She uses the science of human behavior to define cyberspace as a unique environment — an actual space — not simply a virtual extension of the pre-digital world and our characteristic behaviors there. Yes, we still hang out, connect, flirt, fight, learn, do business and do good online. But disinhibition and anonymity in cyberspace foster a particular pattern of impulsivity, careless or inflammatory expression, social cruelty, deception, exploitation — and vulnerability. Consider the unsettling phenomenon of ubiquitous victimology, in which “the criminals are well hidden but you aren’t.” That extends from the ordinary streets of online life to the deep, criminal underground where predators roam and perps hawk illicit wares from drugs, guns and hired assassins to trafficked humans and tools for terrorism. Forget reality TV, this is reality. And it’s a mouse click away from your living room — and your curious child.
Our real-world senses do not serve or protect us adequately in cyberspace, Aiken warns. As humans, we’re caught in the gap between evolution and a sea change in our environment. Our instincts for appraising mates, pals and trustworthy others are visceral, designed by nature for face-to-face, embodied interaction in a physical environment. They fail to pick up signals when we meet in the cyber-realm. Without those protective filters, and unaware that they’ve been disabled, we’re vulnerable in new ways. Connecting on line feels so easy and natural that we come to assume a newfound sameness and closeness with strangers.
This phenomenon of “online syndication,” as Aiken calls it — using the Internet to find others we think are like-minded and to normalize and socialize underlying tendencies — is a setup for easy disaster, as Aiken shows in her examples of people caught in cyber-crises: humiliating exchanges or exposure, debt, love affairs, fetishes, porn and gaming addictions, or the lure of criminal behavior. They fail to see the big disconnect between who they are in real life and who they are online, and the gap is fraught with consequences.
Aiken is concerned for children’s development, health and safety in a cyber-environment that replaces face-to-face interaction with online engagement and includes easy access to pornography and hyper-stimulating, addictive activity. The evidence is in, she says, and it shows conclusively that “there are windows in the formative years when very specific skills need to be learned. When those developmental windows close, a child may be developmentally or emotionally crippled for life.”
...the Internet “is clearly, unmistakably, and emphatically an adult environment. It simply wasn’t designed for children. So why are they there?” Indeed, why are we giving kids keys to the Internet? Who would ever think it’s a good idea for children to have miniature computers in their pockets that can take them anywhere online, unsupervised and unprotected? Aiken describes the lack of regulation, accountability, privacy and protection for children caught in this digital transition as a “crime against innocence.” It represents a massive seduction of parents and other adults who should know better, she argues. Her forensic perspective compels us all to demand better protection, reminding us that children ages 4 through 12 are the most vulnerable population on the Web.