Monday, January 9, 2012

The Meaning of Online and Offline Continuity

The majority of teenagers who are online, using e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, participating in chat rooms, and downloading and uploading photos and videos, have continuity between their online and off-line identities. Although many parents fear teens have secret identities and secrets lives as they move about in cyberspace, research shows teens are much more likely to have integration or continuity between their online and off-line lives than adults. Adults are far more likely to engage in secretive and dishonest behavior online, such as cyber affairs, clandestine spending on eBay, and gambling.

Teens use the internet to maintain established social relationships: they instant message, e-mail, and post messages, comments, and media content on Facebook as a way of enhancing and expanding friendships. Certainly, some teens are engaged in accumulating online friends and, in many cases, compete with one another to acquire hundreds of friends on Facebook. Social media sites can stimulate an unhealthy preoccupation with the quantity of friends rather than the quality of friendships. Additionally, it is fair to say, many teens who are engaged in social media sites express themselves in sound bites and tend to tailor their comments in a manner that enhances their social status and popularity. As a result, teens are spending less time seriously deliberating and contemplating their identities and via traditional methods such as journaling.

Notwithstanding the potential problems of status or ego oriented Internet based communication, teens do not see a meaningful distinction between their online and off-line personalities, preferences, interests, and motivations. Facebook, Twitter, texting, and instant messaging are used as a way of tracking and connecting with peers (sometimes on a minute by minute basis). Thus, due to the motivation of teenagers to connect with their off-line friends, they are unlikely to engage in secretive or compartmentalized behavior.

One of the red flags of problematic Internet use for teens (and adults) is a disconnection between off-line and online friendships, activities, and interests. Teens that have become compulsive in their use of Internet pornography, for example, tend to isolate from their family and friends. Internet pornography can become an all-consuming and result in teens living in a cyber-fantasy world that replaces their off-line lives. In some cases, the compulsive interest in Internet pornography is a result of alienation and rejection by off-line peers at school. In fact, one of the well-researched triggers for a compartmentalized and disconnected online life is a disappointing, impoverished, and unsuccessful social reality off-line.

In addition to the compulsive use of Internet pornography, the compulsive use of video gaming, whether it be console-based or computer-based, can lead to a disconnection between off-line and online reality. Many teens (and adults) who engage in role-playing games become solely invested in the fantasy world they participate in and co-create with other game players (thus creating an experience of a social community). Although role-playing games do involve coordination and collaboration with peers, some across the globe, the nature of the relationships are entirely oriented around the execution of the goals of the game. The commitment to the game and to the gaming community can create a barrier that completely cuts off a teenager from off-line opportunities and activities.

The integration and balancing of online and off-line lives is a sign of health. Why? Because integration, like all forms of connection, has the potential to create synergy. Integration, as John Suler says (author of The Psychology of Cyberspace) leads to “development and prosperity where both sides are enriched by the exchange of information and energy.” Suler goes on to say that if one of the goals of life is to “know thyself,” then this applies to connecting different parts of the self that are expressed via online and off-line friendships and activities. In order to reach this goal, teens and adults alike must learn to take down barriers between their online and off-line identities.

One notable and very important exception to the goal of integration and synergy between online and off-line living, is online communities that provide support to individuals who cannot access support off-line or are not ready to access support off-line. For example, a person struggling with sex addiction may initially be more comfortable seeking a support group online rather than risk exposure off-line. Another important example of separation between online and off-line identities/activities is a teen or young adult who is working through the process of coming out as a gay or lesbian and utilizes resources on the Internet to gain information and support about coming out process. Other examples include researching topics that may be potentially embarrassing, such as contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, human reproduction, and forms of sexual self-expression.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, there will be an increasing pull to separate online and off-line life simply because technology will become more pervasive and increasingly complex and compelling. Cyberspace is an expanding universe with extraordinary opportunities for education, growth, and development. Cyberspace is also filled with potential risks and hazards, most notably compulsive behavior and the escape into fantasy worlds that serve to split online and off-line life.

For parents who are considering modifying their child/teen’s online activities, the important consideration is the balance between online and off-line activities. As long as a teen is demonstrating consistent balance and interest in off-line and online activities, the opportunities offered by cyberspace can be fulfilling, motivating, and lead to skills that are applicable to the 21st century workplace.

When parents begin to see splitting between online and off-line activities and a preference for online fantasy, it is very important to step in and establish a contract or agreement regarding how to achieve balance between online and off-line activities and preferences. Parents are often reluctant to intrude into the privacy of their teenager’s online lives; however, without parental guidance and wisdom, it is very easy for teens to lose their way and end up in a very isolated and disconnected world of online gaming, chat rooms, porn, and databases. When in doubt, parents need to step in to their child/teen’s online world and provide balance and structure that will help them successfully navigate the interplay between cyberspace and three dimensional space.

Christopher Mulligan LCSW

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