AND HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS:
Kalra 2Avinash De Sousa 3Aruna Kurvey 4Janki
Mehta 5Darpan Kaur 6NileshShah
Professor of Psychiatry Medical College & Hospital, Sector 18, Kamothe, Navi
Mumbai410 2092Consultant Psychiatrist & Founder Trustee Desousa
Foundation Carmel, 18, St Francis Avenue, Off SV Road, Santa Cruz West Mumbai
400054 3Head – Department of Psychology L.S. Raheja College, Santa
Cruz (W) 4Research Associate Desousa Foundation 6Professor
& Head Department of Psychiatry Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Medical College &
General Hospital, Sion Mumbai 400022
We live today in a digital
world. Digital technology has come to rule over our lives and the way we handle
our relationships. The present paper reviews the critical issues in
psychological aspects of the interface between digital technology and human
relationships. Issues like digital communication between people and the decrease
of open face to face communication is discussed along with the effects that
twitter, face book and social networking sites have on human beings. The reasons
why people behave differently when online and in real life are debated along
with satisfaction and factors that determine the creation of virtual avatars.
Internet addiction as a disorder is also highlighted. Today the digital space is
more comforting than the real world and this has far reaching implications for
human relationships. We must not forget the facts that although we are in the
digital age us ought to remain human at heart and in close relationships.
digital technology, human relationships, internet addiction.
Everyone today is wired to
each other in some or the other way, but without the real wires. Digital
technology keeps us in a world of our own insulated and isolated from the real
world. Text messages and virtual greeting cards have replaced the older handmade
cards and letters. E-mails have effectively shrunk the world and eliminated
borders and distances.1 Media technology and the internet have
developed at a faster pace than our ability to understand the social, emotional
and psychological impact of digital technology on human beings and human
relationships.2 there are hazardous risks to human relationships due
to digital technology and these cannot be trivialized. Digital technology is
here to stay and we must be mindful of its rich yet unwieldy potential while
impacting human relationships.3
Technology is a term with
origins in the Greek "techno logia", where ‘techne’ means craft and ‘logia’
means saying. Technology in some form has always been a part of human life. From
electricity at one point to telephones to television and now to the more complex
world of computers and cell phones, technology has always moved hand in hand
with human development.4 More and more people use the internet to
communicate while spoken communication and human relationships and dialogue
continue to suffer.5 The present paper looks at the psychological
effects of digital technology on relationships.
Virtual reality (VR) was
originally conceived as a digitally created space that humans could access by
donning sophisticated computer equipment and through this space, they could be
transported to a different world, a substitute reality in which one could
interact with objects, people, and environments.6,7 VR allows an
individual to change his nationality, language, appearance, body image and bring
out the unconscious into the open without the fear of anyone in real world
knowing.8 The transition that one makes to his or her personality in
VR is fast and sudden and easier than would ever have been possible in the real
On one hand VR allows an
expression of what the ideal or real self would like to be or do in humans, but
it also allows expression of a dark and ugly self that sometimes may be
unacceptable to the real world. Chat rooms for instance allow individuals in VR
space to open up completely to strangers without the fear of being known and
sometimes the advice sought may be helpful or even detrimental.10
Weak and timid individuals seek solace from VR in trying to express themselves
as strong and robust personalities when in reality it is a façade they are
letting themselves fall for. They withdraw even more from the real world and are
happy in their VR world where they feel no threat from others.11
Children are hooked on to the internet at a young age which may hinder their
ability to socialize, form friends and communicate freely. Children hooked on to
VR are happy in this dream world and continue to live in this fantasy with their
so called cyber friends who are victims of the VR space themselves.12
Today husbands and wives, children and parents often chat online and talk online
though they may be living in the same house and prefer it that way. Open face to
face communication has dwindled and this may have had an impact on the quality
of human relationships and the generation and evolution of emotions that are
needed to fuel various relationships.13
Digital Technology and
A personal computer is fast
becoming a part of most Indian homes. It is beginning to take the place that a
television once possessed. Access to the internet is easier, as most children
are taught to use computers in most schools. Most parents pride themselves when
their children know how to access the net at home. However each step of
development also has its drawback.14 Adults born long before the
internet boom have marveled at its ingenuity, most have accepted its advantages
