Are there potential negative consequences on physical relationships when living in a computer-mediated social landscape? What might be some critical areas to think about in this regard? What might be some warning signs of too much time spent in virtual spaces?
When I read this question, I immediately thought of the online 3-D virtual world called Second Life.
Do you remember the Sims? Second Life took the idea of creating your own virtual world and put it online so that you can interact with other people in real time. SL allows you to create your own personal avatar exactly how you want it to look–height, weight, skin colour, eye colour, hair colour and style, breast size, hip size, etc… If you decide that you’d rather be a busy brunette one day and a feisty flame throwing red head the next day, you can!
However, SL has a lot more to offer than simply allowing it’s users to change their appearance. SL participants have created an endless number of different virtual realities that can be accessed with the click of a button. If you want to go visit the Great Wall of China, you can! If you want to go swimming in the Pacific Ocean with dolphins, you can! If you want to go visit another planet, you probably can!
Without actually experiencing what SL has to offer, one may think that it is just another online game that people use in their spare time. The difference between SL and some of the online games that allow users to connect with other users around the world is that SL is not a game. There is no objective, no goal, no points, no score.
I just realized that my word count is at 238 and I haven’t even begun to answer the questions posed. I wanted to give you an introduction, however brief, to SL, because it is a program that I am some-what familiar with. Last year I volunteered in a study that was looking at how useful SL would be for educational purposes. We were asked to join the program and become familiar with it before completing any of the tasks that the research group asked us to do. Ironically, the same week I signed up for SL, there was an episode on The Fifth Estate called Strangers in Paradise that looked at what role SL played in two different women’s lives. Unfortunately I cannot find the full version online, but here is a link to a brief description about what the episode looked at and a mini-clip from the episode: http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/2008-2009/strangers_in_paradise/
This episode saw Janet fall in love with a man through SL. She left her two children and husband in Calgary to be with the creator of her online lover. Was the demise of her marriage a direct result of her infatuation with an avatar? Perhaps. Was her marriage doomed because she obviously was not happy with her current situation, regardless of her infatuation with the virtual world that SL provided for her? Perhaps. What highlights the danger that these online social worlds pose to a person’s real-life life is that when Janet and her new love moved in together, they continued to live their SL lives together. They spent an immeasurable amount of time online, as their avatars, “hanging out” with each other in whatever virtual world they sought out while sitting in the same room. Instead of living a real-life life together, they continued to pursue their fantasies through SL.
I could comment on the risks being posed on their health due to a lack of exercise or proper eating habits, but what worries me the most is the mental well being of these two people. I don’t imagine it would take very long before their connection to reality is lost… Especially since they have cut themselves off of real-life reality in search of a more favourable reality.
The second lady in this episode spent nearly all day in her bedroom on her computer. She had fallen in love with a person from across the world on SL. She isolated herself in her room, leaving her husband to take care of their four children, clean the house, pay the bills, go to work, and basically run the house as a single father. It isn’t important that she was spending all of her time on SL–she could have been spending it on FaceBook or on Twitter or on MySpace–what matters is that she became so consumed that the lives of her four children became irrelevant. The needs that she felt she needed to take care of were not those of her children in the next room, rather they were the needs that were created by someone… Which weren’t real needs anyways!
So… Are there potential negative consequences on physical relationships when living in a computer-mediated social landscape? Absolutely.
What might be some warning signs of too much time spent in virtual spaces?
I would argue that if the time you spend in a virtual space is negatively affecting your real-life, then you are spending too much time online. This may be too abstract of an answer, so here is a list of more concrete examples of what myself and many others believe to be signs that you are spending too much time online:
- You start to spend real-life money on things that you will never be able to hold/touch/own because it doesn’t exist!
- Inactivity begins to affect your physical health – in the real world
- Losing track of time online
- Having trouble completing tasks at home or at work
- Isolation from family and friends
- Feeling guilty or defensive about your internet use
- Feeling a sense of euphoria when involved in internet activities
*The previous 5 were taken from http://helpguide.org/mental/internet_cybersex_addiction.htm
With that being said, my laundry just finished, the dishwasher is done, the dogs need to be fed, my phone is ringing, and someone is at the door… Gotta go!