Perception and Potential Modification of Self

The Perception and Potential Modification of Self through Technology

Gary Kolb, PhD

[Read as Digital Publication]


In this paper, I propose that a person’s use of technology may change his or her perception of self.  I have observed this in my work with clients. Those challenged by addiction, depression, anxiety, other mental health issues, or who have experienced trauma in their lives appear to be more vulnerable. Emotional disruption creates a void. I believe this void leads to a search for a modified self that alleviates the psychic pain. Technology now offers the possibility of a new form of socialization as well as an opportunity to explore fantasy. This is indeed an exploratory paper which may generate challenge and personal disagreement. My thorough literature review using cross analysis of words pairing the word technology with counseling, therapy, and psychotherapy in the professional therapy journals revealed that very little has been written on this subject. I found some articles about future use of technology in children and adolescents, possibly laying the foundation for future study. These articles are on the cutting edge of the evolution of the use of technology. Nothing has been printed as of this date on personality changes, except personality changes related to chemical addiction. This is truly virgin territory.

Cyberspace is the electronic space that came into existence during the 1960’s when various computer networks joined (Nusselder, 2009). It became a broad social phenomenon in the 1980’s and 1990’s. With the evolution of technology, people had the ability to connect to and explore different social dimensions. It is now possible to explore a wide spectrum of opportunities for engaging in portals of social experiences, which affords a person the opportunity to try on different personas. With the advent of game playing, fantasy is opening new dimensions for creating an idealized self/altered state. New technologies provide great opportunities for both growth and regression (Kourosh, 2008). The question arises, how might this adaptation change or modify an individual’s way of believing who her or she desires to be and, most importantly, how will exploration of these phenomena affect therapy, especially psychoanalysis, today and in the future?

In order to proceed to an understanding of some patient’s attraction to and the changes in technology, we must have some general understanding of the concepts of self, fantasy, and dissociation.

Development of the Self

There have been and continue to be many concepts of the self, and terminology can be confusing. The terms ego and self are sometimes used interchangeably as Freud did. Other times they are carefully distinguished one from the other (Kernberg, 1982). Forty years ago, almost no one had a self. People had egos, varying from weak to strong (Bach, 2000). Today, most people have selves that vary from true to false, and almost no one has an ego. “A review of the literature on the psychoanalytic self reveals little agreement about what the self is, where it belongs in theory, or what difference, if any, it makes in practice” (Bach, 2000, p.5).

Crastnopal refers to Barnett’s representational and operational self; Wolstein’s psychic center of self; Levenson’s cognitive and semantic manifestations of self; and Bromberg’s multiplicitous self states (2006). Mitchell wove Sullivan’s me-you patternings with Fairbairn’s drive for object relatedness and with Winnicott’s authentic experience as a core facet of self to define a relational concept of self (Crastnopal, 2008). Crastnopal suggested a configural self where all elements are related, some closely and others distantly (2008).  Stern described the self as being multiple, in a state of flux, and intersubjectively constituted, instead of being a separate center (2002). Wolf defined the self as a psychological structure that provides a person with a healthy sense of self and well-being (1991). Barnett viewed the self as the way the individual experiences his person and his relationship to the inner and outer world (1980). Kohut recognized that “experiencing selfhood is always constituted, both developmentally and in psychoanalytic treatment, in a context of emotional interrelatedness” (Stern & Atwood, 2012, p. 574). People sustain feelings of their own aliveness through ongoing awareness of their actual physical being, and also through the feeling that they exist and are remembered in the mind of others (Bach, 2001). Mayes saw the self as being a multi-layered, confusing, indistinct construct. She stated the self includes the domains of body image and social relatedness (2000).

Most modern psychoanalytic theories of the development of the self assume that the psychological self develops through perception of oneself in another’s mind as feeling and thinking (Fognagy, 1998). The self is represented as an intentional being with goals based on thoughts, beliefs, and desires, not on a physical entity.  Infants experience a differentiated sense of self almost from birth (Atwood & Safyer, 1993).  This sense of self is pre-designed to actively engage in relationships with caretakers. In this way, young babies develop an experience of separateness and togetherness. Psychoanalysts regard the development of a sense of self as a complex process, an intricate and multifaceted construction that is a central motivational concern throughout life and for which we are deeply dependent of other people (Mitchell, 2007).

The interpersonal self results from the direct perception of the relationship between the self and another person (Stern in Neisser, 1993). It forms from the social interactions with other people which provide objective information that is directly available to each. Interactions with another person are different than interactions with inanimate things, ideas, our physical selves, and our memories. Interpersonal encounters have many aspects. Of them, evoking, sharing, and mutually regulation of feelings may be the most significant (Stern in Neisser, 1993).  Feelings are always present in focused social interactions. If a parent cannot think about his or her child’s particular experience, it deprives the child of a core of self-structure he needs to build a viable sense of himself (Fognagy, 1998). Winnicott described the false self, the defensive organization created by the infant or child as a result of inadequate mothering or failures in empathy (1998).

Neisser identified five basically different kinds of information that people have about themselves (1993). Each kind describes a different aspect of the person. Ecological and interpersonal forms of self-knowledge are the first forms and develop in infancy (Neisser, 1993). They are perceived forms of self. The remembered, private, and conceptual selves develop later.  A self is not a special part of a person or of the brain. ”It is the whole person considered from a particular point of view” (Neisser, 1993, p. 4). People subscribe to a wide range of beliefs and assumptions about themselves. Considered together, these beliefs are the conceptual self, the self-concept.

