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I recently picked up a copy of Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality at my local library. The author is a psychiatrist by the name of Elias Aboujaoude who is currently serving as the director at the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinic at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The thesis of Aboujaoude’s book is that the world wide web can have a very profound affect on our sense of self. In fact, it can cause a kind of “digital divide” between our digital self, how we often think and behave online, and our offline self, how we often think and behave in face-to-face, “real world” interactions.

Aboujaoude has observed this divide in many of his own patients who engage heavily in online behavior – anywhere from creating fakes profiles on dating sites to impulsive online shopping to delusional thinking about reality (to the point where individuals begin to consider the reality of virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft more real than their lives offline).

Some of the case studies and examples in Virtually You are clearly reflective of individuals who already have a propensity for certain mental problems. The internet just provided an outlet that exacerbated the problem, and clearly not everyone who engages in online behavior is going to develop these mental problems.

However, the bigger lesson in Aboujaoude’s book is that the internet does play a very causal role in our lives and well being – and thus it is important to be very mindful of our online behavior.

In addition to his case studies and anecdotes about patients and friends, Aboujaoude shares a lot of compelling research in psychology, neuroscience, economics, and sociology that seems to indicate that in many ways the internet is a unique kind of environment that creates a very different kind of self-perception (one which can affect both our online and offline behavior).

The author identifies several negative personality traits that tend to manifest in our e-personality or digital self:


Delusions of Grandeur

To many, the internet holds great promises of freedom, wealth, power, and opportunity.

One great example of this is the dot com bubble. When it first began, many people jumped into their own online business expecting easy money and overnight success. And while many companies did experience some temporary success, once the bubble burst they quickly discovered just how much of it was a false dream.

Of course, the internet can be a powerful tool that does increase opportunity for success, but for many it can also create delusions of grandeur and omnipotence. While on the web, it’s very easy to feel like “the sky is the limit” – thus everyone seems to think they are capable of some share of the fame, success, or power that the internet seems to be so abundant with.

This exaggerated perception only feeds our egos and causes us to act with “irrational exuberance” – often leading to some ultimately destructive behaviors and big disappointments. The dot com bubble is one of the most salient examples of this, but false hopes are built everyday when impressionable minds see the success experienced by YouTube sensations like Justin Bieber, or other internet success stories that seem to erupt almost spontaneously.

Everyday more and more people expect the internet to be their path to fame and fortune. In the book, Aboujaoude compares this exaggerated perception of opportunity to the California Gold Rush in the 19th century. And while the dot com bubble has already burst, Aboujaoude fears that – like a patient with bipolar disorder – more manic episodes are beginning to erupt due to the allure of success that plagues almost all corners of the internet.


Narcissism

Narcissism is a kind of excessive self-love, and another common byproduct of developing our e-personality or digital self. The fact is: due to our growing ability to customize and edit our online presence, it’s very easy to get caught in the trap of thinking we are more important than we really are. Anyone who uses sites like Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter has probably exaggerated some claims about themselves in order to seem more like their “ideal” self, even if it is just building your friends list so that you seem more popular.

Digital technology and the internet seem to provide us with a way to cover up our flaws and imperfections in a way we never could before. This includes anything from using photoshop to edit our pictures, to lying about our career on a forum or dating site, to acting with an inflated sense of self-importance while in a chatroom or forum. More and more, the gap between our “real self” and “digital self” seems to be growing greater and greater.

Similar to delusions of grandeur, the internet gives us an artificial sense of power over our own self-improvement and self-esteem. In some ways, Aboujaoude claims this reflects a drive for us to be more “God-like,” and the internet provides us with the tools to make this ideal self seem like more of a possibility than ever before.

With this kind of perceived opportunity, who would want to be tethered to the physical limitations of the real world? Why be old, short, fat, and bald when you can create a young, tall, dark, handsome version of yourself in a virtual world, like in Second Life? And instead of having to find a real girlfriend, you can just create an avatar of your ideal girlfriend? Many people are becoming increasingly infatuated with the freedom and customization of virtual worlds, and they are willing to neglect their offline lives in order to dedicate more and more time to their fantasies.


Aggression

This formation of a “digital self” often doesn’t just harm our own self-perception, but also the people we choose to treat while inhabiting this self. Because the internet can give us a superficial sense of power and authority, many people often abuse this power by hurting others. Cyberbullying especially is becoming a huge problem in schools everywhere. Some victims have been so badly harassed online that they have dropped out of school or even committed suicide.

Unlike traditional bullying, the identity of the cyberbully is unknown in almost half the cases. This kind of anonymity often causes individuals to act in ways far more cruelly and with less inhibition than they would in face-to-face interactions. In other words, the internet creates an environment that can often bring out the very worst in people. Once individuals begin hiding behind a mouse and keyboard, morality tends to be thrown out the window, because most people are never held accountable for their actions.

