To get real, get offline

March 29, 2011, 3:02 a.m.

The snarky comment on YouTube you dashed out and promptly forgot about last week may have lasting implications for us all. In his recent book, “Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality,” clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Elias Aboujaoude postulates that society has only begun to see the disheartening way online behavior can affect individuals’ offline selves.

To get real, get offline
(Courtesy of Elias Aboujaoude)

Aboujaoude, a practicing psychiatrist in Silicon Valley, became interested in studying the long-term psychological consequences of Internet use after noticing an increase in patients whose Internet use had “upended” their lives.

“We know how the Internet is transforming the world but not how it’s transforming our psychology,” he said. “We need to assess the virtual world in an objective way, not just look at the obvious positives.”

Based on his study of problematic Internet use in America, the largest study of its kind so far, Aboujaoude found that the anonymity of the Internet and the distance it creates between actions and their effects have the potential to exacerbate people’s worst tendencies in the real world. In other words, that user whose video you slammed may not show up at your door with a baseball bat and demand revenge any time soon, but the impression that your rudeness has no consequences could stay with you forever.

The more time people spend online, the more accustomed they become to falling into certain behavioral patterns–patterns that too often involve talking without thinking or judging without empathy.

“The personality traits that often come out online, unfortunately, are often negative traits: grandiosity, impulsivity, the tendency to regress to less mature states, the tendency to be angrier and less moral than in real life,” Aboujaoude said.

“We’re not as good at compartmentalizing as we think we are. More and more, society is going to resemble a chat room,” he added.

The anonymity that we take for granted on the Internet gives us the opportunity to construct online identities that we see as separate from our “real life selves.” However according to Tessa Price ’12, a research assistant at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) of associate professor of communication Jeremy Bailenson, the separation between these lives is becoming less clear.

“Individuals are building their physical identities into digital embodiments and vice versa…we see this on Facebook, World of Warcraft, Second Life,” Price said. “The interaction between the physical self and the digital self is so strong there is little distinction between what is ‘you’ and what is ‘not you.’”

In his book, Aboujaoude argues that the endless stream of “Click Here’s” and “Buy Now’s” and “Meet Sexy Locals Tonight’s” erodes individuals’ impulse control and makes it easier to destroy one’s offline life than ever before.

He draws a connection between the recent recession and the attitudes toward spending that Americans have developed online. When dropping $500 on Roberto Cavalli requires nothing more than typing a number into a text box, there is more than enough time to drain a bank account before carpal tunnel syndrome kicks in.

“Money became a fiction,” Aboujaoude said. “The way we were spending in the years up to the recession was more like the way people spend in Second Life, the same kind of lack of concern about consequence.”

The Internet can also foster serious problems in relationship formation, and not just because of the possibility of misplaced “sexts” and Facebook relationship status gaffes. For example, the prevalence of dating sites may encourage suitors to make superficial judgments, searching endlessly for perfection while being lured into an inescapable loop of dissatisfaction.

Even if you hit it off with someone on your first date–or even if you are married–the idea that the Internet might offer someone better can seem endlessly alluring.

These issues affect most of the country equally, according to Aboujaoude’s data. While he expected the Silicon Valley and other higher-tech areas to show higher rates of Internet-related real-life problems, the rates proved similar across geographic areas.

So-called “digital natives,” those who grew up using the Internet daily, did display higher rates of internet-affected behaviors such as compulsive buying. While rates of compulsive buying had long been steady at six to eight percent, digital natives now display rates of 40 percent–a number Aboujaoude calls “staggering.”

To get real, get offline
(ERIC KOFMAN/The Stanford Daily)

Integral to the problem, of course, is that inherent in the Internet is also unprecedented access to information, news, culture and communication platforms. So how will the balance of objective gains and psychological detriments play out? It’s too early to know, according to Aboujaoude.

“To some degree this is a big social experiment, so it’s hard to predict,” he said. However, he added, society needs to be more aware of the problem and make it easier to confront.

“This is not just an issue for rich people; it can come up in each and every one of us,” he said. “As a culture, we should be aware of the problems and not make them something you just deal with in the office of a psychotherapist.”

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