Instant Messaging: Friend or Foe?

In my most recent post, I evaluated potential implications of recent research about the human brain benefiting from the internet, and articulated concern with the emphasis on web use instead of reading traditionally. Consequently, this week I investigated various evidence about online effects on reading and writing in young people--specifically by instant messaging. This unique means of communication, IM for short, involves text-based expression in real time and unlike email, a sense of urgency can exist as the other individual waits for a response. Hence, many instant message users employ abbreviated English. For instance, "lol" means "laugh out loud" "ttyl" means "talk to you later," "u" acts as "you" and "b" as "be." With students utilizing instant messaging, AIM and MSN among the most popular seen to the right, it seems likely that ramifications of this habit exist in the classroom. To delve deeper, I scouted external blog posts covering this topic. First, I visited one called The Web of Language by Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois. His post entitled "Researchers: IM definitely infectious, but associated linguistic damage short-lived, haha" concludes that the English language is intact and that students can adequately distinguish appropriate times to use "internet language" so that it is not detrimental to academic performance. By contrast, in "The More IM Use, the Worse Test Scores," Dr. John M. Grohol, CEO and publisher of PsychCentral.com, discusses the adverse effects of instant messaging, as proved through test scores in a study. I have commented on both external posts, but have also included my input below for convenience.

"Researchers: IM definitely infectious, but associated linguistic damage short-lived, haha"
I am very interested by your post about instant messaging, especially the points that made me reconsider my overall negative views of online abbreviations. For example, you say that high-school-aged users may sometimes add an "OMG" while typing, but "such alphabetisms inflict no more linguistic damage than Ben Bernanke mentioning 'NGO’s' at a meeting of the Fed." This is a valid point; no one would criticize Bernanke for shortening "non-governmental organization" because an abbreviation in this situation makes him sound credible and informed in the field. Similarly, doctors in an emergency room say "run an EKG," to express themselves quickly, whereas repeating "electrocardiogram" is inefficient if a patient is experiencing heart failure. Although a term like "OMG" clearly is not as important as "EKG" in my previous example, people use condensed speech to make a point in a timely manner, despite its frivolousness. Condensing English in such a way does not appear detrimental as long as it is used accordingly and the individual knows the phrase's elongated meaning. The English language might be transforming, for better or for worse, as a consequence of rapidly-moving lifestyles that cause humans to shorten words. I would be more concerned if individuals grew up exclusively using terms like "ttyl" and "omg" because those abbreviations would have become a substitute for the four-word and three-word phrases, respectively. If a succession of letters like these begins to take on a meaning in and of itself, problems would undoubtedly arise, for example while trying to translate words when learning another language, or having a foreigner learn English. I suppose it could be viewed as a sort of slang used regionally, just as colloquial Spanish is different in Mexico, El Salvador, and Spain. What are your thoughts regarding the transformation of the English language? Do you think such abbreviations would ever merit addition to a traditional dictionary? As evidence that English is undergoing change, you reference a Pew Internet Project study citing that 85% of American teens message digitally, while "38% incorporate shortcuts like LOL in their book reports, and fewer still, about 25%, use emoticons like the smiley face, in the essays." This does not seem to concern you, but I believe this is worrisome. When you state that teens are "cued in to enough linguistic nuances" that they can distinguish "what's appropriate for some kinds of writing may not be appropriate for others," but this is an alarmingly high number using internet-speak in a very unfitting situation.

"The More IM Use, the Worst Test Scores"
Thank you for your post regarding the recent study about instant messaging acting as a distraction for comprehending an online passage. It was inarguably foreseeable that this online communication would increase the time taken to complete an assignment because multitasking stretches attention in many directions. This interference could have been anything though, so the following statement might also apply to television, video games, and the like: "The study also found that the more time participants reported spending on IM in their everyday lives, the significantly lower their comprehension scores and their Grade Point Average (GPA)." If students are spending mass amounts of time doing activities other than studying, it seems bound to affect their academics negatively. By contrast, if GPAs are actually lower due to instant messaging, I question whether it is a result of this kind of communication, or because of the way they use the web. Internet surfers tend to skim and are accustomed to constant visual stimulation. Do you think students who use the web more frequently are at a disadvantage in school because it is more difficult for them to immerse themselves in a traditional novel? It seems likely that their online habits would translate into their daily lives away from the computer. Even if it proves false and internet practices do not persist outside, do you believe that because participants took this test on the web, they did not comprehend the reading well because they do not usually read deeply for content on this medium? But going beyond comprehension, I am curious about the affects of instant messaging abbreviations on students. You say that "People who IM more than others may not do as well on a test of a person’s knowledge, especially if that test has fill-in-the-blank or essay questions (as opposed to multiple choice)." It seems as though students who are used to writing very informally on the internet may struggle when asked to complete essay-type questions, especially while online because one's personal chatting may become confused with the task at hand, seeing as they both originate from the same screen.