and also learnt to keep their distance with ease. Young adults are fast becoming
the biggest users of this digitalization and form the latest brand of so called
digital natives and rather are being born digital. 15 There is a
dearth of studies on various aspects of internet usage, effects of social
networking on real world relationships, effects of online chatting on intimacy
in real life and effects of internet use at an early age and the further
development of one’s personality. 16 We as humans suddenly seem more
comfortable with online usage than real world communication. This may be because
the real world sees the real human with real emotions and flaws that hurt us,
compared to the online world that sees either a real self with no
inhibitions, no fears, or rather sees a projected perfect self. This has been
termed as the online disinhibition effect and refers to the way people behave on
the Internet with less restraint than in real-world situations.17
this concept is related to the concept of online identity. The core concept of
the online disinhibition effect refers to a loosening (or complete abandonment)
of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal
face-to-face interaction Because of this loss of inhibition, some users may
exhibit benign tendencies; people may become more affectionate, more willing to
open up to others, less guarded about their emotions and may speak to others
about what they are feeling in an attempt to achieve emotional catharsis.18With
respect to bad behavior, users on the Internet can frequently do or say as they
wish without fear of any kind of meaningful reprisal in most Internet forums,
the worst kind of punishment one can receive for bad behavior is usually being
banned from a particular site or being removed from someone’s chat list.19
In practice, however, this serves little use. The person involved can usually
circumvent the ban by simply registering another username and continuing the
same behavior as before. This has been termed as toxic disinhibition.20
There are three primary factors that explain why people sometimes act radically
different on the internet than in normal face-to-face situations, the first
being dissociative anonymity as no one on the internet would really know who
they are speaking to unless revealed by the users themselves. The second being
invisibility where no one on the internet can see who they are speaking to. The
third factor is minimizing authority online where all are equals and no one is
bigger or superior to another online native except in some cases a site
administrator who can remove someone from a chat room.21 A child
learns what he sees and the internet plays an important role in his cognitive
development and his learning.22 The sociocultural perspective on
cognitive development maintains that social and cultural activities mediate
human interaction which determines cognitive structures.23 Vygotsky
has been the central theorist associated with sociocultural perspective,
conceptualized development as the transformation of socially shared activities
into internalized processes. Vygotsky proposed that our social processes are
culture bound and all our mental processes will be dominated by our cultural
background; such processes being understood only in terms of the tools of our
culture.24 Cultural tools refer to both physical artifacts (e.g.,
printing press, abacus, telephone, and computer) and socio-cognitive
constructions such as signs, symbols, and language. Children develop
cognitive structures based on these tools and more importantly based on our
language. We learn what is important to our culture based on these tools and
understand their context quickly, for eg. Snow and ice will be better used and
understood by a child who lives in a cold country than a child who lives in the
equatorial country. 25 From a sociocultural perspective, as children
accumulate experience with people and things in their cultural and social
environments, they become progressively more able to function effectively with
the tools and corresponding thought processes required in their environments.26
This has ramifying implications for digital technology and its impact of child
relationships and development as well.
According to researchers the
most common online activities for children and adolescents include playing
games, navigating websites and communicating with others. 22 While
Internet technology evolves rapidly, current use is associated with visual input
and tactile-kinesthetic output via manual manipulation of peripheral devices
while playing certain video games.27 During Internet use, language
centers of the brain are active, particularly in online communication.
Meta-cognitive abilities are required for a variety of online activities
including playing games and navigating websites. Internet games as well as
synchronous communication increase cognitive processing speed (reaction time).28
Internet games require simultaneous processing while online communication
requires successive processing. Internet games make extreme demands on visual
and meta- cognition skills.29 Navigating websites builds knowledge
base and contributes to concept development. But these results in the new breed
of digital natives whose brains are accustomed to digital learning and they
often find it difficult when one has to go back to academics and learn in the
old school manner like all children did.30
Technology today ensures
that we are all mentally and emotionally connected to each other all the time.
