Scholars' Association News
Issue 23
August 2012


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File: Digital Citizen
Virtual Personalities on the Internet or Avatars of ourselves

The Internet puts more information at our fingertips than ever before and connects us in unprecedented ways. But according to American psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude, the Internet not only changes the way the world operates but it also alters our offline personalities.

Elias Aboujaoude, director of the Impulse Control Disorders Clinic and the Obsessive Compulsive Disorders Clinic at Stanford University, was one of the main speakers at the roundtable entitled ‘How are interpersonal relationships being transformed in the social networks era ?’ of the series ‘Private and public on the Internet’ that was organized in the winter of 2012 by the Onassis Cultural Centre. The American psychiatrist described the phenomena which are connected with the participation of Inernet users in the Social Media.

The author of the book Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality 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. The book is described as an attempt at dissecting this thing called an e-personality. Aboujaoude explores the changes that happen in our personalities when we go online, as well as the new traits that we take on. ‘What I see, more and more, we are starting to resemble our avatars’, he says. 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.

As a psychiatrist, Aboujaoude said he sees many patients with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and the behavioural 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. What is really worrying is the researchers conclusion that the dangers of the e-personality don't just apply to those with the most extreme Internet habits. Potentially, everyone who connects to the Web is changed.

“Society at large is becoming a more angry, uncivil place," says Aboujaoude. "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 (W. W. Norton, 2011). Carr argues that we are sabotaging ourselves, trading away the seriousness of sustained attention for the frantic superficiality of the Internet. As Carr first observed in his much discussed 2008 article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” the mere existence of the online world has made it much harder (at least for him) to engage with difficult texts and complex ideas. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words,” Carr writes, with typical eloquence. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Accordingly, Elias Aboujaoude says that the fast-moving, information-overloaded Internet conditions people to become impulse-driven, impatient and unfocused. 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. Growing up means understanding how to delay gratification, remember moral obligations and respect societal norms. But in social media, the higher-order, instinct-policing superego has gone ‘absent without leave’.

“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.

As a Silicon Valley psychiatrist, 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. Morover, he admits that he spends more time on eBay than he ought to and loves his apps as much as the next iPhone-toting American. But 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," says Dr Aboujaoude. "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."

You may watch Elias Aboujaoude webcast at:,10,409
Visit his website at :

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