The Brain: Improved by the Internet?

In October 2008, Science Daily published an article entitled "Searching The Internet Increases Brain Function" which summarizes a high-profile and unique study. Dr. Gary Small of the University of California, Los Angeles performed the research at the Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He concluded, "emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults," specifically by promoting complex brain activity through online searches. When scientists juxtaposed brain action during reading with that of online browsing, the former was stifled in comparison, evident in the picture above. This research is preliminary, though, and should not yet be generalized across older adults because they grew up solely reading books and were introduced to the internet with an established foundation of reading skills. By contrast, Generation Y has always lived with the pairing of traditional books and the internet, so it is difficult to deem whether or not the study's results would also be true of individuals with a different educational background. With that in mind, the neuroscience research is promising, but may be problematic if there is a resulting emphasis on cyberspace over conventional reading.

In examining the procedures of this study, a skeptic may question research practices before accepting the results as true. Twenty-four volunteers ages 55 to 76 participated, half of whom had previous experience exploring the internet. Twelve participants per group does not seem sufficient to make a conclusion about the entire population of adults within this age range based on the laws of sampling in statistics. However, one must also consider that because this research is cutting-edge, it is looking for trends to study more in-depth in the future. The twelve individuals who had previous experience with searching the internet "registered activity in the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas of the brain, which control decision-making and complex reasoning," the article recounted. But this is not surprising, according to Dr. Liz Zelinski, professor of psychology and gerontology at the University of Southern California. Zelinski offers the following analogy: "If you wanted to study how hard people can exercise, and you take people that already exercise and people that don't exercise, aren't they going to be different to start out?" It appears the human brain is trained to engage more deeply in previously encountered tasks; just as a muscle grows bigger once it has experienced weight-lifting, the brain establishes more connections within itself after having repeated a specific activity, like searching on the internet.

This study emphasizes that the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan revealed nearly two-and-a-half times more connections between tiny brain units (called voxels) while perusing cyberspace in adults with internet search experience as compared to those without. A psychology student blogger seems to accept this study and deduces, if "older adults show increased activation after using the internet for about 10 years, then imagine the activation the young adults of today will show when they are 55 (after using the internet for over 40 years)." While this research may have merit, thinking of this nature is alarming. As people begin to believe that their brains will benefit more from using the internet than from reading, they are likely to spend less time doing the latter. Evidence of negative consequences already exists. Dr. Karen Shue explains that as "we are changing our info-intake habits and info-use habits, we are indeed re-wiring our brains," and because people usually skim online, traditional reading attention-spans suffer. Stated concisely, "use it or lose it, applies to the brain's networking world." As an example, in an Atlantic Monthly article entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" writer Nicholas Carr describes his own experiences with the effects of frequent internet use on his reading capabilities. He says something is "tinkering" with his brain; he was once able to immerse himself in a lengthy book. Now though, restlessness causes him to struggle because he has become accustomed to excessive online stimulation. The average web-surfer spends less than sixty seconds on one site before moving to the next, so it is not surprising that Carr and many others feel uneasy while trying to comprehend a novel.

