Alone in a Parallel Life
The world wide web began as a platform for information, communication, and entertainment. It's now emerging as a powerful social medium, in which people build communities of newfound friends with whom they form personal and emotional bonds. One has to be concerned about this seemingly innocuous exercise in networking, however, if these bonds with people known only to the imagination-typically anonymous, sometimes misrepresented, and never accountable-interfere with or replace real intimacies, particularly in those who are in a formative stage of social development. Researchers at the Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, which has been tracking Internet behavior for six years, were taken by surprise when their latest survey found that more than 40 percent of users feel that their online friends are every bit as important to them as their real-life ones.
Beyond communities of presumably real people is the Internet game world, in which emotional contacts are made in three-dimensional virtual reality with fantasy people in fantasy places. Cyberpsychologists will tell you that such environments can be so real as to be used in therapy to modify behavior. Similar to video games, patients create their avatar (the virtual representation of themselves) and interact within a computer-generated space. For example, a patient with a fear of flying might take a virtual airline trip while the therapist observes his or her response. Success varies, in part based on how present people feel in the imaginary world; a greater sense of presence correlates with a better response to therapy.
But safety issues are a foremost concern. San Diego physician Mark Wiederhold, editor-in-chief of the medical journal CyberPsychology and Behavior, has been studying how soldiers returning from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder fare using programs in which their avatars roam a virtual Baghdad filled with haunting cues and triggers. The experience can be so vivid, Wiederhold points out, that it unleashes strong emotional reactions that might not be brought out in more traditional therapy.
Little is known about what might be similar safety concerns related to games in which young people create avatars and interact freely in vivid imaginary worlds, largely unsupervised. Sometimes the play involves any number of supercharged violent or objectionable actions against other imaginary humans-taken without remorse or empathy or personal consequence. To be sure, there is disagreement on the impact of such experiences. Some psychologists argue that they might encourage the behavior in the real world; others that it has no effect and may even be a way to drain off aggressive feelings. Or, as in one study, a 15-year-old girl, whose avatar was a cyberprostitute, believed that her online behavior wasn't bad since it wasn't real. In essence, this girl is saying, just chill.
The unknown. Should we chill? As Harvard cyber-researcher and psychiatrist Steven Locke acknowledges, we've only scratched the surface when it comes to understanding how imaginary experiences that are so vividly realistic might affect brain development in children. We know that real ones do. We also have to consider a broader but more subtle risk: that for some kids, a dependence on virtual human interactions, be they with real or with fantasy people, might influence their evolving social intelligence, affecting whom they trust and how they set expectations, how they deal with both affirmation and rejection, and how they give and receive emotional support. Remember, the virtual world can be just what you want it to be and can become an escape from reality.
In this regard, psychologists are concerned about one form of virtual escape-Internet addiction disorder, which can be a big relationship buster. Those with IAD become so immersed online that they neglect studies, work, friends, and family and when deprived of Internet access grow anxious or depressed. IAD has been reported worldwide in at least 2 percent of Internet users, and the young are most susceptible. Concerned, China last month mandated antiaddiction software to limit young people's Internet access to three hours per day.
But it's cybersmart parents who are best suited to influence their children's time online and also the places they go. Maybe the first question at the next PTA meeting should be, "Where was your 13-year-old's avatar last night?"
This story appears in the May 21, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.