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Tech Shock: Nejra van Zalk on how psychology can influence big tech


In this week’s episode of the Tech Shock podcast, Vicki and Geraldine speak to Nejra van Zalk, a psychologist at the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College, London about how psychology can improve life online. 

Mental health safety standards

Whenever a new bridge or building is designed, a lot of work goes into ensuring that it meets physical safety standards. Increasingly, we are starting to understand that the same duty of care needs to go into designing the online platforms that can have such a profound effect on users’ mental health. 

Van Zalk points out that the failure to design for wellbeing isn’t because designers don’t care, but because psychology and internet safety have up until now been seen as separate. This needs to change — and she says she has been impressed by how much openness there is among designers to integrating insights from psychology into their work.

“My job is very much about breaking boundaries concerning mental health in order to ensure that people get on board,” she says. 

Individual or tech company responsibility?

The more data we share, the more tech companies are able to keep us online by offering a stream of tailored content. Often, that’s the most hostile, upsetting and divisive content, because these are the emotions that are aroused most easily. 

When asked, most people say they value privacy, yet in practice they readily give up their data — leading, potentially, to an adverse effect on their mental health. “We have these sophisticated algorithms making choices for us based on what they think we want to see,” says van Zalk. But that’s often manipulative content designed to keep us online.

This “privacy paradox” shouldn’t be blamed on users, Van Zalk says: it’s not that people are inconsistent or hypocritical, saying one thing and doing the opposite. “People do care about privacy. But the circumstances are set up for us to fail at safeguarding our own privacy. Cookie selection is designed to make us want to skip it, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t care.”

To change things, tech companies would have to shift their business model away from maximising revenue from advertising. They would have to take into account the wellbeing of users from the outset. A change in the business model would, however, probably entail users having to pay for services that are now free.

Who is at risk? 

It’s unhelpful to assume that everyone has complete autonomy and is able to self-regulate their time online, van Zalk says. And the people who are hurt the most are those who are already the most vulnerable.

“What are the consequences for people who are unable to make good decisions about their lives, or don’t have the ability to think about long-term consequences?” she says. Children find it particularly hard to know when to switch off. “How do you teach children how we should behave when adults themselves struggle?”

Could platforms benefit mental health?

Van Zalk argues that there is still room to make the internet a less damaging place – and perhaps even a positive one for our mental health.  

“It’s difficult to truly understand what the mental health consequences [of internet use] are over time,” says van Zalk. We don’t have access to the research that platforms conduct, let alone to the ways in which their algorithms achieve their impacts. “All we can do at the moment is ask people what they feel about these platforms.” 

Improving life online

Until tech companies reduce the adverse mental health impacts of their platforms, van Zalk suggests there’s a limit to what individuals can do to protect themselves. That will probably happen only when legislation forces on them a duty of care.

If the business model does change, it might no longer be possible to access everything for free — and van Zalk discusses a potential subscription model, with privacy safeguarded by default rather than by opt-out, as Vicki and Geraldine also discussed on a previous podcast with Carissa Veliz. 

There are, though, some exciting ways of reimagining the internet, and van Zalk says there is huge enthusiasm for this among the designers she works with. There are, for example, possibilities for wearable technologies that don’t increase anxiety (by pestering us with notifications or chiding us for not sleeping properly) but offer positive reinforcement and support.

As ever, technology is neither bad nor good; but nor is it neutral. If we can bring psychological insights to bear, we could make being online a much better experience.

Listen to episode 10 of Tech Shock, season 2: "Nejra Van Zalk"

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