“Technological innovations of the cyber age have altered fundamental processes of perception and experience”, and sense of self (Goren, 2003, p. 487). Technology provides the ability for us to re-create our own body images (Clark, 2003). Through technology, we can gain knowledge about who and what we are.  “New technologies can alter, augment, and extend our sense of presence and of our own potential for action” (Clark, 2003, p. 115). Technology can allow us to learn more about what really matters in the ongoing construction of our sense of place and of person-hood. “In success and in failure, these tools help us to know ourselves” (Clark, 2003, p.118).  The kinds of self-exploration that technology allows  ”will enhance and expand our sense of our own presence and our awareness of, and intensity with others” ( 2003, p. 118). Clark stated that we are “moving toward a world of wired people and wireless radio-linked gadgets” (2003, p. 126). There is ample room for truly hybrid biotechnological selves.

The most basic notion of the self is our physical presence in the world, “determined by our direct control-experiences that provide kinds of statistical correlation between motor signals and sensor feedback” (Clark, 2003, p.132).  However, the human self has another dimension. According to Clark, “we think of ourselves not just as a physical presence, but also as a kind of rational or intellectual presence” (2003, p. 132).  We think of ourselves in terms of a certain set of ongoing goals, projects, and commitments which are not static or arbitrarily changeable.” We view ourselves as unique individuals by recognizing our physical shape and form and some distinctive nexus of projects and activities” (Clark, 2003, p.132).


Fantasy and Dissociation

Fantasy and dissociation both draw people to technology  “Fantasy is culturally universal; it is energetically active in all cultures; and it seems irrepressible” (Egan, 2008, p. 17). Fantasies encompass a variety of emotions that interconnect with the challenges people face in reality. Egan noted that the main explanations of fantasy have come from the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Jung. Freud explained fantasy as a primary process activity which operates, and generates its peculiar images, according to the rules of substitution and displacement.  In Freudian theory, fantasy can represent both a self deception and a valid metaphorical description of reality (Josephs, 1987). For Jung, fantasy is a result of spontaneous eruptions from the unconscious, perhaps liberating archetypes which become the subject for active imagination shaping the world (Egan, 2008). Fantasies are the base of both dreams and some types of mental illness (Arlow, 2008). Each person has a few major systems of fantasy that seem to persist throughout his or her lifetime, that may undergo changes in developmental epochs, and that may lead to a variety of expression in different developmental phases (Horowitz, 1992). People who are capable of becoming profoundly absorbed in fantasy, those who are fantasy prone, often use their talent as a temporary escape from reality.

Both children and adults experience conscious fantasies or daydreams. Fantasy worlds have a significant emotional and spiritual value, since they focus the mind away from the self (Egan, 2008). Egan argued that “the key to fantasy is to recognize genuine emotion and genuine human interactions“ (2008, p. 13). The characters of fantasies do not collapse to the child’s sense of self, so the child expands outward in the direction of the fantasy. During the evolution of psychoanalytic theory over the past century, Freud and those who followed him observed and documented that children, through fantasy, actually shape unconscious internal environments, instead of just recording the experiences they have with their surroundings (Ganaway, 1994). Egan wrote that fantasy may actually be a prerequisite for a range of intellectual skills, as well as for an imaginative and flexible engagement with reality (2008). Clearly there are cases where fantasy may combine with psychological problems and worsen them. Even in the worst cases, where the mind escapes from reality, fantasy could provide some coping resources.

Reality and fantasy cannot always be separated, since each affects the other, often in very powerful ways (Sandler, 1986). The relationship between inner experience and outside reality is complex (Cohen, 1989). Inner reality affects experience and shapes outside reality. A person’s understanding of the inner construction of reality casts its shadow on reality testing, which is a continuous process (Abrams, 1983). “We think of fantasy fostering reality testing, and it is reality testing which makes it possible to distinguish between reality and fantasy” (Abrams, 1983, p. 5).

Fantasy and actuality are interrelated and potentially enrich each other (Mitchell, 2007). Separating reality and fantasy is only one way to construct and organize experience. For life to be meaningful, vital, and robust, fantasy and reality cannot be too divorced from each other. “Fantasy cut adrift from reality becomes irrelevant and threatening. Reality cut adrift from fantasy becomes vapid and empty” (Mitchell, 2000, p. 29).

In early childhood, fantasy and reality are not experienced as being separable from each other. Instead, they interpenetrate with each other (Mitchell, 2007). Perhaps through technological  involvement and advancement, we are developing the ability to reconfigure our own reality with the constant investment and practice of entertainment and occupational upgrading through technology.

Like fantasy, dissociation is a healthy, adaptive function of the human mind (Bromberg, 1996). It is a basic process that allows individual self-states to function optimally in certain situations. Under normal conditions, dissociation screens out excessive or irrelevant stimuli to enhance the integrating functions of the ego (Bromberg, 1996). However, under pathological conditions the normal functions of dissociation are used defensively. Dissociation is the way that some people deal with trauma.

