Teen hackers study considers link to addiction

Child on computer Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The study suggests young hackers could be helped by borrowing tactics used to tackle substance abuse

A study suggests there are parallels between the way youngsters turn into hackers and how youths become addicted to drugs and alcohol.

The report was written for the EU's law enforcement agency Europol.

It says that readily available online tools and tutorials make it easy for youth to begin committing cybercrimes.

And it warns that a sense of pleasure derived from the acts might encourage some perpetrators to escalate their attacks.

"[The hormone] dopamine can be released quickly as vulnerable youth achieve frequent and rapid successes online, and if these successes are linked to anti-social acts, such as hacking, they will be reinforced to pursue further ends to obtain their gains," it states.

"Frameworks of addiction assist with explaining the difficulties in cessation as well as an escalation in deviancy and targeted victimisation."

The study suggests that educational programmes developed to tackle substance abuse and smoking could be adapted to help tackle cybercrime.

But the authors are careful not to claim that hackers are necessarily addicts themselves.

"In the [American Psychiatric Association's] last Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, internet addiction did not make it through," Prof Mary Aiken told the BBC.

"So, therefore hacking is not recognised clinically as an addiction.

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Image caption Teenagers were arrested following the hack of the telecoms firm TalkTalk in 2015

"But our research certainly points to certain compulsive and impulsive aspects of the behaviour and certainly it would warrant further investigation as to whether it was addictive."

For now, Prof Aiken prefers to class hacking as a "cyber-maladaptive behaviour".

Reputation boost

The study suggests a large part of the problem is that many youngsters see the internet as a place that is not watched over by guardians.

It says they then encourage each other to carry out more serious acts, helping "normalise" bad behaviour.

The report adds that often their goal is not financial gain, but rather to boost their reputation among other hackers in order to compensate for what might be a lack of self-esteem in the rest of their lives.

"Building reputation scores online becomes so important that young hackers can invest copious amounts of cognitive and emotive resources," it states.

Just as drug addicts and alcoholics can be helped by getting them to spend time with role models and teaching them to acknowledge how much damage their acts can do to others, so too can hackers be taught to change their ways, the study proposes.

It suggests "at risk" youngsters spend time with rehabilitated cyber-offenders, and that young people be asked to consider the psychological harm online attacks can cause.

The authors also suggest educators develop new tests to identify which children have the highest potential for technological skills when they are as young as four, so they can be "nurtured and rewarded" for using their talents in ways that benefit society.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The report calls for primary school children to be tested for their technological potential

Addicted to help

The authors acknowledge one shortcoming of their work is that they had relied on evidence from other experts rather than young cybercriminals themselves.

But another expert who has interviewed such hackers agreed that the focus should be on encouraging cyber-hooked youngsters to behave rather than trying to restrict their internet access.

"There are a lot of people who would also be considered to be quite 'addicted' to technology, but who fight against hacks," said Dr Alice Hutchings from the University of Cambridge.

"These are people who write code and do really fascinating, great work, but are not involved in illegal behaviour.

"So, rather than trying to change what people are interested in, we should be steering them to pro-social activities rather than criminal ones, and looking to what's in their surroundings that influences the path they go down."

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