In addition, time spent in other virtual environments, such as in violent videogames, has also been shown to increase offline aggression in children, teens, and young adults. In a cross-cultural longitudinal study done by psychologist Craig Anderson, of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University, researchers studied 1,500 participants over the course of a year and found that individuals who played violent videogames on a regular basis were twice as likely to show aggressive tendencies later in the year (compared to those who were not engaged in these videogames). Researchers of the study attribute this effect in videogames to it’s interactive nature, and the idea that games often reward players for killing, and over time desensitive them to the moral consequences of violence.

Similar phenomenon of desensitization can also be seen in individuals who watch gory and disturbing videos online (such as terrorists getting their heads chopped off, or a woman stomping a helpless kitten to death with her stiletto heels). Many internet users show an offbeat curiosity for watching these kinds of videos, but they are also unaware of how these videos warp our perceptions of reality and habituate us to some truly violent and disturbing acts.

I remember getting my first dose of gory pictures (probably from a site like Rotten.com) when I was a young user of the internet. Since then I have seen many other disturbing images and videos, and over time I’ve noticed the “shock value” of many of these videos diminish – probably as a result of gradual desensitization. It’s important sometimes to take a step back and realize that these are real people doing really atrocious things, and we should be mindful of the curiosity and offbeat “entertainment” we sometimes get from viewing this kind of material.


Impulsivity

The ease of accessibility – and “instant gratification” – we often get from the internet makes us much more inclined to act impulsively. So many sites and online stores now have “one click” purchases and memberships, and this leaves us very little room to reflect on our decisions before making them.

Of course, things like impulsive shopping and gambling have existed long before the internet has. However, the internet seems to exacerbate the problem to an unprecedented level. A study published in a 2002 issue of the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that online gamblers were 3 times more likely to show signs of pathological gambling. And although there are no specific studies published yet on how the internet affects impulsive shopping, one has to wonder what role the web has played in the recent surge of consumer debt and credit card debt since the late 1990s.

Our consumerist culture thrives more and more on online shopping. Almost any item you want is just a few clicks away, whether on Amazon, Ebay, or craigslist. And now that our money has taken an intangible, digital form, it’s far easier for us to give into these temptations without considering the true long-term costs of our behavior.

Before the internet, buying something was a multi-step process. You had to physically leave your house, get in the car or walk to the store, pick-up the item, take the money out of your pocket, and hand it over to the cashier. Today, however, there is hardly any inconvenience, and there is similarly no potential for public scrutiny or shame in being a compulsive shopper. We can buy and buy, without ever feeling the repercussions or guilt (that is, until we get our bill the next month, and realize the real financial consequences from our impulsive decisions).


Infantile Regression and the Tyranny of the Emoticon

Aboujaoude is a big critic of emoticons and internet terminology. While he recognizes it as an interesting phenomenon from a linguistic perspective, he also strongly believes that it is contracting and regressing language in a destructive way.

    “According to Brazilian linguist Sergio Costa, much of the communicating that happens online is in a childlike language. Just as children who do not master the conventions of language write in abbreviated code, rich in neologisms and pictorial characters, adults in their e-mails, blogs, and text messages adopt these less sophisticated forms of communication, willfully using lowercase when capitalization is indicated, and freely shortening and conflating words. The use of the emoticon represents an equally simple substitute for complex communication – who needs to carefully process feelings and logically organize thoughts before finally communicating a state of mind, when a simple hieroglyphics can convey everything…and nothing?

Our need for speedy and immediate communication has caused us to abbreviate and over-simplify language to our own detriment. According to a 2005 study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, many people are “overconfident in their ability to communicate sarcasm, seriousness, anger, and sadness over e-mail.” The study also shows that people were overconfident in their ability to detect these emotions via e-mail. This suggests that emoticons and common internet terminology are often inadequate to properly explaining our thoughts and emotions to others. It has reduced our digital self to an “infant-like” use of language, and in many ways has dumbed down a lot of online dialogue.

I will add that I think Aboujaoude’s criticisms of online terminology are a bit unfair. I find there to be an elegance and creativity in expressing myself in under 140 characters (such as in a tweet or Facebook status or text message). But I also think it’s important that we remain mindful of our contraction/”regression” of language throughout our online conversations – because while it may be useful in some contexts, it shouldn’t spill over into conversations that need more context and deeper thinking. If we lose the capacity to think out rational arguments and have deep and profound conversations, then I think we are going in the wrong direction. Clearly, as much as I love tweeting, I love writing lengthy and informative posts too. We need both in healthy communication.