Kirmayer pointed to studies that show high hypnotic susceptibility among Dissociative Identity Disorders patients and implied these individuals are highly suggestible (1994). There is also some current thought that some aspects of the self as alternate personalities may give reason to the dissociative experiences through mass media influence and commercialism, possibly even the Internet. Suggestions gain power when they are reinforced by social, cultural, and economic factors. With the advances in technology, as well as programs of interest, the potential for dissociation is phenomenal. It can be speculated that there is an influence and a high possibility of integration of these experiences in memory. The perception of self may even be reconfigured with the powerful influence on psychological and physiological processes.  Kirmayer stated that it is his experience dissociative phenomenon is often subtle, delicate, and involves the interaction of ordinary cognitive and social processes related to imagination and self-characterization through memory and narrative (1994). Bowers proposed that people high in hypnotizability and dissociation control can effectively change or moderate their physiological and psychological interpretations and reactions when faced with the desire to escape their reality (Speigel, 1994).

Technology and the Evolution of the Mind

“The advent of the internet and interconnectivity has released an explosion of human creativity, the like of which may never have been seen on this planet” (Kourosh, 2008, p. 105). Clark, a neuroscientist, believed in the natural evolution of the mind, “a special and distinctively human nature, a cognitive hybridization” (2003, p. 3-4). He proposed that learning involves a cognitive fossil trail, by which a person learns an historical procession of potent cognitive technologies.  Clark labeled this procession of development “a cascade of mindware upgrades: cognitive upheavals in which the effective architecture of the human mind is altered and transformed” (2003, p. 5). According to Clark, all humans are cybernetic organisms or cyberretically controlled organisms (cyborgs), and the trace of recent developmental acquisitions is framed with the advent of texts, PCs, co-evolving software agents, and user-adaptive home and office devices, “the mind is just less and less in the head” (2003, p.4).  He theorized the human mind is “a fortress that has been built to be breached; it is a structure whose virtue lies in part in its capacity to delicately gear its activities in order to collaborate with external, non-biological sources of order to better solve the problems of survival and reproduction” (2003, p. 5). Clark proposed that the biological brain is expert at recognizing patterns, at perception, and at controlling physical actions; it is not so well -designed for complex planning and long, intricate derivations of consequences.

Clark continued with his idea that people are “natural-born cyborgs, always ready to merge our mental activities with operations of pen, paper, electronics, that we are able to understand the world as we do” (2003, p. 6). People have always been adept at dovetailing their minds and skills to the shape of current tools and aids (2003). However, “when those tools and aids start dovetailing back, when our technologies actively, automatically, and continually tailor themselves to us just as we do to them, the line between tool and user becomes flimsy indeed” (2003, p. 7).  These types of technologies will be less like tools and more like part of the person’s mental apparatus, in the same way neural structures, such as the hippocampus and posterior parietal cortex that operate unconsciously are tools. A person does not really use his or her brain. The operation of the brain makes the person who and what he or she is. Clark believed this will also be true for these new waves of sensitive, interactive technologies. Human minds are special precisely because they are made for multiple mergers and coalitions (Clark, 2003).  Humans possess an extended cognitive system whose constancy lies mainly in its continual openness to change. The line between biological self and the technological world was never very firm (Clark, 2003). We are now on the horizon of challenging much of what we think we know about who we are, what we are, and even where we are. “Multitasking with self and other seems to be always in motion” (2003, p. 8).

Clark identified himself as a cognitive scientist. “The more I have learned about the brain and the mind, the more convinced I have become that the everyday notions of ‘minds’ and ‘persons’ are open-ended and plastic systems fully capable of including non-biological props and aids as quite literally parts of themselves” (Clark, 2003).  Clark called the invention of the cell phone “a mindware upgrade, an electronic prosthesis capable of extending and transforming one’s personal reach, thoughts, and vision ” (2003, p. 10). He claimed that as technology becomes more portable, pervasive, reliable, flexible, and increasingly personalized, our tools will become more and more a part of who and what we are (2003). Clark further explained “what makes us distinctively human is our capacity to continually restructure and rebuild our own mental circuitry” (2003, p. 10). According to Clark, the term cyborg “deliberately incorporates exogenous components extending the self-regulating control function of the organism in order to adapt it to new environments (2003, p. 14). Clark explained that “our brains are essentially the brains of natural-born cyborgs, ever eager to dovetail their activity to the increasing complex technological envelopes in which they develop, mature, and operate” (2003, p.26). Clark stated that “the computer is thus drawn into the real world of daily objects and interaction, where its activities and contributions become part of the unremarked backdrop upon which the biological brain and organism learn to depend” (2003, p. 30).  In the future, people may become so dependent on technological apparatuses that they will begin to expect and trust the input from a technological monitoring apparatus as much as they would the input from their own unconscious brain (Clark, 2003). Those ideas have the possibility of shaping our lives and our sense of self.  Clark stated that technological processes are constantly contributing to a person’s emerging psychological profile.

A human brain comprises of a variety of relatively distinct, but densely inter-communicating subsystems. For example, the posterior parietal subsystems which operate unconsciously when we reach out to grasp an object, adjust hand orientation and finger placement appropriately. Clark proposed that both parts of the brain, the conscious and the unconscious, learn to factor in the operation of various non-biological tools and resources. This creates an extended problem-solving matrix with a degree of fluid integration that can sometimes rival that found within the brain itself (2003).The process of fitting, tailoring, and factoring creates extended computational and mental organizations: reasoning and thinking systems distributed across brain, body, and world. Much of our distinctive human intelligence inheres in the operation of these extended systems (Clark, 2003). Human cognition “subsists in a hybrid, extended architecture (one which includes aspects of the brain and of the cognitive technological envelope in which our brains develop and operate) that remains vastly under-appreciated” (Clark, 2003, p. 33). Who we are may depend as much on the specific socio-technological matrix that a person exists in as on the various conscious and unconscious neural events that occur in the physical body. (2003). ”Even the technologically mediated incorporation of additional layers of unconscious functionality must make a difference to our sense of who and what we are; as much of a difference, at times, as do some very large and important dimensions of our own biological brain” (2003, p.34).

