The next time you're about to leave a snarky comment on someone's blog or give up an hour to bid for things you don't need on eBay, consider this: What you do and the self you create online could be forever changing the person you really are.
The Internet may connect us in unprecedented ways, and it may put more information at our fingertips than ever before. But just as it's changing how the world works, one psychiatrist says it may be irreparably altering how our personalities develop.
In a new book, "Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality," Stanford University psychiatrist Dr. Elias Aboujaoude argues that the time we spend on the Internet doesn't just cause us to have online alter egos. It influences who we become and how we interact with others when we're offline as well.
"I see my book as my attempt at dissecting this thing called an e-personality – the changes that happen in our personalities when we go online, the new traits that we take on," he said. "What I see, more and more, we are starting to resemble our avatars."
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As a psychiatrist, Aboujaoude said he sees many patients with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and the behavioral shifts brought about by Internet use. In 2006, he and other Stanford researchers published the results of a major study on problematic Internet habits that included more than 2,500 adults.
But Aboujaoude said that the dangers of the e-personality don't just apply to those with the most extreme Internet habits. Potentially, he said, everyone who connects to the Web is changed.
"Society at large is becoming a more angry, uncivil place," he said, pointing to the violent rhetoric that preceded the recent tragedy in Tucson and the vitriol surrounding the health care law debates last summer. "We should ask ourselves if one reason we've become so uncivil is because of what we do online and how we act on our blogs and in our chat rooms."
His arguments echo those of Nicholas Carr, who recently published "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains." Aboujaoude says the fast-moving, information-overloaded Internet conditions people to become impulse-driven, impatient and unfocused.
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But he said his book zeroes in on "the psychological costs that we're paying for this collective love affair that we're having with technology."
Normal human development involves learning how to mature out of our natural tendencies toward aggression and transgression, he said. Growing up means understanding how to delay gratification, remember moral obligations and respect societal norms.
But in his book, Aboujaoude says that in social media, the higher-order, instinct-policing superego "has gone AWOL."
The Internet's Wild West-like promise of opportunity fosters delusions of grandeur, he writes. Its focus on personalization and "friend"-accumulation feeds narcissism. Its anonymous culture leads to what he calls "ordinary everyday viciousness."
And though people may think that they can easily move from the instant gratification and faceless world of the Internet to the reason and empathy of real life, Dr. Aboujaoude said, we overestimate our ability to switch between modes of interaction.
First Step Is to Recognize That We Act Differently Online
"We're not nearly as good at compartmentalizing as we like to think we are," he said.
As a Silicon Valley psychiatrist, he said he has an interesting perspective on the psychological impacts of the Internet, but even he doesn't have the solution to the problems identified in his research.
He said he spends more time on eBay than he ought to and loves his apps as much as the next iPhone-toting American. But he said he has become more self-conscious about how he uses the Web and tries to think of ways to log off temporarily without sacrificing the professional or social connection it enables.
"Whatever the answer turns out to be, it has to start by recognizing the problem. It has to start by us acknowledging that we actually act differently online," he said. "This is the first step. When we get to that point as a society, we can figure out what the next steps are. But we're far from there."