Love and Sex Recalibrated

The internet is also greatly affecting our perceptions on relationships, love, and sex. You can’t visit a website or open your inbox without seeing some kind of spam or advertisement for how to improve your love life or sex life. We get exposed to sexual “ideals” and quick fixes on a daily basis, and these stimuli play a major role in how we perceive ourselves, our relationships, and our sexual preferences.

According to Aboujaoude, the internet and sex are inextricably intertwined. Data corroborated from comScore and Family Safe Media in 2005-2006 found:

  • The average internet user spends a quarter of an hour a day viewing pornography.
  • One in 5 men view pornography online while at work.
  • More than a third of downloads are pornographic.
  • A quarter of all search engine requests are pornographic.
  • More than a third of Internet users report unwanted exposure to sexual material.

Digital technology has created a means for people to satisfy their sexual appetite both online and offline, and to some extent it has had some really negative consequences.

For example, individuals who find sexual partners online are often more likely to contract STDs, and Aboujaoude makes a convincing argument that the internet facilitates sexual encounters to a much greater ease than without the internet, because: 1) It helps us manage first impressions better, and 2) It allows us to begin building a trustful relationship (through “virtual intimacy”) before ever meeting someone in person. In one study published in 2007 by the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 30% of women engaged in sexual activity during their first face-to-face meeting with someone they met online – but most didn’t consider it a “one night stand.”

The internet allows us to facilitate courtship in a far easier and faster way then actually going out on dates in person (where we probably learn far more about each other). Due to this, Aboujaoude believes that the internet might be considered it’s own independent risk factor in the contraction of STDs.

In addition to this, the rise of cellphones and texting (mobile versions of our “digital self”) have also brought about a new phenomenon of sexual activity: sexting. According to a 2008 survey of 1,280 participants, commissioned by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 22 percent of all teenage girls said they have posted online, e-mailed, or sexted nude or seminude images of themselves. Out of boys, 18 percent reported posting or sending pictures of themselves. Most do it to be “fun or flirtatious” or as a “joke,” but the joke usually ends once these images make it to the public domain, where people begin sharing them with their peers, coworkers, and Facebook friends.

In many ways, the internet has saved individuals from social isolation and helped people find fulfilling relationships in their lives that they probably wouldn’t have found otherwise. But it is important to be aware of these dark aspects of our online lives that can sometimes foster destructive habits and attitudes when going about relationships and sexual behavior. Part of it probably has to do with “Impulsivity,” “Narcissism,” and other traits of our digital self and e-personality. One thing is for certain however: the internet is drastically changing the way many of us conduct our relationships.


Illusion of Knowledge

According to Aboujaoude, the internet has bestowed a “false mastery of knowledge.” While we have so much information right at the tips of our fingers, especially with access to sites like Google and Wikipedia, many of us begin to think we are more qualified and educated than we really are.

In fact, partly because there is just so much information on the internet, many of us can’t be bothered to read lengthy articles or prose. Instead, according to Jacob Nielsen (an early authority on Web page “usability”) 79% of online readers scan, rather than read word-for-word. Often readers can’t be bothered to dig into text in order to find a piece of information or an answer to a problem. Instead, we like our information highlighted or put into a small bullet-point list, something that is easily digestible and doesn’t lose our waning attention.

Nicholas Carr wrote an article a few years ago expressing a big concern for this new way of reading and absorbing new information, called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He argues from personal experience that because we have become so hooked on immediate gratification and immediate information from the internet, our attention spans (and our ability to focus) have declined significantly. To date, several studies have shown a link between Attendion Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and internet use.


Internet Addiction

Considering all the conveniences and desires that the internet seems to provide our digital self, it’s probably not too surprising that internet addiction has been on the rise over the years. According to some sources, the Internet can sometimes suck up 45 days per year in some urban centers.

According to a survey done by Aboujaoude and his researchers, 4-14% of the general population show evidences of problematic internet use, such as:

  • 6% said their personal relationships suffered as a consequence of internet use.
  • 6% regularly went online to escape negative moods.
  • 9% felt they had to hide their internet use.
  • 11% regularly stayed online for longer than they intended.
  • 14% had a hard time staying offline for days in a row.

Although the diagnosis of “Internet Addiction” isn’t yet included in the DSM (Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), Aboujaoude believes that it will soon be, as he finds there is compelling evidence that internet addiction is a solely new kind of obsessive behavior that isn’t yet properly researched or recognized in academic psychology.


The Future of Our Digital Self

Now with the surge of online mobile devices, our digital self is playing a bigger and bigger role in our lives. In all likelihood, the digital self isn’t going away, which is why it is so important to pay attention to these negative tendencies so that we can avoid many of these pitfalls in our future online behavior.


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