Interactions between mind and technology are able to become transparent. When a technology is well-fitted and transparent there is the potential for it to impact what a person feels he or she can do, where the person is located, and the kinds of problems the person is capable of solving (Clark, 2003). The tool itself fades into the background and becomes transparent in skilled use. “New waves of almost invisible, user-sensitive semi-intelligent knowledge-based electronics and software are perfectly posed to merge seamlessly with the individual biological brain” (2003, p.34). Clark explained that “in quasi-evolutionary times, the product is poised to enter into a kind of symbiotic relationship with its biological users.”  Technologies simultaneously shape and adapt to the cognitive profiles of biological users.  Technology becomes pseudo-neural. “Personal information appliances, functioning robustly, transparently, and constantly, will slowly usher in new social cultural, educational, and institutional structures” (Clark, 2003, p. 45).

Clark believed the sense of self, what we know of who and what we are, is surprisingly plastic and reflects ongoing experiences of thinking, reasoning, and acting, rather than being some rigid preset biological boundary (2003).  He predicted the near future will include the development of lightweight, constantly running, personal computers and new techniques which will blur the boundaries between the virtual and the physical. Blending technology and human biology has the potential to be a harmonious interaction (Clark, 2003). Wearable computing will be designed to fade into the background when it is being used. It will provide support while it allows the person to focus on the task at hand, not on the technology. Clark contended there will be “a blurring of boundaries between physical and informational space” (2003, p. 53). This kind of blurring creates humans that become complex biotechnological hybrids who move between real and virtual worlds. Clark explained “a traversable interface creates the impression of a seamless join between the real and the virtual, and encourages users to frequently and naturally cross over between the two realms” (2003, p. 53). Clark pointed out the under-twenty five young people’s thumbs have overtaken fingers as the most muscled and dexterous digits simply as a result of this age group’s extensive use of handheld electronic game controllers and text messaging on cell phones(2003). He proposed that the same kind of user technology co-adaptation can occur at the deepest levels of neural processing” (2003, p. 86).

Some suggest that non-biological technology does not control and/or choose a person’s actions. That is the function of the biological brain. Therefore, non-biological aspects should not be counted as part of the real cognitive system. From that perspective, the mind cannot be a hybrid built of biological and technological parts. Human minds are biological, although they “enjoy a nice wrap-around of power-enhancing tools and culture” (Clark, 2003, p. 136).

According to Rosen, complete reliance on technology can make a person appear to have either schizoid personality disorder, defined by emotional coldness and extreme social withdrawal, or schizotypal personality disorder, in which the person exhibits odd speech and thought patterns, magical thinking, delusions, and seeks isolation (2012). He contended that people having such complete reliance on technology may even have brief episodes in which they actually experience these disorders (Rosen, 2012). A healthy lifestyle includes face-to-face interactions that give the context and cues for socialization (Rosen, 2012). Rosen proposed his research indicates that the use of media and technology is highly correlated with social withdrawal and isolation (2012). For his research the degree of media use in most technology groups was correlated with schizotypal behaviors, signs, and symptoms in all age groups, but especially in those born in 1980’s and 1990’s. Rosen found that the more time a young person invested in media and online technology, the more likely he or she was to display characteristics of schizoid disorder, becoming more socially isolated and emotionally distant (2012, p. 173). Rosen concluded that “from being online and using social networking, to texting and instant messaging, to playing video games and listening to music, the more people engage in technology-related activities, the more they exhibit schizotypal behaviors” (2012, p. 181).

Research conducted at Oxford University on the science of the mind and the growing use of social media showed this technology actually is changing the brain (Rosen, 2012). Neuroscientists recognize that the brain is constantly changing in response to both external and internal stimuli. This is neuroplasticity, a constant process of strengthening and weakening nerve cell connections in the brain as a function of experiences (Rosen, 2012). Each technology a person uses engages his or her brain. “When a person multi-tasks with several technologies, the brain is even more engaged, perhaps with a near maximal amount of neuronal activity (Rosen, 2012). There is evidence that when the activity stops, for example when a video game ends, the residual neurological effects remain for a period of time. Multi-tasking and electronic devices may be creating a brain that can’t deal with the real world because the real world is less stimulating (Rosen, 2012).   Excessive multi-tasking may actually be harmful to the brain. Those who multi-task more are less able to identify human emotions, and those online more than ten hours a day have less brain gray matter than those who are online less than two hours a day (Rosen, 2012).

On the positive side, technology is related to higher IQ, a better memory, and the ability to process information more quickly. On the negative side, it is associated with signs and symptoms of one of many psychotological disorders: narcissim, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, depression, attention deficit disorder, social phobia, antisocial personality disorder, hypochondriasis, body dysmorphic disorder, schizo disorders, and voyeurism.

Addiction and Technology

Weiss and Schneider explained the 2011 American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) definition for addiction includes process or behavioral addictions (2014).

