Delights and Dangers of the Internet

October 1, 1996

"The Internet is like being in another world- you can pretend to be everything you ever wanted to be. There are no rules and no sense of time. In one hour you can tell each other all about yourselves. It's so interactive- question and answer and so quickly. No limits." Exhilaration was the expression of a 49-year-old divorced male gynecologist with the password "lady's doc."

"The Internet is like being in another world- you can pretend to be everything you ever wanted to be. There are no rules and no sense of time. In one hour you can tell each other all about yourselves. It's so interactive- question and answer and so quickly. No limits." Exhilaration was the expression of a 49-year-old divorced male gynecologist with the password "lady's doc."

"It's so safe. In my own den, without dressing up or driving, I chatted for hours to so many women. We laughed, told jokes, shared fantasies and had fun. No one was trying to get laid, but there were lots of sexual comments. I never could talk to my wife. Here we each took turns listening to the other- funny saying listen when it's reading. I couldn't believe it was 2 a.m. when I checked my watch- four hours on-line."

His new computer toy delighted him. It is "the best dating tool ever. Believe me, in three years I've tried many ads, clubs, groups." He found that four of the many "chat room" women he contacted lived within a few miles. He met with each. "They all fizzled." Why? "Two were much older than they sounded. One was a huge lady, twice my height and size. The fourth was obnoxious; I couldn't wait to leave, I faked a beeper call." But he still thought it was all highly entertaining, even six months later. The novelty and frequency of use later lessened, "like my CB and cellular phone."

Lost Innocence?

Some psychologists are studying teens and how they use the Internet. Sherry Turkle, for Life on the Screen, interviewed 300 teens, most of whom said they knew much more about the Internet than either of their parents. Some teens realize they need to be "cybersmart" since exploitation, taunting, teasing and put-downs are all possible. "I was called 'chicken' and 'dud' when I did not give my phone number or address."

Other teens totally deny danger: "You can't get pregnant on the Net or catch AIDS or get raped or killed." Another said, "The language is awful, but it's kind of exciting to see such a lot of it and to write smut. I hear obscenities at school all the time, kids think it's cool or big stuff. I feel scared, yet weird to write bad words, or sexy talk. It's sort of dangerous. I'd never do it face-to-face, but I can get away with it because I'm sort of invisible. Then I worry whether they can trace me. I know enough not to give out my password, my phone number or my address. That would be dumb." For this 14-year-old girl, cybersex was fun.

An anxious mother called me. Her 13-year-old had been "chatting" to a man in jail several times, mostly about sex and love, pretending she was 18. She had given him their home address and phone number. An adult male voice called the home that morning for Belinda (the 13-year-old, who was at school) to say their friendship on the Net was great, could she visit him? Her mother was upset and had called the police, who told her they could do nothing. It was not a crime to telephone. The prisoner had told Belinda the truth about being jailed, and that he was due for parole within six months. The parents were concerned he might come to their home. Would a VChip or Parental Control insert have prevented this? Probably not.

Human impulsivity, youthful ignorance, adventure search, learning the limits of this new medium are all variables as yet to be considered. Could he be dangerous? No one can answer that question yet. The parent must educate Belinda about truth, the consequences of lying, why people go to jail, about potential harm to herself, family or the home.

An 8-year-old boy in a Chicago classroom downloaded hard-core explicit pictures on his computer to the teacher's horror and the giggling of some of his classmates who all wanted to know how he did it so they could do the same. The teacher insists it was not an accident as he claims. The principal agrees. So far the boy has not repeated the feat.

A 15-year-old girl from the suburbs, on the Dean's list, stable, hardworking, with a steady boyfriend, received a dozen roses "from your Boston lover." Within days she told her parents she would sleep over with a girlfriend but instead met a 21-year-old woman at an airport hotel. The next day she returned home from school to say she had broken up with her boyfriend and has elected to become a lesbian activist. Both parents insisted on counseling. The Internet friendship continued.

