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Column: Why do we have such a love/hate relationship with cyberspace?

Do we use cyberspace as a vehicle to self-actualise as individuals… or simply as an arena of placid conformity?

John Suler

MY GENERATION INVENTED the internet. Now we pass it down to the next generation who grew up with it. What do they think about this thing we call “cyberspace?” Do they understand it as well as we hope they might? These are the questions I posed during my lecture at the Cyberpsychology Research Centre at RCSI for its first year anniversary earlier this month.

In my most recent research I set out to find answers to those questions by inviting my students to participate in structured group interviews and discussions. I first showed them the video entitled “The Birth of Cyberpsychology”, which I created to celebrate the opening of the Research Centre, and which is now available on YouTube.

The video includes a brief description of the birth of the internet and cyberpsychology, followed by a stream of quotes from famous people about cyberspace, interspersed with images depicting a variety of important concepts in cyberpsychology. Once the video ended, I asked the students to close their eyes, clear their thoughts, relax, and then allow an image to pop into their mind – a picture that captured the meaning of “cyberspace” to them. Then I asked, “What does that picture remind you of in your life?” It is a well-known technique in psychodynamic theory that encourages the surfacing of underlying, even unconscious, thoughts and feelings. The students recorded their responses, and I then invited them into a group discussion.

The problems the internet has introduced to our lives 

What did I discover from these interviews? Much to my surprise, and delight, I found that the students identified, from their own experiences in cyberspace, many of the concerns being discussed by the most prominent researchers in fields related to cyberpsychology.

They recognise the problems the internet has injected into our lives. They see their peers becoming symbiotically dependent on garnering feedback and praise in social media (“no likes = no worth”), while losing the ability to establish their own sense of self-worth, and even the ability to carry on a decent face-to-face conversation. They see their peers hiding behind false online persona that reveal wishful thinking about themselves rather than the reality of who they truly are.

They see a paradoxical mixture of self-centred narcissism as evident in the ubiquitous selfie, along with deindividuation as everyone does the same thing: “Everyone posts the same types of photos to the point where the only thing different is the actual face in the photo.” They feel overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of information and visuals that leads to what psychologists call sensory and cognitive overload. “All we wanted was to quench our thirst, but instead we are drowning and we don’t know how to swim.”

They grow more annoyed with friends who bury their faces in their phones rather than living in the here-and-now with each other. They see reality being bended in cyberspace to the point where they don’t know what is real and what isn’t, to the point where they lose trust in the technology and in the people behind the technology, to the point where “I sometimes don’t realise I’m not online anymore”. They worry about people prying into their personal information, and about the ever-growing cultural paranoia that we are being watched, tracked, recorded, and manipulated by forces we cannot see.

The ability to reach out to people

They also recognise the many benefits of cyberspace. It can be a way to get helpful feedback that might not be available in their offline lifestyles. It can be a way to reach out to other people with acts of kindness and generosity. No matter where they are, they can stay in touch with friends and family. It empowers them with access to world-wide knowledge, with new experiences, and previously unforeseen opportunities to self-actualise. “It has helped me grow into a greater multifaceted person and to develop and stretch myself as I discover interests I never knew I had”.

“The invention of the computer and the internet made me the person I am.”

Clearly, the next generation is expressing a love/hate relationship with cyberspace. Psychologists would call it “splitting,” the early developmental tendency to both idealise and denigrate something that has a strong psychological impact on us. Over time, as we accumulate more experience with the internet, we can begin to resolve that emotional ambivalence.

Ultimately, it boils down to an existential dilemma. “You can be anything,” one student said, “so why not make it simple and just go along with the crowd.” Is this the existential choice cyberspace poses to all of us? Do we use cyberspace as a vehicle to self-actualise as individuals, or simply as an arena of placid conformity? As another student said, “The real question is what should we do with all that we have.” How right that student was, for to ask what can we do with cyberspace is to ask what can we do with life.

What does this mean for you, the reader, regardless of whether you belong to the next generation or the one that preceded it? Watch the Birth of Cyberpsychology video, afterwards close your eyes, relax your thoughts, and allow a picture about “cyberspace” to pop into your mind. What does your subconscious tell you?

John Suler is a researcher, writer, and photographer who specialises in interdisciplinary approaches to personal growth in the age of technology. He is a Professor of Psychology at Rider University and Honorary Professor in the Cyberpsychology Research Program in the Institute of Leadership at RCSI. He has written about psychoanalysis and eastern thought, the psychology of cyberspace, and photographic psychology (johnsuler.com).
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