The avoidance of traditional reading due to a waning enjoyment involves threatening costs to the qualities that make us human. As the brain's make-up changes, it seems as if people are becoming wired to mimic the perpetrator--the computer (see right). Because of recent technology, participants under age thirty remembered fewer personal details than those ages fifty and above, according to a poll of 3,000 individuals by Ian Robertson. Computers and cellular devices enable external storage, and Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine observes that "without noticing it, we've outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us." For example, one-third of youngsters were not able to remember their own telephone number. Accordingly, people do not feel pressure to retain other knowledge because the internet acts as an infinite pool, quickly accessible using a search engine such as Google. Relating this back to traditional reading, what is the purpose of immersion in a Shakespeare classic when a plot summary can appear online in seconds? This mentality may cause individuals to deprive themselves of many irreplaceable qualities of these texts: in-depth plots and subplots, exposure to an expansive vocabulary, a getaway to a fictional land, and most importantly, room for the imagination to fill any voids. Carr recognizes that his mind now mirrors the net by receiving information "in a swiftly moving stream of particles." He used to be "a scuba diver in the sea of words," but he now "zip[s] along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski." With all of this considered, reading can slow the pace of a hectic life, and it is essential that humans do not completely begin to avoid this art and its grounding qualities. Although the internet may have mental benefits and is a necessary tool for mass communication and information sharing, it must be balanced with traditional reading to avoid a society of human computers.


Online Therapy: Cyberspace Meets Outer Space

In my first post, I concluded that internet addiction is likely to be a manifestation of disorders, like depression or anxiety, and should not be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. While many individuals do believe it is worthy of its own diagnosis, perhaps they would be convinced otherwise if the internet could actually help correct the behavior that they believe is solely attributable to its use. Could online therapy be sufficient to diminish the symptoms of a mental affliction? The prospect seems promising but is not yet prominent regarding online counseling for the average citizen. Instead, current attention falls on a population in a high-risk situation, without the ability to see a live therapist--astronauts. An Associated Press news article published this past week, "Depressed Astronauts Might Get Computerized Solace," reveals NASA's intent to launch a $1.74 million project called the Virtual Space Station designed by Dartmouth psychologist Dr. Mark Hegel, seen to the right. This undertaking, sponsored by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, will help astronauts identify the reasons for their depression and combat the symptoms using a method called the "problem-solving treatment."

This week I probed the blogosphere for reactions to NASA's plan. First, I commented on "Therapy in Space" by Dr. Greg Mulhauser because of his credibility with a Ph.D. and establishment with his own consulting firm. Mulhauser thinks the Virtual Space Station will be important in the advancement of internet therapy as a whole because of NASA's name and the supplied funding. I also commented on "The Madness of Offering Depressed Astronauts a Computerized Shrink," by a skeptical creative media director, Chris Matyszczyk. I have posted my input on the two respective blogs, but have also included it below for convenience.

"Therapy in Space"
I appreciate your information and insight regarding internet therapy, especially since I see its potential to become more wide-spread with this funding and added attention. Even though you say it has been in existence for a while, it is not yet in the foreground; I believe it would be beneficial particularly for individuals who do not have the means to afford such mental help. Also, because there is a societal stigma attached to participating in therapy sessions, individuals could opt to handle these personal matters in a more inconspicuous fashion.

You quote Dr. Jay Buckley saying, "The Virtual Space Station is based on proven treatment programs and is a very helpful way to work on problems in general," but how do you think internet-based therapy compares with face-to-face therapy? I understand that for astronauts this is the only option, but projecting into the future for the general public, do you think internet therapy would be a sufficient alternative? I believe it would depend on the nature of the disorder, but it seems that milder diagnoses could highly benefit from something like this that would promote reflection and self-evaluation.

I think you offer a valid point regarding asynchronous therapy via email. While it does have the time-delay, it seems like a healthy outlet for astronauts to discuss their mental concerns to an unbiased party. The emails could act as a diary for these space-explorers to anonymously record thoughts and feelings, which alone seems therapeutic. In their situation, it may be difficult to share issues with other crew members based on a fear of judgment or a perception of weakness, but in an email they would feel empowered to know that a psychologist is listening and will provide feedback. A problem might arise if an astronaut becomes frustrated and expects a quick-fix. The mental unrest that lies within an individual must also be coped with by that person alone; a psychologist just acts as a catalyst in this process.

"The Madness of Offering Depressed Astronauts a Computerized Shrink"
I read the recent article about the Virtual Space Station that NASA is creating to help depressed astronauts, and would like to thank you for your opinion on the matter. To begin, you say that "many of these astronauts were already a bit weird before they floated off into space," which might be true, but I believe astronauts go through extremely strict physical and mental tests to assess their potential ability to remain sane while in an enclosed environment. Even if you think astronauts were previously "crazy" before launching into space, its still seems important for them to have access to a program that will foster introspection and mental self-evaluation. I understand the process of therapy differently than you do; I do not think that astronauts input questions or feelings and have an automated-type response, but instead, the pre-recorded psychologist offers different mind exercises that the individual can perform, like a meditation. It seems useless for the astronaut to type a message because therapists do not give answers, however they do help one come to terms with stresses using various methods of self-reflection.