The mother called, upset because the selected social worker therapist for the teen considered her daughter to have a "definite homosexual identity" and will not discuss any therapy details with her. Mother was advised to request some parent conjoint (family) sessions with the same therapist to improve parent-child understanding. Impulsive experimentation or lifelong commitment? In 1996 some parents are adding Web worries to their list of potential dangers to their children.

Lost Reason?

A 57-year-old female woman going through a difficult divorce met "the love of [her] life" on the Internet. He is a 52-year-old government scientist living in New Mexico, a divorced father of two adult college-age children. They chatted about astronomy for three months and then sent e-mail daily. She was no longer anxious, angry or depressed about her derisive husband. The screen messages were uplifting. She flew West for a weekend.

"We clicked. It's too good to be true; we have communicated for so many hours, we know each so well..." That she is wealthy, emotionally vulnerable and sexually adventurous were issues raised in therapy but dismissed by the patient, who had come for a termination session. "I'm on cloud nine for the first time in years. I don't need treatment now. He's invited me to a function in D.C. where he will lecture. He didn't offer the airfare, he knows I can afford it."

This lady in the short term has found delight and joy on the Internet. She has blinded herself to realities such as financial exploitation and a possible breakup later. Denial is powerful. With adolescent abandon she has seized the moment. Her lawyer husband has all along deliberately delayed divorce cooperation, unaware of this affair. This fact no longer distresses her. "Life is too short to worry." Love is both blind and deaf for her for now.

New technology has offered an exciting arena of communication, not only for the business world but for every person able to use a computer and rent Internet time. Anyone, even a child, can access an enormous variety of material. Medical data, Disney stories, or vivid, violent sex can be viewed from Russia to Rhode Island. Words and pictures may be downloaded and printed for entertainment, learning, business or for copycat trial. For most users there will be amusement but sensible caution.

For the lonely, the impulsive, the troubled or the exploiters, the Internet can become the Singles Bar of the 1990s. Both parties may lie about age, looks, etc. Privacy may be invaded, combining persuasion and inexperience as with the 13-year-old who gave her phone and address to a man in jail without realizing consequences. There was secrecy, pleasure and power felt by this minor and the one who received flowers and a visit from Boston. Yet these feelings were duplicated by the 57-year-old lady who flew West to meet her chat-lover. Who said common sense was common?

Lost Freedom?

Sometimes laws are passed to protect citizens from themselves. Recently, Congress did not succeed in censorship of the Internet (through the Communications Decency Act passed on Feb. 8, 1996, but overturned on June 12). The constitutional right to free speech on this vital new interactive medium was given priority since other laws existed regarding child abuse and pornography. The justices stated that children must actually know how to access graphic sex so it is still up to parents (not the courts) to shield minors.

It may not yet be the legal end of the debate, because the Supreme Court may still have to examine the new technology, the perceptions and the realities of danger on the Internet. At this time the value of access to commercial and educational material has taken precedence. The market has rapidly offered a variety of "screening devices" such as Surfwatch, Cyber Patrol and Net Nanny to assist parents. Basically it is old-fashioned discipline that must limit the child's on-line time by saying no if the family values or budget cannot accept the child's Internet involvement at the time, and provide alternative programs for the children.

Case Studies

It will probably be two years before psychiatric literature reflects case studies of Internet impact on persons of all ages. Already fax and e-mail have been helpful links between patient and physician. It is possible that for shy, anxious, lonely patients the treating psychiatrist might recommend classes on how to use the Internet. It may expand their interactive skills, allow them some pleasurable interactions so they can learn to dialogue (to listen and to reply), to focus and to concentrate, to tease and to laugh. These would be gains and even growth.

Risks must also be discussed with each patient when the suggestion is made, as with any social support group or lifestyle change.

Therapists must evaluate this new frontier of interaction as it presents in today's practice. Printouts can be brought in for discussion in therapy. Will therapy become obsolete? No. Will therapists use the Internet to do therapy? Not soon, since managed care providers will have to have strategic planning meetings to calculate how many minutes will be approved per session!