Windows to the Mind: the world of Cyberpsychology

The Internet forges new planes of exploration in many fields of psychology, paving the way for innovative treatments

Krista Rothschild
Sep 02, 2011

The doors of cyberspace are open – for information, support and occasional dangers. The doors to research, however, particularly in psychology, have been ripped from their hinges, via technological advances and the Internet.

As covered in Dr. Birgit U. Stetina and Prof. Ilse Kryspin-Exner’s book, Gesundheit und Neue Medien (SpringerWienNewYork) there are many negative sides to cyberspace: shopping addiction, cyber sex addiction, pornography, cyberchondria and sub-cultures (i.e. animal torture, and other websites promoting bulimia and anorexia).

"The Internet is only a mirror of our society," confirmed Dr. Stetina. "There is nothing online which did not exist before, but the Internet is world wide – you will find someone for sure who shares your interest." Now, these groups and others are being examined, evaluated and quantified.

Psychological research, in general, races on at cyber-speed. Literature searches for research, which previously took months to complete and even longer to coordinate photocopies of journal articles held by distant libraries, are now accomplished within hours. Recent research results are obtainable for immediate downloading.

The newest journal articles are released online, before the print version is finished. Journals are also state of the art, available only online, i.e. Journal of Medical Internet Research, explained Stetina. Historically relevant articles have been scanned for widespread cyber use. Nearly all scientific journals have their archives online, with articles available immediately for purchase.

Further technological developments allow psychologists electronic access to many hundreds of psychological tests and instruments for assessment. Diagnosing mental disorders is easier, faster and transportable. One of the major publishers of psychological tests in Europe is a good example: Hogrefe Austria. Its computerized psychological tests, Hogrefe Test System (HTS), are purchasable in a number of forms. HTS provides several PC formats, online methods and an extra licence for transportable tests with a laptop.

This type of technology "enhances the testing and extends the testing situation to online psychological testing, which increases convenience," expanded Stetina. "Online research has shown that people are more open. ... It seems that we get the real answers better online."

Online assessments, as well as online research, apparently benefit of anonymity. Psychologists have access to people - patients - who are now research participants. "Online research and experiments provide a way of capturing people we normally would not be able to - for example, a research project on drug dealers a few years ago," attested Stetina. "It was also fascinating to discover that of the online population, 20 percent suffer from social phobia." That is nearly twice the general population’s prevalence of 7-12 percent, as quoted in the Clinical Psychology Review, 24 (2004) pages 737–767.

One attempt to address the problem of social phobia is a program developed by Stetina and her team: "SKY? Selfsicher, Kompetent – for the Youth." This computer-adaptive online training employs cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to promote assertiveness and social competencies and reduce social anxiety.

Another area easier to research online is the psychological aspects of gaming behavior. As reported in Computers in Human Behavior (Volume 27 Issue 1, January, 2011), Stetina and her team discovered that, contrary to popular belief, 83 percent of the online gamers do not suffer from addictive gaming behaviour or depression. The users of multiplayer online role-playing games appear to have a higher risk of psychological problems compared to users of other online games.

The topic has resurfaced following the shootings in Norway and the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Should video games and simulators be banned? Controlled? We as a society are desperate to find a cause, an explanation, an answer and someone/something to blame for such horrors.  Some terrorists have used video games, but naturally that does not mean that all video game players are terrorists. Research in this area must continue.

By researching the most appropriate uses for special groups (elderly, inmates, drug addicts, etc.), Stetina and her team have widened the range of technological advances in psychology. For example, they are evaluating the use of technology by seniors and the psychological aspects of the elderly accepting technology in daily living (often referred to as "Ambient Assisted Living").

Continuing on the idea of increasing the quality of life, Stetina elaborated on an idea of enhancing the daily life of bed-ridden people with virtual animals. "We know that being around dogs and playing with dogs is a health promoting factor in a bio-psychosocial way. Virtual reality dogs could be developed to the extent that people feel that they are real."

It sounds like a sci-fi film. "Yes, like on Star Trek – the holodeck. That is where it all came from," she admitted. "This exists today in research form – a cave – a closed room of virtual reality. In one episode they even talked about a holodeck addiction."

Psychologists can sit for hours on end by the computer – with a low risk of addiction – to further their education and professional development. Further education is possible via online courses, i.e. NACE – National Association for Continuing Education approved by the American Psychological Association (APA) or APA’s own online courses.

Live cyber-conferences, i.e. the 1st International Online Conference on Psychology and Allied Sciences in November, and other  recorded conferences are being promoted. Webinars, such as those provided by the psychological and educational test publisher Pearson Assessments inform clients live online about their products.

Stetina’s goal is to make virtual reality therapy an accessible and affordable tool for all psychologists working with clients. She sees the future of cyberpsychology not as field of its own. "Each area of psychology should have its own cyberpsychology - social cyberpsychology focusing on the social aspects, clinical cyberpsychology on the clinical aspects."

Information, support, assessments, research and treatment proceed at fiber speed; psychology is doing its best to keep up. The trend will most likely continue, considering that the younger generation has shown a huge interest in cyberpsychology: At Webster University and University of Vienna, Birgit U. Stetina’s classes are overbooked with waiting lists.


Mag. Krista Rothschild is a Clinical and Health Psychologist practicing in Vienna.

This is the second of two articles.