“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of the brain’s reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.  Dysfunction in these circuits leads to the characteristic biological, psychological, social, and spiritual manifestations, which are seen in a person who is pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and/or other behaviors” (Weiss & Schneider, 2014, p. 134). Weiss & Schneider emphasized that “to qualify as having addictive potential, the behavior or substance must bring the user an experience of pleasure in some way” (2014, p.134). Three key symptoms of addiction are loss of control (inability to do the things the individual hopes, tries, promises, or wants to discontinue); continued use despite significant adverse consequences; preoccupation to the point of obsession (always the focus in the addict’s mind). In addition, addicts can develop a tolerance to the behaviors that they abuse. As time passes, the addict has to spend more time engaged in the addiction activity in order to achieve the same level of pleasure, distraction, or escape.  Some addicts will escalate not only the amount, but also the level of intensity. When the addict loses access to the behavioral distraction of choice, he or she experiences emotional cravings or signs of physical withdrawal occur.

Many technology-based activities have addictive potential, since they evoke feelings of extreme pleasure and satisfaction while serving as a source of profound, although temporary, distraction (Weiss & Schneider, 2014).  Weiss and Schneider noted that the problem of addiction has always been driven by human technological advances (2014). “Technology in all of its forms delivers an increasingly wider array of powerful substances and experiences that are, for some, emotionally, psychologically, and/or physically unmanageable” (Weiss & Schneider, 2014, p. 135).

There may be a genetic predisposition toward addiction. Although a propensity for addiction and emotional vulnerability may exist, human technological advances could increase the odds of actually developing an addiction (Weiss & Schneider, 2014). Technology (via digital, mobile and social media) has provided increased intensity and inexpensive access.  “With today’s highly refined, carefully manipulated, digitally transmitted, instantly accessible, and seemingly endless supply of material, is it any wonder that some of the more emotionally vulnerable among us repeatedly turn to it for comfort, distraction, and emotional escape?” (Weiss & Schneider, 2014, p. 137).

Internal fantasy processes are involved in the etiology of addictive personality disorders, habit patterns, and attachments (Firestone, 1993). A child deprived of emotional support, or threatened by separation anxiety, may depend increasingly on fantasy gratification, which reduces some of the tension and relieves some of the pain. The child develops a self-parenting process in which he or she is both the parent and the object of parenting (Firestone, 1993). Self parenting includes self-nourishment and self-punishment. A young child may suck his or her thumb, masturbate, or have other self-gratifying behaviors. Adults feed themselves more directly with food, alcohol, and various chemicals and develop eating disorders or substance abuse. Self-punishment is seen in internal destructive “voices,” self-critical attitudes, and self-harming behavior. The same defenses children use to protect themselves from overwhelming anxiety in childhood lead to developing an inward, addictive lifestyle as adults. Relying on fantasy becomes incapacitating because that dependence interferes with goal-directed activity in the real world (Firestone, 1993). Eventually the person prefers the addictive patterns over the satisfactions in his or her interpersonal environment. Winnicott observed that withdrawal into fantasy has a dissociative quality (Colombi, 2010).

There is considerable confusion, even among therapy professionals, about addiction, in part because many potentially addictive behaviors are healthy behaviors for most people. They are healthy, life-affirming activities that involve little concern or personal struggle. Some of these activities are perceived as enjoyable distractions (Weiss & Schneider, 2014).

Some addictions such as eating and sexual activities are keyed to survival objectives, and our brains are programmed to encourage participation in these behaviors. These activities trigger a neurochemical response in the reward center of the brain, which results in feelings of pleasure.  This neurochemical pleasure response is seen in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of the brain. These studies clearly show that the neuroarousal patterns of someone who abusing cocaine and someone who is sexually excited are virtually indistinguishable. It is this biochemical pleasure process that is a key to developing and maintaining both substance and behavioral addictions. Some people who struggle with underlying emotional or psychological issues can subconsciously learn over time to manipulate the brain’s pleasure response by ingesting a particular substance or engaging in a certain activity. This is a misguided attempt to cope with stress and/or to distract the person from emotional pain (Weiss & Schneider, 2014). Addicts want to feel better, usually by feeling less. Participating in the desired behavior allows the addict to temporarily disconnect, numb out, and experience pleasurable distractions.

Accessibility, affordability, and anonymity drive online addiction (Weiss & Schneider, 2014).  The internet provides endless amounts of highly distracting, emotionally rewarding, and pleasurable games, material, and activities. This proliferation of access causes tremendous problems for many people who have pre-existing addictive disorders, social inhibitions, impulsivity, early trauma, or attachment and mood disorders. All of these can contribute to long-term; very harmful repetitive patterns of behavioral acting out (Weiss & Schneider, 2014). Internet addictions include social sites and chat rooms, games, gambling, compulsive shopping, sex, and love. Mental health professionals and other professionals are seeing clients with personality adjustments, fixations, and the emotion of the development of expanded and false perceptions. In recent years help lines have expanded exponentially due to financial constraints, as well as the lack of understanding of technological addictions by many counselors and therapists.

Most people now have access through technology to a whole new social connectedness dimension which can escalate to the point that it interferes with daily life (Weiss & Schneider, 2014). This behavioral addiction offers the opportunity to escape real life or avoid what is commonly called normality. It may create a strong social dependence on internet relationships. Some argue that technology is the future for providing our basic need for social connectedness (Weiss & Schneider, 2014). But this technology may actually prevent young people from learning the face-to-face interactive social skills they need to negotiate successful adult relationships, romance, and work relationships (Weiss & Schnieder, 2014). Young people growing up in the digital age are using networked public spaces as crucial environments to learn socialization and well as identity development (Palfrey & Glasser, 2008). They learn what it means to be friends, to develop identities, to experiment with status, and to interpret social cues online (Palfrey & Glasser, 2008). Digital relationships are often fleeting; easy to enter into, and easy to leave.