You express doubt in the non-human qualities of the computer, and suggest that a better alternative would be to have a psychologist there in person, despite the potential problems with regard to number of people on the mission. First of all, therapists are not superhuman and are subject to depression and other mental disorders just like everyone else. Secondly, if there were a psychologist on the spacecraft, they would become part of the crew; part of the reason for depression is that the astronaut is surrounded by the same people and are disconnected from the outside world. A therapist online would help someone feel a connection to home. Also, you ask how anyone could feel comfortable revealing a strange dream of theirs to a "mere computer," but according to the online disinhibition effect, people are much more likely to divulge personal information on a computer as opposed to in real life because of anonymity. With all of that said, I believe that online therapy is far from perfect, but it seems like the best alternative for these individuals, given their location.


Interpersonal Relationships: Cyber versus Face-to-Face

With a plethora of communication means--chat rooms, e-mail, instant messaging, social-networking sites--the internet has created an entirely new dynamic between and among individuals and groups. People now have the capability to censor and control their own interactions by managing self-portrayal, contacting multiple others simultaneously, not replying to incoming messages, conversing with complete strangers, and taking time to contemplate responses before sending them. Pairing these options with a web of 1.46 billion users (as of June 2008) creates infinite possibilities for text-based relationships. Because these bonds depart from traditional in-person presence and dialogue, questions arise regarding their legitimacy and potential longevity. For instance, is it possible to feel as emotionally attached to someone met on the web as in real-life? Although internet-based conversation has a fantasy component and lacks the appeal to the five senses of physical reality, it does involve a genuine investment in another person, but it would seem that this closeness cannot be sustained in the long-run.

Before examining the way people relate to one another on the internet, there is an important preexisting factor to investigate--how the individual portrays him or herself. Just as one is cognizant of in-person impressions, he or she can take this idea further by creating a persona of choice. According to Kathryn B. Lord, a self-proclaimed cyber-romance coach, on the web "you are what you write." The possibility of self-misrepresentation may cause some to question the validity of internet relationships that seem based on false pretenses, yet assuming that real-life behavior is the best example of a person is a mistake. People may live day-to-day wearing public "masks" that shroud internal beliefs and urges, for which the American Psychological Association surprisingly lacks a term, yet it may just be a coping method that people employ to conform to their perceptions of societal norms. Consequently, a cyber-identity may reveal what an individual strives to be, an "ideal self," which may appear in a glorified "About Me" fill-in section on Facebook, or an exaggeration of truths while talking in a chat room. A great incongruity between the "real-self" and the "ideal-self" can cause suffering, as stated by Carl Rogers, which might perpetuate the attachment that one feels toward another on the internet because such relations with the "ideal self" are not possible in the face-to-face world.

While the internet affords the opportunity to construct a perfect identity, one can also rely on ambiguity to create mystery. These practices of individuals and those with whom they are in contact produce the foundation for a connection. Ongoing conversation fosters the fledgling relationship, yet a skeptic might question the understanding between the two people because true meaning gets lost in translation. It is difficult, for example, to detect the extent of sarcasm, annoyance, or disapproval due to the lack of facial expression cues, tone of voice, and body language. But, emoticons can help bridge this gap. A recent study by Shao-Kang Lo, Ph.D., proved significant differences in perception of meaning based on presence or lack of emoticons: they "allow receivers to correctly understand the level and direction of emotion, attitude, and attention expression." These cartoon-face symbols (see above) still might not be enough to convince a cynic, however the still remaining anonymity might actually be the greatest factor in attachment. The indeterminate identity and meaning creates a certain excitement and intrigue; it "activates the imagination, stirs up fantasies, enhances the tendency to project your own expectations, wishes, and anxieties unto the somewhat shadowy figure sitting at the other end of the online connection," says John Suler, cyberpsychologist. People feel especially attached to their internet companions when the tendency to project favorable qualities on them unites with the online disinhibition effect--the susceptibility to divulge personal details that may not otherwise be shared, based on anonymity. A feeling of intimacy is inevitable once an individual shares secrets that his or her closest real-life friends might not know.

