A psychiatrist who specializes in obsessive-compulsive disorders argues persuasively that the Internet can be hazardous to our mental health.
Aboujaoude (Psychiatry and Behavioral Science/Stanford Univ.; Compulsive Acts: A Psychiatrist’s Tales of Ritual and Obsession, 2008, etc.) refers to scholarly studies, media reports and his patients’ case histories to give copious examples of people altering their moral behavior and personalities online, almost always for the worse. In the virtual world, responsible adults who would never go near so much as a slot machine start gambling away their families’ life savings in virtual casinos. Individuals with low self-esteem offline spend more of their days on virtual role-playing sites like Second Life, where they can mold themselves—and sometimes others—into their idea of perfection, leaving imperfect face-to-face relationships to deteriorate. Online, mild-mannered people lie, cheat, steal, scheme and bully. Aboujaoude argues that they degrade language and, thereby, thought, reducing social communications to crude tweets of 140 characters or fewer and letting emoticons stand for their feelings. Anyone who has any experience in online forums and enterprises will recognize the ills that the author enumerates, but is it something about the Internet that causes this bad behavior, or something in human nature? Psychiatrists are undecided about whether Internet addiction is a legitimate disorder, and Aboujaoude clearly leans toward giving it its own diagnostic status. If it is indeed a “real” disorder, psychiatry may lack the tools to treat people whose psyches are more present online than in person. The author acknowledges that the Internet has wrought plenty of good; it enabled him to research much of his book from his own computer, for example. Furthermore, it isn’t going away. But just as the Industrial Revolution forever changed the physical landscape often catastrophically, the virtual revolution seems to be altering our mental world in ways we have barely begun to understand.
Most readers already realize that online personas are often different from those in real life, but Aboujaoude offers a unique psychiatrist’s perspective and an urgent wake-up call for those still in the dark.