Social addictions

A person can become addicted to internet relationships without knowing who the other person really is.  People can experiment with multiple identities online (Palfrey & Glasser, 2008).  “Most people represent themselves honestly online, but cyberspace does create an opportunity for an individual to develop an alter ego whom they then present to others” (Adamse & Motta, 1976, p.63). An alter ego is essentially a misrepresentation of factual personal data or personality characteristics.  It is closely related to the false self that Martin describes as what a person wants others to think of him or her (2006). People want to portray themselves in an acceptable social manner throughout their lives (Haase, 2008).

Some people may have more than one alter ego, depending on their mood or intention (Adamse & Motta, 1976). Often alter egos are just slight variations or exaggerations of the person’s actual characteristics, but they may also be complete fabrications and be of different sexes than the real individuals. While most users present alter-egos deliberately, alter-egos can also develop unintentionally. “A slight exaggeration here and there can build into more and more misrepresentations” (Adamse & Motta, 1976, p. 71).

The major reason for developing an alter ego is to express sides of the personality that a person seldom, if ever, expresses because of fear or lack of opportunity. The internet eliminates both obstacles. Using a cyberspace name and having seemingly endless rooms and bulletin board postings from which to choose, a person can play in safety.  Adamse and Motta emphasized that “the Internet is the perfect technological medium that allows expression of anything you want in almost complete anonymity” (1976, p.65-66). Online chat rooms provide this opportunity.

Most Internet relationships never progress beyond the screen; therefore, alter-egos usually go undetected (Adamse & Motta, 1976). However, there is the possibility of progression from online to phone contact at some point, a transition to real-world meetings (Adamse & Motta, 1976).  Each transition helps generate new information. There is an enhancement of the screen image in either a positive or a negative direction (Adamse & Motta, 1976). On the Net, there is a tendency for people to present positive attributes and use the medium as a way to hide flaws-either real or imagined (Adamse & Motta, 1976).  A person may be able to cover insecurities that become apparent in a real life connection. “Hiding insecurity, however, is different from projecting and illusion,” (Adamse & Motta, 1976, p.67).

Text-based interactions on the Net take place without the normal sensory cues. With no visual, olfactory, tactile, or auditory channels to help, it is very difficult for one person to evaluate another. As human beings, we depend upon these cues to size-up another person. “We are missing essential pieces of information that our ancestors used to quickly determine if someone was friend or foe” (Adamse & Motta, 1976, p. 66).  In a text-based online social contact, the human mind will complete an image of the person based on information the person has shared. The information is incomplete, so the mind provides the missing information and creates a whole person (Adamse & Motta, 1976). All the information is projected, based on the person’s need and desire at the time. The projection also depends on the person’s personality, beliefs, and attitudes toward other people (Adamse & Motta, 1976). Personal interpretations of information help form and solidify our perceptions. Distortion may eventually develop and become a problem. When a relationship develops, it is based on trust. A person involved in a text-only Internet relationship may eventually sense or discover information that does not match his or her projection of the other person and become disillusioned.

In online social interactions, the participant controls the degree of anonymity and has power over information that he or she shares. This is nearly impossible to do in real life. A person does not have to wear a social mask on the internet (Adamse & Motta, 1976). The internet alter ego is premised on a person’s desire to enhance his or her image. This could become a problem when the alter ego persona gets more attention and interest from others than would the person’s real-life presentation (Adamse & Motta, 1976). Using the internet for social interactions has the disadvantage of possibly tarnishing self-esteem.  However, using the internet can be a positive way for a person to develop more confidence in self-expression and self-acceptance, behaviors that can be practiced in real life.

People can also become obsessive about their Facebook and/or Twitter accounts (Weiss & Schneider, 2014). These people want to have the most friends or followers, to get positive responses to their all posts and tweets, or to get attention by posting or tweeting incessantly about what they are doing and what a wonderful life they have. “Thus social media, an entirely digital phenomenon, can become an addiction unto itself and a quick and easy substitute for true self-esteem, real-world relationships, and genuine intimate connection” (Weiss & Schneider, 2014, p. 151). Those with social networking addictions will not bother to call or meet with friends, but will obsess over their My Space and Facebook profile pages. The addict may even fail to perform the most basic responsibilities as he or she loses a grasp on reality.

The world of internet relationships can be a seductive medium. You can virtually connect with others in any way you can imagine so long as you have a willing individual or group on the other end. In the history of communication, it has never been so easy to impersonate yourself or others. The only limit is your creativity. There is a tendency to be much more free-spirited on the Net than in real life (Adamse & Motta, 1976, p. 72).