Devotion is evident based on recent reports about internet relationships. To begin, this past week a Japanese woman was arrested for hacking into her virtual ex-husban
d's "Maple Story" account and killing his character because she was "divorced unexpectedly." Likewise, in August, Kimberley Jernigan was imprisoned for repeatedly attempting to abduct her "Second Life" ex-boyfriend in real life. It seems that these two individuals would resort to drastic measures only if they felt a sincere connection with the internet ex-boyfriends with whom they solely conversed on the web. The "unusually seductive" interactions based on a "mentally nude commune" sparks tenderness like with the woman to the right, but the human body and hormones also play a role, specifically The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System (THOMAS). Humans innately like to be around unfamiliar people and continually seek targets for attachment, so we therefore want a connection with the unknown; oxytocin accomplishes this by "activating reward regions of the brain when we cooperate with strangers." This hormone is indisputably important because it is also responsible for the feeling of bond between a mother and her children, and between individuals during sexual encounters.

Despite oxytocin's influence on human emotion and attachment, internet relationships do not have long-term potential to fulfill needs because of a lack of touch, smell, and sound that exist with face-to-face interaction. Text-based relationships have a seeing component, yet the absence of the other three is detrimental. Everything done online can be done in person, for example if two people were sitting next to each other on a computer, but the opposite falls short--Suler remarks, "everything you can do with someone in-person can't be duplicated in cyberspace." Besides just touch, smell can ignite passion between people and may be important in mate-selection based on pheromones, or chemical signals about one's DNA makeup that may attract a genetically compatible partner. Ultimately, it is the simultaneous combination of the senses that make in-person contact impossible to recreate. In the beginning of online relationships, the details that the imagination interjects about another create an undeniable thrill, though as time goes on, humans cannot help but yearn for more.


Probing Cyberspace: Resources in Social Psychology

While exploring the internet for cyberpsychology sites, I found some beneficial sources examining recent advances, but also helping to explain social psychology as a whole. To evaluate the various online books, informational sites, and organizations, I will use the Webby Awards Criteria, while blogs will be analyzed according to the IMSA Criteria. Links to these sites appear to right under linkroll. First is an online book called Cyberpsychology: Principles of Creating Virtual Presence by Dr. Leon James which contains excellent insight into the relationship between virtual reality and actuality, but the page has text spanning from side to side, top to bottom. It would benefit by breaking the block of daunting content with relevant pictures to create a more dynamic environment. Similarly, John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace has a bland main page that needs updating, but has applicable images infused in each chapter (like that to the left) and links to recent articles about cyberpsychology to supplement the older text.

Another great resource by Suler is his blog of the same title--The Psychology of Cyberspace. The greatest strength is the credibility of the blogger; Suler is a professor and leader in the emerging field. While many of the provided links prove very helpful, such as the archived posts, those connecting to his bio page and online book lead to nonexistent ends. Additionally, Suler along with Azy Barak has created a book in the form of a blog, Psychological Aspects of Cyberspace: Theory, Research, Applications. It is one of my personal favorites because of its innovation in making an online book interactive; each chapter has a separate link leading to the full PDF version, yet also allows for comments from outsiders. Although it presents each chapter in the same colors, this site would appear more professional if the homepage followed suit to create a streamlined look. Similarly dynamic, Pamela Rutledge's Media Psych Cafe is stimulating because of the opportunity to participate in the blogger's survey study and the information regarding upcoming external events in the field. Despite it seeming well-established, I wish there were more comments and dialogue surrounding each post. By contrast, Graham Jones Internet Psychologist has an abundance of conversation between the blogger and guests, but a bio directly on his page would enhance credibility. Like Jones' blog, The Media Zone creates discourse but in a different way: real-life anecdotes engage the reader and allow for a deeper understanding of the material because of relatable evidence. Like its greater site--Psychology Today Blogs--The Media Zone has too many distracting advertisements that detract from a sense of scholarship. Psychology Today Blogs is a great repository, though, and offers blogs written by reliable individuals.

