Opening Up Online

A recent study by two psychologists from the University of Amsterdam looks at the evolution of online discourse amongst teenagers over the last couple of decades. As they delve into how the saturation of Internet access and the emergence of online social networks has encouraged teens to add an online element to their existing face-to-face relationships, they discuss the nature of these interactions:

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Time Online: How Much Is Too Much?

There’s a new survey released by Rasmussen Reports — most commonly known for their political polling — that describes peoples’ perceptions of online use. The bottom-line statistic is that 23% of adults surveyed believe that they spend too much time online. Drill down the numbers, and it gets more interesting.

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Twitter changes the question. Have you changed your answer?

The Twitter blog explains their thinking behind changing the foundational question from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?”

The fundamentally open model of Twitter created a new kind of information network and it has long outgrown the concept of personal status updates. Twitter helps you share and discover what’s happening now among all the things, people, and events you care about. “What are you doing?” isn’t the right question anymore—starting today, we’ve shortened it by two characters. Twitter now asks, “What’s happening?”

If you’re a tweeter, have you used Twitter solely to express your personal status throughout the day, or is Twitter for you more of a give-and-take about what’s on your mind and on the minds of those who reply and retweet? It’s a very different social experience depending on which approach you take.

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Cyberchondria: An Example of Misplaced Focus

Among the daily multitude of news coverage discussing the psychological and social impacts of the Internet comes an article describing “cyberchondria“:

But what really ails me? Cyberchondria, loosely defined as the baseless fueling of fears and anxiety about common health symptoms due to Internet research, or, as I like to think of it, Googling oneself into a state of absolute, clinical hysteria over every last pain, itch and strange freckle on your body.

It’s easy to lose our bearings on a phenomenon like this and blame the Internet itself as the new social hazard that gives rise to this condition. It’s even in the language used here: cyberchondria as a diagnosis, and web searches as the cause. But actually (and the article does acknowledge, if not fully explore, this point), what we’re seeing here is an anxiety problem that isn’t created online — it just expresses itself there. People have had excessive worry and imagined catastrophic outcomes from mild symptoms for centuries — they just got their medical information elsewhere, until very recently.

If a person is having excessive anxiety about nightmarish health scenarios whenever a cough or itch starts, then it’s the obsessive thoughts and the compulsions to act on them that we should be examining and working to relieve. The Internet is just the arena in which those obsessions or compulsions play out. Google and WebMD do make it a lot easier and faster to act upon an impulse than, say, traveling to a medical school library — but it’s a mistake to conclude that a person is developing health-related anxieties because so much unfiltered medical information is now available online.

The good news is that with skilled counseling, these types of problems are treatable. And so I say again: “Don’t blame the Internet!”

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Online relationships and the epistolary tradition

We’ve seen the raised eyebrow that greets us when we talk about a relationship that is conducted online, with a person whom we rarely or never meet face-to-face. And we’re all familiar with the part that folks sometimes have trouble accepting: that you can have a healthy, substantive and fulfilling relationship with someone purely through the exchange of text-based messages.* Mixed into that skepticism, I think, is also a sense that an online relationship is faddish. Newfangled. A new manifestation of technology for its own sake. Bound to fail or inherently misguided because it’s contrary to the way people have always naturally talked to each other.

It’s not any of those things.

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Online identities

This week’s Virtual Conference on Counseling in Second Life offered a wide variety of topics, not to mention the novelty of a professional conference conducted entirely in a virtual world. I noticed a striking theme that seemed to run through many of the presentations. Here are some examples:

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Email separation anxiety

As we’ve grown accustomed to having Internet access at all times, we’ve come to expect and rely on it. So it’s not surprising that when the broadband connection goes down, the 3G network fades out, or the email client is acting up, a certain anxiety can set in. Some psychologists have even coined a whimsical term for it: “discomgoogolation.”

Clinical monitoring of heavy web users revealed their brain activity and blood pressure increased markedly when they were cut off. The stress of being disconnected was equivalent to that of running half an hour late for a key meeting, being about to sit an important exam or, in the worst cases, being sacked.

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Couples, online interactions and boundaries

What does it mean if a couple decides that online interactions must be mutual—specifically, by rejecting individual email or Twitter/Facebook accounts in favor of a joint account?

“It’s not a matter of distrust,” said Ronda Hodge, 53, of Amesbury, Mass., an ice-cream maker who shares an e-mail address with her husband Tom, 60, a landscaper. “We really don’t have anything to hide from one another. We were friends first before we even dated so we’ve got that level of openness there.”

The article cites two very different scenarios in which a couple might decide to share an account:

  • The couple uses their online presence mainly for mutual projects, and having the same account makes this easier.
  • The couple has concerns about trust or fidelity, and fears that private online identities could lead to secrets or betrayal.

In any case, this speaks to a larger couples issue. In any relationship, there are parts of your life that move into the shared, common space of the partnership, and other parts that you reserve for your individual, private self. Some of these couples are deciding that online interactions should be in the couple’s space, not in the individual’s. I’m not saying that this choice is good or bad per se, but it’s important to have a larger conversation about couple space vs. private space when this type of issue comes up.

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Early social networking anxiety

I remember how it started. Emails began showing up: “Alfred E. Neuman would like to invite you to join Facebook! Just click here to begin.” A couple, then a handful, then dozens. Clearly, there was a wave rolling in; did I want to catch it? Initially, the answer was, “Not really.” That is, until I was informed of a Facebook group forming around therapists who’d worked at the same clinic. It seemed like a good professional connection, so I signed up.

That was on what I came to call Facebook Day. It deserves its own title, because I was unprepared for the (over-)stimulating experience of learning my way around a vast online social network—and for some of the anxiety that can come from the phenomenon known as “friending.”

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