Are You Your Avatar? Book Details Dangers of the 'E-Personality'

In his new book, a psychiatrist says we're becoming who we are online.

ByABC News
January 26, 2011, 5:12 PM

Jan. 27, 2011— -- 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."

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.