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Living in a cyber reality

by Archives February 1, 2006

“Meet me in enlightenment and I will teach you Spanish,” she had said.

All night he thought about her. What harm would it do? It’s the kind of reasoning people experience sitting alone in a dimly lit room in front of a computer screen. Norman Strahler was one of those people. Even when that little voice in his head said “Don’t,” he did.

The development of Strahler’s Internet emotional affair was a long process. Married for twenty-one years, Strahler would spend his mornings online with his chat partner before heading off to work in the afternoon. The initial brief exchanges via email and in chat rooms eventually led to more self revealing information. After a while Strahler and the woman considered each other true friends.

Hearts opened and an avalanche of emails crossed cyberspace carrying messages enhanced with verses, virtual gifts such as flowers, kisses, and animated pictures. With sweaty palms and butterflies in his stomach , there was no escaping the fact that love, for Strahler, had arrived.

But Strahler never met his online woman. In fact, many Internet couples don’t ever meet. It has been called “emotional infidelity,” and according to many researchers ,it thrives and has the same social consequences as an actual physical affair.

According to a national survey, 15 per cent of married women and 25 per cent of married men in the United States have engaged in sexual affairs. When emotional affairs are included, the number of affairs increases by 20 per cent, according to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. A Statistics Canada health report in 2002 reported similar findings.

In her book Talk to the Hand, Lynne Truss referred to the phenomenon as “supersonic gossip”. The reality is, however, that there are millions of people, single or married, sitting in dimly lit rooms, typing and staring at screens. Many of them are alone, bored and searching for some kind of connection.

For many, the search ends and the boredom is alleviated when they meet a member of the opposite sex. Emotions then take over. Experts say men and women enter the danger zone when they eventually exclude their significant other, resulting in a decline of marital and social interaction.

“We were surprised to find that Internet love has such anti-social consequences,” said Robert Kraut, a professor of social psychology and human computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon and lead author of a 2002 article for The American Psychologist.

Even though people in the study used electronic mail and other communication services on the Internet frequently, the research found chatting on the Internet was associated with declines in communication with family and friends. Depression and loneliness were common symptoms among heavy Internet users participating in the study.

The research studied the same people over an extended period of time. The possibility that people who were initially socially isolated, lonely and depressed were drawn to the Internet could therefore be ruled out.

According to Kraut, using the Internet seems, rather, to cause isolation, loneliness and depression.

“We’re starting to think that the problem isn’t with what people get when they go online, but with what they give up in their real lives to achieve it,” said Kraut.

“It is likely that the social contact on the Internet is of lower quality than the social contact when users talk to members of their family, go to church groups or clubs.”

Kraut added it is easier for some people to get online social contact than to get the real thing.

Although some consider Internet chat to be a passing fad with little or short-term consequences, however literature on the subject suggests otherwise. There are sometimes long term and dire consequences in fact. Treatment centres are popping up all over the world in response to the problem.

In Beijing, exaggerated surfing of the Web or chatting can result in rehab treatment. In early 2005 the city became host to China’s first government-run clinic dedicated to the treatment of Internet addiction. Doctors on the top floor of the Beijing Military Region Central Hospital treat patients ages 14 to 24. Some patients come of their own volition; others are brought by their parents.

Experts on addiction have claimed that up to 10 per cent of Internet users in the U.S. have a dependency. The Proctor Hospital in Illinois admits patients looking to recover from obsessive computer use. Doctors have said these patients display similar signs of withdrawal to those found in alcoholics or drug clinics – including profuse sweating, severe anxiety and paranoia.

In Pennsylvania there are “cyber-widow support groups” (cyberWidows.com) for partners of those having online affairs.

Specialists estimate that six to ten per cent of the approximately 189 million Internet users in North America have a dependency that can be as destructive as alcoholism and drug addiction.

Some remain skeptical that heavy use of the Internet qualifies as a legitimate addiction, and one academic expert called it a “fad illness”.

What may be clear is that people who abuse the Internet are typically struggling with other problems, such as depression and anxiety.

However, the affordability, accessibility, anonymity and escape from reality offered by the Internet can also lure otherwise healthy people into addiction.

Strahler fits the profile. A recovering alcoholic and someone who suffers from depression, he agrees with the term “Internet addiction”. “I had intense cravings for the computer,” he said.

“I was lying about how much time I was spending online and I was withdrawing from hobbies and social interactions; the same symptoms I had when I was drinking.”

It is no wonder that a growing number of therapists and in-patient rehabilitation centers are often treating Web addicts with the same approaches used to treat alcohol and drug addictions.

Chatting online has become the new arena for affairs. Although they do not necessarily involve physical contact, web affairs are often sexually charged. Similar elements are in play as with regular affairs; including secrecy, fantasy and excitement, as well as denial and rationalization. The same potential exists for a devastating effect on the primary relationship.

“I needed to find some other avenue that would ignite the “alive” feelings,” said Strahler.

In the end, Strahler does not deny the fact that he was involved in a love affair. Eventually, however, he began to take note of the effect the affair was having on his life.

“I realized that the world around was real and important,” he said.

Many researchers say that when it comes to online affairs it’s not just a question of whether it’s wrong, but whether it’s smart. In looking for something better in life, people who turn to the Internet often wind up with less. Through various treatment methods, Internet addicts can learn other ways of bringing real meaning to their lives.

For some this is reason enough to listen to that little voice in their heads that says to click “Sign Off”.

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