated, computer-assisted treatments relative to 'traditional' in-office-only approaches. The UK's National Health Service now recognizes CCBT (computerized cognitive behavioral therapy) as the preferred method of treatment for mild-to-moderate presentations of anxiety and depression.[43] Applications in psychology and medicine also include such innovations as the "Virtual Patient" and other virtual/augmented reality programs which can provide trainees with simulated intake sessions while also providing a means for supplementing clinical supervision.

Many of the current controversies related to e-therapy have arisen in the context of ethical guidelines and considerations.[44] In the U.S. there are special circumstances which impact widespread online services among licensed health/mental health professionals given that each of 50 states has their own licensing and regulatory systems, and for most professions practitioners are limited to practicing 'within their state', with the recipient's location determining 'where the service is received' and spurring ongoing debate about restricted access and antiquity of the license system. But the applications and research expand at a rapid rate, and areas of research, practice, and education within the world of 'psychotherapy' have been exploding – especially with all of the research and experience demonstrating the value of technology/Internet assisted applications.

In popular cultureEdit

  • Lisa Kudrow's Web-based situation comedy Web Therapy, in which Kudrow's unaccredited and unscrupulous character Fiona Wallice conducts therapy sessions using iChat, explores many of the ethical and practical issues raised by the prospect of psychotherapy conducted via Internet video chat.[45]
  • Patricia Arquette recurs as FBI Special Agent in Charge Avery Ryan, a cyberpsychologist, in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. She also headlines the spinoff series CSI: Cyber in the same role.[46]
  • Forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan and Special Agent Seeley Booth in Fox Network's hit television series, Bones, practice cyberpsychology by collecting information from suspects' social media accounts to analyze personality, communications, and possible motives to help apprehend the criminal.[47]
  • Sketch comedy group Studio C pokes fun at different online personalities created by social media and how social media posting impacts dating relationships in sketches entitled "Facebook Friends Song" and "Don't Change Your Facebook Status".[48]

See alsoEdit


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