Love addiction

Another interesting addiction through use of technology is the concept of love addiction. Weiss and Schneider described this type of addiction as “a compulsive search for romantic attachment as a way of dissociating from and/or self-medicating uncomfortable emotions and underlying psychological conditions” (2014, p.149). Digital technology is broken down into “romantic chat rooms (both text and video), apps, and even social media sites that have become a new and socially acceptable place to peruse intimate photos, gain personal information, seek out hot chats and meet for virtual or in-person encounters” (Weiss & Schneider, 2014, p. 149).  Furthermore, love addicts increasingly describie these networks as a primary location in which they lose themselves in their obsessive search for romantic intensity (Weiss & Schneider, 2014). A love addict’s experiences with romance, sexuality, and emotional closeness have more often than not been painful emotional experiences, rather than experiences gifted with real intimacy or love (Weiss & Schneider, 2014). Love addicts live in a chaotic, sometimes desperate, world of need and emotional despair (Weiss & Schneider, 2014). They fear rejection and being alone. A love addict continually looks for that special relationship that will make him or her feel complete. The addict fears he or she will never find that special person, or may meet that special person and find him or her lacking and unworthy of the love addict’s love and affection (Weiss and Schneider, 2014).

Love addicts spend their lives focused on the search for sexual and romantic partners in every situation (Weiss & Schneider, 2014). They put up profiles in relational searches. If the profile is a contrived persona, it may be very creative and maintaining it becomes critical and very involved. Eventually the person may become invested and fearful of disbanding this orchestrated creation, possibly even becoming split from past recognition and familiarity of aspects of himself or herself and the newly created person. New personality components may be formed.” Love addicts are attached to the same type and level of emotional/neurochemical intensity as sex addicts, and they are usually just as detached from the reality of their situation and its cost to their lives” ( Weiss & Schneider, 2014, p.150). The obsessive behavior involves searching for a special person to become the sole object of their focus and needs. Love addicts search on dating sites and social media, post about it, tweet about it, and text and sext to find and/or keep their perfect partner.


Treating Internet addictions

Roberts explained addiction as the process of medicating unwanted emotions (2010). Most people who come to seek help from cyber addiction experience difficulties in relationships. “Sometimes those difficulties are a direct result of the compulsive cyber use, but other times existing social problems are what propel users to an alternate reality” (Palaian, 2009, p. 82). Repeated exposure to certain behaviors permanently changes the brains of addicts because specific brain neurons (nerve cells) change as a result of such exposure. The brain simply adapts to the new chemical environment caused by the addictive substance or behavior. “Gamers often find themselves lost in an online fantasy world, while compulsive users of social networking sites lose themselves in online fantasy relationships” (Palaian, 2009, p. 82). The games and social networking profiles become veritable extensions of the person.

Recovery from an addiction requires avoiding the behavior itself and the situations that cause the addict to recall the good feelings the addictive behavior produced. In cyber addictions, potentially anything that triggers memory can take the recovering addict into relapse (Palaian, 2009). Recovering cyber addicts will find computers and game consoles all around them, constant reminders of pleasure that makes recovery increasingly difficult.

In addition to individual internet addictions, the clinician must be conscious of the potential for cross-addictions. Cross-and co-occurring disorders are quite common among all types of addicts (Weiss & Schneider, 2014). To make the clinician’s job even more difficult, nearly everyone can appear to be addicted at various points in life. Endless fantasy and imagination is possible with current of technology. Experience with technology may morph into a multitude of experiences, some attractive and some to be avoided. With technology in the world of human connection, options are endless and are becoming more and more available.

In the shadows of the net: Breaking free of compulsive online sexual behavior.  Patric Carnes, Ph.D; David Delmonco, Ph.D ; Elizabeth Griffin, MA.  Hazelden  Center City, Minnesota  2007.  CDG (p1) cites  some of the problems created with internet access. “The opportunity is too enticing, alluring, fulfilling, immediate, and powerful.” “So much is available. There is so much opportunity and stimulation available that it’s difficult to control. And hard to stop. For some it is seemingly impossible to stop. CDG (p.1) labels the shadow side to the Net to be of concern. “The shadow world of cybersex is overtaking and overwhelming…” CDG (p.3) proposes that “of the estimated 322 million individuals who actively use the Internet, and estimated 40 million adults admit to regularly visiting pornographic Web sites.” “Many people struggle alone and in silence, too embarrassed of guilt-ridden to seek help, not knowing where they can find help, believing that no one else would really understand anyway.” One of the most fascinating experience I have discovered as a therapist is that many people find themselves in a kind of online trance or time warp, during which hours just slipped by. Another interesting variable is when individuals, develop friends in sexual chat rooms who become more important than their family and friends in their life.  CDG (p.5) states that “It’s almost impossible to imagine it now, but only ten short years ago, most of us knew little, if anything about this mysterious creation of communication called the Internet.” “Today, however, its burgeoning growth and wide accessibility are altering patterns of social communication, business activities and interpersonal relationships.” Cdg (p.5) further states that “the Internet has profoundly changed many aspects of our lives.” CDG (p.5-6) states that “authors like Lynn White in a classic book on Middle Ages, Medieval Technology and Social Change, and Alvin Toffler in Future Shock, have argued that new technological developments can actually created change in human thinking patterns and in how we see the world-changes that re known as paradigm shifts.” CDG (p.7) notes that “some social scientists have noted the educational potential of the Internet, citing the greater availability of information about sexuality and the potential for more candid discussions of sexuality online.” “The Internet can also offer the opportunity for forming online or virtual “communities” in which isolated or disenfranchised people can communicate with one another about sexual topics.” CDG (p.13( references a developed medial model for measuring the attraction of people to the Internet to engage in sexual activities, called the Cyber Hex for understanding the reasons why the Internet is so attractive and powerful for individuals.”  “The cyber Hex contains six components (a hexagon) that combines to create a “hex-like or trance state for online users (CDG p13). The sides of the hexagon include: integral, imposing, isolating, interactive, inexpensive, and intoxicating.

