The new electronic age provides the world at our fingertips. Both adults and children may attach to that world as if it were “real.” In fact, it has many of the dimensions of human interaction. It can occur in real time. People may reveal private thoughts and feelings in ways that allow them to become better acquainted. They work, play, fight enemies, initiate romance, and accomplish a multitude of other activities in ever-changing interactive modes that closely approximate reality. Some people believe that a more open and honest type of communication can develop online than in real life. While some participants deplore the absence of face-to-face interaction, they believe that drawback is outweighed by the ability to talk to a variety of people from all over the globe.
The virtual world provides an opportunity to play a different role than one does in real life. Instant prejudices based on physical characteristics do not exist. Cyber links break down barriers of time and space and bring together a large pool of minds to share information, experience, and knowledge. While we often hesitate to communicate our true opinions in person or on the phone, it is easier to do so online because we don’t ever have to meet the people we are talking with. It offers an unprecedented opportunity to create experiences that simulate one’s fantasies and play them out with an endless supply of enthusiastic participants or vengeful opponents.
Technology has an astonishing capacity to create an interpersonal world that is almost real and presents the user with tantalizing and even seductive choices and experiences. One can be anyone, anywhere, anytime. We have unlimited access to an infinite array of opportunities to fulfill every fantasy, grant every wish, satisfy every desire. We can face any fear or conquer any enemy, all with the click of a mouse. Virtual reality provides a form of entertainment that we are unlikely to give up. If we recognize technology as an unprecedented and fascinating diversion, as well as a unique way to access information and connect with people worldwide, we can appreciate its power and potential longevity.
But as a satisfying and fulfilling manifestation of meaningful interpersonal experience and an avenue for healthy psychological development, it possesses subtle but important deficiencies. Rich and varied fantasy worlds have always been a part of the human experience. The embodiment of imagination is present in all the art forms: drama, literature, music, dance, and the visual arts, beginning with the paintings found on the walls of ancient cave-dwellers. Such expression allows us to project our inner world in a way that permits others to perceive it and resonate with it as some approximation of their own experience. Isn’t that what the Internet is all about—a venue that allows millions of users to engage with one another within an ever-changing dream world? I would suggest that the answer is both yes and no. While the virtual world eliminates many boundaries and permits the user to interface with an infinite variety of imaginative expression, it also forecloses the crucial interchange between fantasy and reality.
A humorous and graphic example of that kind of confusion comes to mind from the TV show South Park, in which the participants become so engrossed in the synthetic world that the real world, including the demands of the body, has no meaning. A group of children have vowed to rescue the father of one of the boys by slaughtering his enemies in a virtual game. To achieve their goal, they must sit in front of the computer for days on end. One of the boys even persuades his mother to bring food to the gaming area and, eventually, a chamber pot so that he can take care of his bodily needs. In this extreme example, the virtual world has become paramount and reality an insignificant distraction.
When Internet involvement becomes a substitute for the real world, or when we are unable to integrate the vast array of information available on the Internet into our daily lives, technology becomes problematic. As a substitute interpersonal world outside the demands of time, genuine emotion, and meaningful engagement, it has the potential to draw us away from the essential characteristics of social interaction—a twenty-first century manifestation of social alienation. When the world of fantasy in any form becomes so seductive that it breaks with ongoing experience, it disrupts and restricts the functioning of the real self. At that point it becomes, I believe, a symptom of a person’s effort to protect the authentic self and raises the possibility that the individual is responding to trauma in his or her background. The individual is substituting a computer-generated life for a real existence that has been too chaotic or painful to endure. The virtual alternative becomes the perfect venue for creating a space that the person can regulate—subject only to his or her whims and wishes, controlled by the push of a button or the click of a mouse. Safe, secure, and predictable, it is “time out of mind.”
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.