One can easily find a shoulder to cry on the internet or even a friend to share
one’s triumph. Even though this looks to have its pros, it has its cons too. The
strange phenomenon is that as technology keeps bringing us closer together to
those who are far away from us; simultaneously it is also taking us farther from
those who are physically close to us.31 As we enjoy connecting to the
world at large, those who are closer to us are irritated and frustrated at our
lack of attentiveness to them. A wife could be busy reconnecting to college
friends on various socializing sites, while the husband could be busy messaging
on his cell phone at the same time. Thus the distance between them may be
increasing beyond what any virtual space could reconnect. The dynamics of
relationships are thus changing with the internet giving another dimension to
our life, the virtual one. One can find love, romance and sex online with just
the click of a mouse-button. Various dating or friend-finder websites abound on
Individuals now consider
their time online as an extension of their offline identity rather than as an
anonymous person pretending or experimenting with identity.33, 34
Technology allows us to build a little world of our own, a world where one
chooses the friends he/she keeps and the activities he/she indulges in. Studies
suggest that young people liked to use the internet as a communication mode
because these afforded them control over their interactions. They allow them one
time to stop and think before giving a response if this is desired, or, it
allowed one to retain the conversational nature of interactions if this is
preferred.35 Thus individuals get greater control over interactions
that they would have in communicating via voice calls using the phone or
face-to-face. The computer downloads and plays the movie one wants, and the
music player plays music for the ears of a person in solitary splendor.36Games
like playing cards, carom and chess which were once played with the family have
been now replaced by solitaire to be played solo with all the more enhanced user
friendly graphics and controls.37
People don’t anymore discuss
an issue with a single friend; they either tweet them, or put them on the face
book wall. 38 Some of these are social-networking sites while those
like twitter have been called as micro logging sites or even as “SMS of the
Internet.” This evokes a wider response and gives us many more points of view
than discussing it with just one friend would give us. There are cases, where
people have found time to update their face book and twitter pages but haven’t
yet found time to spend with their family members or significant others.39
Contrary to the assumption that internet use encourages social contact across
vast distances, studies found that many internet technologies are used as much
for local contact as they are for distant communication. Email, social
networking services, and instant messaging promote globalization – that is, they
are used as frequently to maintain nearby core social ties as they are used to
maintain ties at a distance. 40
Virtual Doppelganger and the
In the late twentieth
century, the term avatar was adopted as a label for digital representations of
humans in online or virtual environments, the word deriving from the Sanskrit
word avatarah, meaning ‘descent’ and refers to the incarnation- the descent into
this world—of a Hindu God.41 Within the context of human-computer
interaction, an avatar is a perceptible digital representation whose behaviors
reflect those executed, typically in real time, by a specific human being.42
There is also a distinction between avatars and online identities,
which are the distributed digital representations of a person. Humans today are
known to each other by e-mail, chatrooms, homepages and other World Wide Web
portals, thus giving rise to an online identity. The avatars’ resemblance
is most important in behavioral realism (the number of a given human’s behaviors
the avatar exhibits) and photographic realism (how many of a given human’s
static visual features the avatar possesses), the latter being easy to furnish
than the former. 41
Websites like second life
allow users to create online avatars which can be used to interact with other
users (or their avatars) using various keyboard buttons, while simultaneously
chatting and viewing one another’s avatars as they move around in the digital
world. As of now, these avatars can be controlled only as long as the user is
online, and they freeze at their last position when the user goes offline only
to be controlled and moved the next time the user logs in again. 43
This can really change the whole concept of the pathological doppelganger
phenomenon, which now has moved onto the virtual realm or serve as important
examples of bi-location or multi-location. The way humans interact with one
another via these avatars is also an important phenomenon which is worth
Virtual humans are useful
models as they can be manipulated to portray a range of desirable behaviors that
may be difficult to enact in the real world. Also, virtual humans can portray
the highest level of similarity, including the same age, sex, skill level, or
emotional state as the individual. Such similarities can help people develop
feelings of identification with and empathy toward virtual humans, increasing
their effectiveness as models and persuasive agents. Recently, technologies have
been developed to create virtual humans that bear strong resemblance to
individuals. 45 The virtual avatar may be a medium to reveal one’s
ideal self and all that one desires but can never achieve in the real world. Fat
people can become thin, lean ones get muscular; attractive figures sought after
by others are achieved and dresses never worn in the real world can be changed
and worn by the avatar at will. Thus along with chatting and internet use,
considerable amount of effort is put in by internet users in the construction
and maintenance of their avatars. 41
Recently there has been an
increase in the coverage in this field in scientific literature. The most
productive countries in terms of such literature are the United States, China,
the United Kingdom, Taiwan, South Korea, Spain and Australia.46 In
fact, South Korea considers Internet addiction one of its most serious public
health issues.47 The term Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), is one
of the emerging phenomenon of behavioral addictions, the very concept of which
is being questioned by experts.48 It comes under the umbrella of
addictions to information and communications technologies (ICT), which also
includes cell phones and video games. The fact that is important to consider is
the availability of internet; unlike in Asia, where internet cafés are
frequently used, in the United States games and virtual sex are accessed from
homes. A more vivid experience with internet in case of a fast broadband
connection has a higher chance of hooking a person than a person with a slower
Addiction to online games is
another form of addiction that can interfere with a relationship. It is quite
obvious that a guy who finds time to play online games rather than playing with
the spouse is not involved enough in the relationship. People across the world
have spent time watering online plants and saplings rather than watering real
plants as also finding time to feed virtual babies while neglecting their real
ones.49 These and other behaviors have given rise to terms like ‘tend
to’ which mean to care for others. Internet addiction
is a compulsive-impulsive spectrum disorder that involves online and/or offline
computer usage and consists of at least three subtypes: excessive gaming, sexual
preoccupations, and e-mail/text messaging. All the variants share the following
four components viz. excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of
time or a neglect of basic drives, withdrawal, including feelings of anger,
tension, and/or depression when the computer is inaccessible, tolerance,
including the need for better computer equipment, more software, or more hours
of use, and negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor
achievement, social isolation, and fatigue.
