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1Gurvinder Kalra 2Avinash De Sousa 3Aruna Kurvey 4Janki Mehta 5Darpan Kaur 6NileshShah

1,5Assistant 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.

Key words: 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

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 world.9

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 Relationships

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 the internet.32

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 Online Avatar

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 studying. 44

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

Internet Addiction

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 dial-up connection.

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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