Moving onto resource sites led me to Cyberpsychology, a web page with links to articles of relevant content, but a detrimentally homemade and unprofessional appearance. Conversely, the Internet Psychology Research Institution's main strength is its authoritative look with uniform colors on the homepage and every subsequent link. Although easily navigable and a seemingly promising resource, this site currently has many links leading to empty pages or "coming soon" signs. Social Psychology Network is like the previous in that its goal is to create accessible articles on recent studies, but it is much more established. The overall experience of a reader is positive because it is maneuverable, has links to partner sites for even more information, has an interactive forum, and is aesthetically pleasing. It is very difficult to critique, but the functionality could improve if search results appeared more quickly. Another website with a wide variety of resources--most notably blogs, news, and research--is called PsychCentral. It is legitimate because of its sixteen-year life, but is gimmicky due to some of the self-quizzes, especially those about relationships which seem suited to a girls' gossip magazine. By contrast, the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication appears very scholarly and has archives dating back to 1995; unfortunately, the site began posting new articles onto a different "synergy site" linked from the homepage, but the old ones are of the highest quality and worth visiting.

As a supplement to many of these subject-specific resources, readers can explore social psychology basics with the Alphabetical Glossary of terms. Prentice Hall created this list but there is no link back to the publisher's homepage--it seems an academic publisher would want to take credit for the glossary. Although the site is very bare, just black and white, it serves its purpose as a reference; almost as bare is Social Psychology, a great resource for the basics of topics ranging from theories and methods to gender and sex. Unlike the aforementioned glossary, this site would benefit from some attention to color and organization. It has a place to submit input which affords readers a sense of influence. Another important resource is the DSM-IV-TR, which answers questions that a layperson and psychologist alike might have about the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. While it has a frequently asked questions portion, and discusses coding issues, it would benefit from greater detail like having an online version of the book for access in any location. Just as the DSM is a staple, staying informed about recent advances is equally essential; Psychology in the News has a collection of current articles sorted by publication date, with the newest at the top. Even though it is conveniently organized, the site could be improved with a search function that would sort through archived articles from the past. Psychology in the News is a faction of the American Psychological Association (see logo on right), a very prominent organization. APA's sleek site avoids clutter by having drop-down menus under each main heading, such as careers and publications. It caters to individuals with tabs on the side especially for advertisers, authors, and students, among others. To improve, each portion of the site should have the same colors so that the reader is not confused as to where he or she has been led--within the same site or to an outside source. A parallel organization, Association for Psychological Science, is more difficult to navigate because it does not have a site map and quick links like APA. While APS links to valuable resources like journal articles, the site would benefit by offering greater access to non-members. Lastly, the National Institute of Mental Health is a government site that offers access to publications in both English and Spanish, which appeals to a greater audience, but the entire site should be bilingual. These resources have given me a better understanding of social psychology as a field and made me realize the abundance of valuable resources available on the web.


Social-Networking Revelation: Narcissism on Facebook

Because of such mass participation on social-networking sites (twenty-two million logged onto Facebook in August), psychologists are beginning to study implications of use and the extent to which online behavior parallels that in real life. A recent study completed at the University of Georgia concludes that social-networking sites prove helpful in determining one's vanity. This study--completed by a doctoral student in psychology alongside an associate professor, Laura Buffardi and W. Keith Campbell, respectively--explores the significance of using Facebook for self-promotion (see right picture). Researchers gave questionnaires to almost 130 Facebook users and had these "untrained strangers" score individual pages using three characteristics: amount of social interaction, appeal of the individual, and extent of self-promotion. With this data, Buffardi and Campbell conclude that the number of Facebook friends and wall posts correlate with narcissism. Buffardi says that, "people who are narcissistic use Facebook in a self-promoting way that can be identified by others," just like narcissists in real life who have "numerous yet shallow relationships." According to Campbell, the study of social-networking is "still in its infancy," but he still believes it possible to make character judgments based on specific attributes of one's Facebook page.

This week, I decided to explore the blogosphere to gain more insight about this study from an accredited individual, and a victim of judgment. First, I visited the page of Dr. Christopher Panza, an associate professor of philosophy at Drury University. His post "This Just In: Facebook Narcissism!" interests me because he so quickly discredits this study by believing that it states the obvious. Also, I explored "Are People With A Lot of 'Friends' on Facebook Narcissists?" by Scott Bradley, a recent college graduate who uses Facebook, and is quoted as an example of a narcissist by a reporter for ABC in "Facebook: Where Narcissists Connect?". Although he is not a professional researcher, I believe his insight is important considering the way he claims his words were twisted for the article. I have included my comments below.

