Internet Psychology

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 May 1997

Is the Internet a source of psychological problems, or does it provide a cure? For every book or article I read about the detrimental effects of spending time online, I now see another listing sites where people can turn for psychological counseling.

I receive many letters from psychologists asking about the effect of computers and the Internet on the psyche. There has been a lot of speculation, but not a lot of substantive research. While psychologists have reported treated few cases of “Internet Addiction,” so far they would have to count as anecdotal evidence. Usually, they involve a person using the Internet as a way of avoiding some other life trouble like a bad marriage, a physical problem, or social isolation. If a person no one to talk to at home, work, or in town, it‚s no wonder that he might get addicted to the Internet. In fact, the only two people I‚ve met who I would call addicted to online interaction are both young mothers who, though great parents, long for some contact with human beings capable of speech.

While we can all lament the fact that many young people would rather socialize on the Internet than in “real life,” we only have ourselves and our elected officials to blame for what led them to this sorry state. Bad urban planning, budget cuts for civic activities, the closing of public parks has effectively de-socialized our communities, such as they are. When playing in the street can mean joining a gang, the Internet might be one of the only safe places left to make friends. If anything, interactive media is providing remedial help for people who have no other form of interaction available.

The other main accusation made against Internet users is that by developing alternative personas, they can fracture their own sense of self. A few books have emerged claiming that if people present themselves online as someone they are not – a man creating and playing the character of a little girl, for example – an identity crisis will ensue. I‚m not entirely convinced that such role playing isn‚t healthy.

The Internet might be much more akin to a public dream space. Role-playing is a common form of social therapy. Rather than repressing our behaviors in the either, we should invite even more daring forms of play within safely contained environments. Instead of blaming the Internet for eliciting perverse behaviors, we might look at what sorts of social repression in daily life leads people vent their alter-egos online. If the brawny foreman at the loading dock wants to use a Little Orphan Annie avatar (character picture) to represent himself in an online discussion room, he‚s obviously experiencing and expressing a part of himself he may need to get in touch with. Let‚s not stand in his way.

I believe the Internet is itself psychologically curative. Mere participation in the right sorts of activities and conversations force a level of social intimacy and self-observation that can‚t help but teach us about ourselves and our ability to maintain relationships.

But many psychologists have decided to take this even further. An increasing number of psychological counseling sites have appeared on the Web and within subscription services like America Online. Some are simple peer-to-peer counseling groups on issues ranging from eating disorders and agoraphobia to cancer and mourning. Others are hosted by professional therapists, who use private chat rooms for “group therapy.” Their clients pay.

Many psychologists even accept private patients who they never meet in real life, but simply counsel in one-on-one chats. Sites like “Cyber shrink,” “Le Ritz Homepage,” and “Cyber Counseling Interactive Network” offer the services of licensed therapists for about the same rate as live striptease sites – about two or three dollars per minute. I doubt that they are any more curative.

These therapists claim they can tell almost as much about a patient from his words as they could from being with him in person. As any of us who have been fooled on the Internet can attest, that‚s a pretty hard claim to back up.

No, the Internet itself is a form of social and psychological therapy. Unless you live in the Antarctic, to seek professional counseling online is both avoidant, and redundant.