According to CDG (p.14) , the Internet has become an integral part of most people’s personal and work lives. Internet has become a way of life. Avoidance of the Internet is difficult, if not impossible  CDG (p.15) states that the Internet is becoming more and more often a necessity. “It is being integrated inot our lives, its use is, in a sense, being externally imposed on us by society.” The imposing factor suggests “a loss of contrl in that we have fewer options to decline using the Net.” Likewise “The very breadth of the Internet’s content is, in and of itself, formidable and imposing.” With Isolation, CDG (p.16) refers to “the most powerful component of cybersex. Intoxication occurs quickly and privately. The opportunity is available for separating oneself from others and to engage in whatever fantasy you prefer, well beyond the distraction of reality.” “The internet system is interactive system, with a pseudo-intimacy with others. The Internet equipment provides a low-cost alternative to part methods of material. Intoxification from the process and available content can produce and euphoric response.” There is an abundance of choice for communication and materials.” This also presents the possibility for instant gratification.” “The variety of choices in retrieving and connecting provide an enormously alluring and creates an intoxicating trance.” CDG (p.18) states “the opportunity of people to “develop sexual fantasies and objectify others without the fear of rejection.” Also, the user is free to become part of the fantasy without responsibilities or consequences.”

CDG (p.39) emphasizes that “part of the power of cybersex is that It’s one step removed from reality.” “Having thoughts and urges and fantasies and then acting on them via the Internet seems different from acting on them in real time.” “We are not face-to-face, literally, with another human being.” “We can’t look into their eyes, feel their touch, read their emotions, or in any other way physically interact with them.” Cyber-interactions feel more remote, and safer.” “We can be whoever we want to be…” CDG (p.43) warns of experiences where “addicts progressively go through stages in which they retreat further from the reality of friends, family, and work.” “Eventually, what other people know is a false identity.” “leading a fantasy double life is a distortion of reality.” “Addiction is a system, one with its own momentum.”  CDG (p.43) claims that “the addictive system has various component “parts,” the first of which is a belief system.” Most important to recognize is that the addiction begins with delusional thought processes, which are rooted in the individual’s belief system.” “That is these people begin with core beliefs about themselves that affect how they perceive reality.”

CDG (p.43) maintains that “each of us has a belief system that is the sum of the assumptions, judgments, and myths that we hold to be true.” “It contains potent family messages about our value or worth as people, our relationships, our basic needs, and our sexuality. It is continued, CDG (p.44) within it is a repertoire of what options-answers, solutions, methods, possibilities, and ways of behaving-are open to each of us.”In short, it is our view of the world.” Our belief system, therefore, filters through what behavioral conduct we make choices.” Coping mechanisms is another consideration when viewing addiction. Online experiences may reinforce unhealthy coping mechanisms learned earlier in life.  Dissociating mentally and emotionally helps one to detach from unsuccessful experiences. Interpersonal skills may not be practical on an emotional level in real life. Consequently, the person may become dependent on creating distance in real-life relationships which leads to prevention of intimacy.” CDG (p.45) state that the “Internet is a way to interact with others while keeping a barrier between you and other people.” “It is especially useful if you never learned healthy ways to engage with or relate to other people or if you don’t trust or feel safe with them.” “You can remain anonymous and distant and never have to reveal you true identity or anything else about yourself.”

“Cybersex provides the ultimate pseudo-connection with another person-the perfect impersonal personal relationship-with no hassles or demands or connection.” “Cybersex enables users to truly objectify the person on the other side of the computer connection.” CDG (p46).  “In many ways, according to CDG (p.46), the Internet allows people to create a kind of cyber-dissociation.” “They remain detached from those with whom they are interacting.” “The cyber-world offers the ultimate form of detachment.”

CDG (p.46) points out that with one’s belief system, when considering addictive behaviors, one creates  the set of interacting faulty beliefs. Furthermore, what develops are distorted views of reality and delusional thinking to support the sustainment of their behaviors.” “The delusional system provides the rationalization of justifying ones behaviors. With addictions, a preoccupation of what is important for oneself may even be perceived as a trancelike state.



No one can argue that technology has made inroads into daily life. The internet has created opportunities that didn’t exist in the past. Many are positive, but the internet also has a negative potential.

The development of the self is no longer based solely on face-to-face interactions with other people. Information about who we are also comes from Facebook, Twitter, chat rooms, instagram, texts, and email. I would like to emphasize that information from these sources comes in a significantly different dimension for communication and perception (on a screen) from a one-on-one direct human conversation (in person) and lacks many of the cues that enrich the conversation (tone of voice, facial expression).

The internet provides the potential for altered dimension of self. There is an increased likelihood for a person to create one or more alternate selves on line either consciously or unconsciously. With the anonymity the internet provides, people can indulge even their most extreme fantasies. In addition, the internet provides many opportunities for people to dissociate from reality. These characteristics of the internet may lead to addiction, a compulsive behavior related to a dependency on the internet.

The human brain is being rewired. I believe that current literature suggests that analysts and therapists adapt to a conformity of cultural change and the ever expanding use of technology. However, I propose caution in ignoring the deeper effects of technology on the self. As I mentioned by the case studies, the relational aspect between the analyst and client has become more complex due to relationships with technology. Technology is changing relationships in the areas of fantasy, dissociation, and even the vocabulary we use to communicate. Technology is already impacting analysis. What will the future bring?




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