It has been alleged by some academics that excessive Internet use can be
pathological and addictive and that it comes under the more generic label of
technological addiction. 50 Technological addictions are
operationally deﬁned as non-chemical (behavioral) addictions that involve
human–machine interaction. This is categorized by ﬁve speciﬁc subtypes viz.
Cybersexual addiction which is a compulsive use of adult websites for cybersex
and cyberporn, Cyber-relationship addiction which results in an over-involvement
in online relationships and chatting, Net compulsions which explains the
phenomenon of obsessive online gambling, shopping or day-trading, Information
overload which involves compulsive web surﬁng or database searches and Computer
games addiction which involves obsessive computer game playing like Doom,
Solitaire, Hearts and Farmville.51
Digital Technology and Its
Impact on Relationship for India
In India the internet boom
has made the World Wide Web accessible to all. The Facebook effect, twitter,
chatting, blogging, online groups for various activities are now fast becoming a
part of Indian lives. Virtual avatars (avatars – a Hindu concept of incarnation
but referred to as the “other self” in the virtual – a manifestation of oneself
on the internet) are very common, it gives a sense of anonymity. The internet
also works as an ice-breaker for many in India when it comes to interacting with
future spouses, in an arranged marriage setting. Dating and having consensual
relationships though widely prevalent are still not very well accepted by the
Indian society. Internet then becomes a very important tool to explore these
aspects of life apart from reconnecting with old mates. Online viewing of
pornography though illegal in India according to the Indian Penal Code, 1860
section 293, it is widely available and prevalent. More and more youth are
getting addicted to porn and watch it regularly. It may roughly be put in three
stages, starts with soft porn, going to hardcore porn and then violent porn. In
recent years, a number of psychologists and sociologists have joined the chorus
of religious and political opponents in warning about the impact of pervasive
pornography. They argue that porn is transforming sexuality and relationships
for the worse. Experts say men who frequently view porn may develop unrealistic
expectations of women’s appearance and behavior, have difficulty forming and
sustaining relationships and feeling sexually satisfied. 15% of online-porn
habitués develop sexual behavior that disrupts their lives. Pornography leads to
an objectification rather than a meaningful interaction with another person.52
Flaming i.e. enticing online
arguments in a manner of speaking on latest software, politics, religion and
philosophy is often seen. Identity thefts, harassment, hacking, cyber bullying,
trickery, frauds, stalking are some of the many problems faced by internet
users. Parents are often asked to keep tab on online activities to protect their
children from various threats and problems mentioned above.53 Time
limits, talking to children about consequences are some ways to help your child.
This fast paced world of the net is taking over the family time, holistic
upbringing and family time and healthy discussions is now becoming a chore. It
is important not to allow a tool of culture and language to become a center of
our lives. Facebook though meant for social networking has been widely abused to
bring down people and organizations when needed and various causes find ardent
supporters by putting up a page on these sites.54
We have never been as
simultaneously connected or disconnected as we are right now with the internet
and digital technology boom. In fact most of us have become so attuned to our
online personas that our offline (erstwhile) real personas haven’t been able to
figure out the right way to manage the two, or even the amount of time to allot
to each before being labeled a social outcast. Digital technology is thus
connecting the ones far away and disconnecting the ones who are close by. One
reason is clear; those in physical proximity can make demands and have greater
expectations from us, while those who connect to us through the virtual
dimension can be dismissed from our lives with just the click of a button. It’s
all about empowerment again with the power of switching a relationship on or
off. But alas though one wishes one can never undo things in life with a
shortcut of control + Z!
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