"This Just In: Facebook Narcissism!"
I enjoyed reading your post about the recent study correlating Facebook friends, profile pictures, and wall posts with narcissism. I understand that people may perceive a multitude of Facebook friends as narcissistic (wanting to appear popular, and conversely, wanting to positively convey one's self to the largest audience possible), but number of friends has other purposes as well. But do you believe true narcissism is so obvious? Not everyone uses Facebook as a constant reminder of his or her own perfection, as Caravaggio's Narcissus uses this pond to do below. For example, as humans, we are nosy. We want to anonymously gain access to others' lives, and what better way to do this than to become Facebook friends? It allows entry into another's pictures, information (hometown, subjects studied, relationship status), and interests, among others. Also, a major way to find out about social events is through Facebook; the more friends one has, the more potential social gatherings one may find and attend.

While I agree with your observation that "Facebook...creates more and more ways for people to over-indulge in self-absorption," I do not believe that the majority of people with a Facebook account have it for this reason. Beyond narcissism, I think it is most obvious that as humans, we want to portray ourselves well. Just like if I were to go for a job interview, I would dress nicely to look my best and bring a resume outlining my most proud accomplishments, on Facebook I want to do the same. I know my peers can see me, so why would I choose an unflattering picture?

I understand that you do not look upon Facebook favorably, but to say that Facebook so obviously breeds narcissism insinuates a greater abundance of this trait than I believe exists. This study even says that narcissism is detectable in only some cases, not to mention the small sample size of 130 for which drawing conclusions seems questionable. I believe that part of the problem with Facebook research is that the generation doing the research (comprised of individuals who probably do not have Facebook pages) projects so many negative ideas onto Facebook users. For example, you say that you "have no interest in reading anyone's profile anymore, because [you are] afraid of learning just how deep the psychological insecurities of particular people extend." What if Facebook researchers employ this same attitude? Although you seem surprised at "the money people get to run certain studies," I believe studies like this one are important, if they can remain unbiased.

"Are People With A Lot of 'Friends' On Facebook Narcissists?"
I saw the recent study by the University of Georgia about the correlation between narcissism and number of Facebook friends, wall posts, and pictures. As an avid Facebook user myself, I cannot say that reading this news was surprising because I believe that many of the researchers doing these studies are not part of the generation that takes full advantage of social-networking tools, so they therefore do not completely understand its use. I decided to do more research into the matter and came across the ABC article in which you were quoted. Upon first read, I was surprised to hear of someone with so many Facebook friends, as I have not seen this first hand, but reading your post made a few things more clear. You say you met "95% of the speakers [you] brought to speak at the Boston College Entrepreneur Society between [your] junior and senior year." This seems like a legitimate reason to have so many Facebook friends: you want to reach out to as many people as possible with a common interest--entrepreneurship, I presume-- in attempt to find the few that will show interest in coming to speak with your society.

You mention that one should not "talk about narcissism without talking about influence," alluding to the great impact you have had on others. Do you think that is a little bit narcissistic? Even if that comment appears a bit conceited, your friend made some interesting points in the video: he says that social-networking sites are a way to "sell" yourself, and that we "sell" ourselves on and offline everyday. This is a valid point; with job opportunities so competitive today, we must market ourselves. Because potential employers do look at sites like Facebook pages, it is important that we represent ourselves in the best way possible.

This study may have been improved by also having participants judge themselves on the same narcissism scale by which they judged others, and further compared those ratings to their own Facebook pages. More than narcissism, this study seems to be about the judgment we place on others, when we should also consider our own behaviors and the ways in which we are ourselves perceived.


Internet Addiction: A Valid Affliction?

Psychologists continue to debate the legitimacy of internet addiction and its worthiness of a place in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out in May 2012. Currently, the DSM-IV-TR does not include a section for addictions; substance abuse, its closest relative, exists on the first axis. Axis I disorders constitute mental illness, but the inclusion of internet addiction among them is a mistake because the internet itself is not an addiction, but a disguise for an existing disorder or an escape from boredom. In a hasty effort to pathologize human behavior, individuals attempt to shirk responsibility for their actions--diagnosing internet addiction would further enable this behavior. Although other countries recognize and treat internet addiction, this fascination should not be included in the DSM-V as an Axis I disorder, but instead, noted on the fourth axis as an environmental factor, only if a true Axis I disorder exists.

