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Let's talk about me: Psychiatrist worried about how online life affects us offline

By Dr. Elias Aboujaoude

FARGO - When Brett Biebel tells people he's not on Facebook, he's often greeted by strange looks and rolled eyes.

"There's kind of an initial recoiling," Biebel says, when people hear of his one-man Face-off. "They'll say, 'What a Luddite.' "

Indeed, it seems unusual for a 25-year-old to ignore a social networking site so pervasive that it's even used as a marketing tool for the technophobic Amish.

Biebel, who is teaching and pursuing his MFA in creative writing at Minnesota State University Mankato, has a good reason for his Facebook-fast: "I've always had privacy concerns," he says. "Beyond that, I was just getting annoyed with the random postings and having to weed through some of the more narcissistic elements."

Biebel isn't alone. When he talks to his students about social-networking sites, most will say they use them - even though they really dislike aspects of the sites.

"They'll say, 'I had to look at this person's status today, and nobody cares.' Or: 'I find myself on it for two hours, and I don't have that kind of time,' " Biebel says. "It's really prevalent that everyone has something about (Facebook) that annoys them."

It makes sense that even some "digital natives" - the term for technologically sophisticated youths born in the late-'80s or later - have staged sit-down strikes in cyber-space. They don't seem to like what the Internet brings out in themselves or others.

And one expert on Internet addiction agrees. Dr. Elias Aboujaoude is a Stanford University psychiatrist specializing in obsessive-compulsive and impulse-control disorders. He believes the digital world is turning us into spoiled children: a world of impulsive, entitled, vicious, self-absorbed, flirtatious "alter-egos" who act vastly different than we do in the real world.

Now he's written a book, "Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality," based on scholarly studies, media reports and his own patients' case histories. He tells of previously upstanding citizens who use the Web to run roughshod over their marriages, cheat, steal and spend money like a Trump.

More disturbingly, Aboujaoude believes our brasher online selves are overlapping into our offline selves.

"The danger is that these traits don't stay online," Aboujaoude told The Forum.

"We act more angrily, more narcissistically, more childlike, even when we're offline and there's no open browser in sight. We're not as good at turning off that switch as we think we are."

To illustrate, Aboujaoude points to the chaotic nature of recent townhall meetings around the country, which almost had the tone of a raucous online forum. "As a nation, we've become much more polarized than we used to be, and you have to wonder if some of that is from what goes on online," he says.

Cloaked in anonymity

Much has been written about teens using 21st-century technology irresponsibly, but Aboujaoude insists this isn't strictly an "18 and under" problem.

He refers to the blistering comments left by people on online comment boards.

"I think you would be surprised" by who is venting, he says. "Everyone does it. A lot of these people saying cruel things - these are not fringe members of society."

One reason for this online free-for-all is anonymity, says Dr. Lisa Sethre-Hofstad, an associate professor of psychology at Concordia College. She points to nameless, out-of-state commenters who used online forums to lash out at Fargo-Moorhead residents during the 2009 flood. "They'd say, 'why don't those people just move?' " Sethre-Hofstad says. "Would they say the same thing if they had to look people here face to face?"

But not all digital communication is anonymous. We still send angry tweets, texts and emails bearing our names, Aboujaoude says. He thinks an equally influential factor is invisibility - we can fire off a missive without having to look in someone's eyes or see their facial reactions. It's almost like road rage toward a faceless vehicle; it somehow depersonalizes the whole exchange.

Think before you tweet

Of course, not everyone is so quick to villainize our cyber-life. In the Aug. 16 issue of The Wall Street Journal, several different studies reported that "time spent online may be helping people learn to be more empathetic and make more friends in real life."

Either way, Aboujaoude argues that we need to do more studies on the long-range, psychological effects of our cyber-obsession.

"We're always so quick to celebrate all the wonderful things the Internet has brought about, and it certainly has when you look at things like economic productivity, connectedness, information-sharing. All these things are great things. But if we want to be objective about the virtual revolution, we also have to have a serious discussion about the psychological impact of this revolution."

In the meantime, the experts advise people to slow down and think before they tweet, text or post.

"The humanity of us still has to remain in our interactions," says Sethre-Hofstad.

Adds Aboujaoude: "Try to make who you are more like your offline persona rather than the other way around."

Traits of online behavior gone bad

Regardless of cause, Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, a Stanford University psychiatrist, believes aggressive online behavior can affect our personalities in several ways:

* Regression: In the flesh-and-blood world, people's behaviors are kept in check by a number of religious, moral and social codes, Aboujaoude says.

But in the Wild West of the digital world, few gatekeepers exist. We're free to tap into our inner adolescent, impulsively ripping through online chats, buying items we don't really need, playing games for hours and leaving a cloud of confusion behind.

Aboujaoude says our regressed state is even illustrated in online communication, which is riddled with overly simplified abbreviations, a disregard for grammar or punctuation, and emoticons filling in for genuine feelings.

We also find increased immaturity in risky activities like texting while driving - something that Aboujaoude sees adults do every day.

"If you talk to them, those people really know it's very dangerous behavior, but yet they can't help themselves," he says. "Why is it that this activity is so irresistible? Something in our brains is making us do that."

* Narcissism: Technology allows people to live like they are the center of the universe. They can collect hundreds of superficial "friends," attract "followers" on Twitter and tailor their lives so they only experience the music, TV and news they like. "The more we get used to having our needs and tastes matched so perfectly, the more entitled we become, and the less patient we get with people who are different," says Aboujaoude.

* Anger: Aboujaoude believes the Internet - with its lack of accountability and widespread access to other angry people - can be an incubator for rage. And rather than allowing people to vent harmlessly, he has seen many cases where that long-held anger eventually spills over into daily life.

* Heightened sexuality: The plethora of dating sites like, and eHarmony can drive home the message: If your spouse isn't perfect, there are millions of others to choose from. "The Internet increases access, including access to visual stimulation and willing mates," Aboujaoude says. "That, combined with increased impulsivity, makes people more likely to act on sexual urges online and can tip the tenuous balance between love and sex away from love and in the direction of more sexual gratification."

* Reduced attention span: Our Wikipedia-reared population allows us to navigate huge, shallow pools of information in seconds. At the same time, this is causing "popcorn brain" - the need for constant, ever-changing electronic stimulation. Consequently, it's a lot harder for us to buckle down and concentrate on the less-entertaining, more academic information necessary to absorb important information. "We spend, on average, about 30 seconds on every website we visit. This is the kind of pace we have, and it's hard to shift from that kind of pace to reading Dostoevsky," Aboujaoude says.

* Impulsivity: The ultimate "diss" in the texting world is to get someone's text and not immediately respond to it, Aboujaoude writes. People have grown so accustomed to the immediate gratification of online interaction that they're losing the patience to navigate the stops and starts of real life.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525