How does the virtual world affect self-esteem and conversely, how does self-esteem influence our contact with that world?
Last week I said that building a sense of self is an essential task of childhood and one that continues throughout life. So this week we will take a look at how that crucial mission interacts with the daily contact that most of us—especially our children–have with the virtual world.
The virtual world provides many possibilities—advantages that we don’t know how we lived without. How did I ever manage without my smart phone? How would I keep up with my grandkids who live all over the country if I didn’t have Facebook? How would any of us do business in a myriad of ways? Let’s face it! If your computer shuts down you are toast? But it is a mechanized realm, a digital domain. We can enjoy success within it. We can gain expertise and control over ever-increasing levels of mastery. We can play with other people, either competitively or cooperatively. But that isn’t how we build self-esteem—a deeply held belief in one’s worth as a human being. It is not self-sufficiency—needing no one. It is not selfishness—thinking of no one. Self-esteem means being known and being loved for who you are.
Building a child’s self-esteem begins very nearly at birth. It depends on loving human beings who are present and reliable—tuned into the child’s needs and able to respond to them. It grows over time as the child learns that she is accepted for who she is. We cannot flourish if we are loved only as an ideal or a concept of how a child should be. From that well-spring of love and acceptance a child and eventually an adult is able to reach out to support and appreciate other people. It is indeed quite different from selfishness or presumed self-sufficiency. The Internet, on the other hand, fosters the sense that we are alone in a digital approximation of the human world. Both self-sufficient and self-involved we proceed with the sense that we are in charge of our destiny. No matter how much any virtual enterprise encourages sharing and cooperation, it is still us and a machine. If we don’t want to compromise, we just turn it off. If we are not winning, we try another game.
Interestingly enough research is showing that young people—college students—with high self-esteem are less likely to succumb to Internet Addiction (IA). In a study entitled “The Relationship between Impulsivity and Internet Addiction in Chinese College Students: A Moderated Mediation Analysis of Meaning in Life and Self-Esteem” researchers found that individuals with high self-esteem have a sense of resiliency and, that, although they may be lured by the internet as much as others, they may be more likely to maintain their efforts toward attaining meaningful goals instead of aborting them. Low self-esteem on the other hand has been shown to be related to problems such as alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, school dropouts, poor academic performance, pregnancy in adolescence.
The researchers add that high self-esteem confers personal ability and value, so it may serve as a positive factor against addiction. It allows individuals to create and realize life goals and purposes. Perhaps most importantly for our discussion it allows individuals to bridge the gap between their real and ideal selves. For in the end it is the individual who must come to accept his or her real self and that acceptance cannot be discovered in a video game.
Citation: Zhang Y, Mei S, Li L, Chai J, Li J, Du H (2015) The Relationship between Impulsivity and Internet Addiction in Chinese College Students: A Moderated Mediation Analysis of Meaning in Life and Self-Esteem. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0131597. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131597
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.