As a practicing psychiatrist, he has treated many people whose lives have been ruined by their Internet activities, whether it’s compulsive shopping for things they cannot afford, sending out aggressive e-mails they regret, or hooking up in unprotected sex with people they only met for the first time.
Dr. Aboujaoude does not blame his patients, but he does blame the Internet.
He believes the nature of the Internet itself creates these problems because the technology offers anonymity and constant access. The more we use the Internet, the more we keep presenting ourselves on websites such as Facebook and Myspace, and the more we participate in chat rooms and forums, the more likely it is that a unique “e-personality” will emerge, according to Dr. Aboujaoude, and this alter ego is probably much wilder than we are in real life.
“The results of all our online interactions is the unwitting creation of an e-identity, a virtual whole that is greater than the sum of its parts; and despite it’s not being real, it is full of life and vitality. Unfettered by old rules of social exchange, etiquette or netiquette, this virtual personality is more assertive, less restrained, a little bit on the dark side, and decidedly sexier,” he writes in his recent book called Virtually You.
Our e-personalities are what get us in trouble.
Dr. Aboujaoude, a faculty member of the Stanford School of Medicine, believes that the Internet encourages e-personalities that are grandiose, narcissistic, and dark. Like little children, our e-personalities have infantile emotions that they do not bother to control, they are impulsive, and they grab what they want.
In terms of sex, the Internet has made it extremely easy for people to find partners at any time or place. Because e-personalities demand instant gratification, they can even place orders for certain partners in terms of physical beauty and the specific sexual activity desired.
“Sex can be turned into a straightforward, simple transaction,” the doctor writes. “Arranged online, it can be a mostly devoid-of-feeling pleasurable exchange of something with no future-oriented expectation for long-term anything.”
Dr. Aboujaoude describes research on adults who formed online relationships and then later met the person in real life. Seventy-seven percent of the women, whose average age was 38 years old, had unprotected sex on the first meeting, even though they told researchers that ordinarily they were much more cautious and conservative sexually. Again Dr. Aboujaoude believes that the Internet itself is to blame for the new promiscuity. He believes that the younger generation is in even more trouble than older people because they spent their teenage and college years “hooking up.” He cites research that shows people under 30 have reversed the old order of courtship, which once had four steps. You were attracted to someone, you went out on a few awkward dates, you became comfortable with one another, and then you had sex. The new order is to have sex, and if that works out, you go out on a date.
“The impatient, raw, cut-to-the-chase manner of transacting around issues of sexuality gets played out beyond Craigslist, causing tension and altering the balance in real life away from love or romance or dating,” the author writes.
Dr. Aboujaoude described how one of his patients demonstrated that he could use the Internet to find a sexual partner within a half-hour – any day or any night. Paul’s ability to find hookups had ruined his happy marriage, even as quick and easy sex brought him no fulfillment. His sense of emptiness and deep depression led him to Dr. Aboujaoude, who treated him with psychotherapy and Prozac.
Dr. Aboujaoude’s sobering conclusion is that the Internet will create many, many more Paul until we figure out how to use it rather than letting it shape our lives for the worse.
Aboujaoude, Elias (MD). Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.
Saletan, William. “The Computer Made Me Do It.” The New York Times, February 11, 2011.