Superficially, surfing the internet for the majority of a day seems unhealthy and like an addiction, but other factors exist; excessive use may mask mental illness. Before reaching a conclusion, it is important to establish true addiction criteria: obsession with using the internet, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms, inability to limit use, and reliance on the internet to alter mood. But, the internet is not the abuser. The individual is not the victim (see left picture). According to media psychologist, Pamela Rutledge, "Like most addictions, Internet addiction is not about the Internet," but rather, it concerns the individual using the internet to the point of destruction within his or her own life. Those who use such internet activities to alter moods are exceptional candidates for an existing mental disorder, such as anxiety or depression. Regarding internet addiction as proven methodologically, Louise Nadeau, of Universite de Montreal's Department of Psychology, admits that "there is no reliable study or clinical data on the issue." To include internet addiction in the DSM-V on such a whim undermines the value of psychology as an empirical science.

By contrast, this lack of evidence may be irrelevant because the internet might simply be a functional way to complete work and a stimulating way to pass time. Because humans have an innate desire to avoid boredom, they enjoy using the internet because it offers endless possibilities for communication and information-gathering. With the internet's multi-functionality, one can complete a work e-mail, instant message a friend, and listen to an mp3 all simultaneously. If the internet were not used to complete these activities, the time spent doing each individually might actually exceed that in front of the computer. Additionally, if people could not use the internet, they would find other means of gaining access to what they want, for example excessive text messaging or video-game playing.

By rejecting these alternatives, a cycle governed by laws of behavioral psychology begins. One initially logs onto the internet to avoid boredom, and in turn, that avoidant behavior becomes positively reinforced by communication and entertainment, among others. Human behaviors work on this principle, though, so to call this an addiction is pathologizing regular human conduct. Normal behavior should not include withdrawal symptoms, yet a British online newspaper, MailOnline claims that an increase in blood pressure and brain activity do occur: "The stress of being disconnected [is] equivalent to that of running half an hour late for a key meeting, being about to sit an important exam or, in the worst cases, being sacked." This still seems normal. For example, if an individual is barred from the internet and experiences stress while expecting a work email, the stress really stems from the workplace and its expectations. The internet is simply an efficient means to finish overwhelming projects, like in the picture to the right. These studies on internet addiction must be examined skeptically; many studies are conducted to prove its harmful effects based on the agendas of psychologists who want to diagnose it as a disorder.

Instead of diagnosing internet addiction on the first axis, psychologists must make "internet abuse" more secondary. Because addictions do not currently exist as a category, psychologists would have to create one; this would further encourage future additions to an "addictions" category. Instead, to help preserve the integrity of the current DSM-IV-TR, psychologists could adopt a method of diagnosis whereby they would add "internet abuse" to the psychosocial and environmental axis IV. With this, they could still treat a patient for spending an unhealthy amount of time doing one thing, but it would put "the internet" in the background. This should only be used if there is in fact a true clinical diagnosis. For example, a psychologist diagnoses a patient with depression, spending an unhealthy amount of time watching tragic movies. Watching tragedies is arbitrary. The diagnosis is still depression whether the patient unhealthily manifests energy in watching tragedies, using the internet, or a plethora of other activities. No matter the activity, a psychologist would still try to train the patient in time management, coping skills, and productive ways to spend time.

Making "internet abuse" secondary would avoid a patient feeling the powerlessness that exists with axis I diagnoses. Upon receiving a diagnosis, one may feel less responsible for his or her actions; the likelihood of blaming behaviors or emotions on a psychosis heightens. Also, a self-fulfilling prophecy may emerge--a patient begins to act a certain way based on expectations of someone with that disorder. Dr. Jerald J. Block believes in diagnosing internet addiction and cites South Korea for considering it among its most problematic public health issues; 210,000 children ages 6-19 require treatment, and of those, 20% to 24% require hospitalization. By exaggerating this problem, children in South Korea will grow up to believe that they have a disease, so anything they become attached to in the future, the internet or otherwise, they can blame on "the disease." The older generation may not understand that the world is rapidly changing and that technology is a main component--"This is a media culture and to succeed in it, we have to know how to harness media technologies for our positive use and make peace with them," said Rutledge. Living in a "media culture", we must realize the importance of the internet, while still monitoring our activities and time spent doing them. Most importantly, if we take responsibility for our actions and use the internet as a helpful tool, we will seldom confuse it for a life-consuming monster.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.