FARGO – When Brett Biebel tells people he’s not on Facebook, he’s often greeted by strange looks and rolled eyes.
“There’s kind of an initial recoiling,” Biebel says, when people hear of his one-man Face-off. “They’ll say, ‘What a Luddite.’ ”
Indeed, it seems unusual for a 25-year-old to ignore a social networking site so pervasive that it’s even used as a marketing tool for the technophobic Amish.
Biebel, who is teaching and pursuing his MFA in creative writing at Minnesota State University Mankato, has a good reason for his Facebook-fast: “I’ve always had privacy concerns,” he says. “Beyond that, I was just getting annoyed with the random postings and having to weed through some of the more narcissistic elements.”
Biebel isn’t alone. When he talks to his students about social-networking sites, most will say they use them – even though they really dislike aspects of the sites.
“They’ll say, ‘I had to look at this person’s status today, and nobody cares.’ Or: ‘I find myself on it for two hours, and I don’t have that kind of time,’ ” Biebel says. “It’s really prevalent that everyone has something about (Facebook) that annoys them.”
It makes sense that even some “digital natives” – the term for technologically sophisticated youths born in the late-’80s or later – have staged sit-down strikes in cyber-space. They don’t seem to like what the Internet brings out in themselves or others.
And one expert on Internet addiction agrees. Dr. Elias Aboujaoude is a Stanford University psychiatrist specializing in obsessive-compulsive and impulse-control disorders. He believes the digital world is turning us into spoiled children: a world of impulsive, entitled, vicious, self-absorbed, flirtatious “alter-egos” who act vastly different than we do in the real world.
Now he’s written a book, “Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality,” based on scholarly studies, media reports and his own patients’ case histories. He tells of previously upstanding citizens who use the Web to run roughshod over their marriages, cheat, steal and spend money like a Trump.
More disturbingly, Aboujaoude believes our brasher online selves are overlapping into our offline selves.
“The danger is that these traits don’t stay online,” Aboujaoude told The Forum.
“We act more angrily, more narcissistically, more childlike, even when we’re offline and there’s no open browser in sight. We’re not as good at turning off that switch as we think we are.”
To illustrate, Aboujaoude points to the chaotic nature of recent townhall meetings around the country, which almost had the tone of a raucous online forum. “As a nation, we’ve become much more polarized than we used to be, and you have to wonder if some of that is from what goes on online,” he says.
Cloaked in anonymity
Much has been written about teens using 21st-century technology irresponsibly, but Aboujaoude insists this isn’t strictly an “18 and under” problem.
He refers to the blistering comments left by people on online comment boards.
“I think you would be surprised” by who is venting, he says. “Everyone does it. A lot of these people saying cruel things – these are not fringe members of society.”
One reason for this online free-for-all is anonymity, says Dr. Lisa Sethre-Hofstad, an associate professor of psychology at Concordia College. She points to nameless, out-of-state commenters who used online forums to lash out at Fargo-Moorhead residents during the 2009 flood. “They’d say, ‘why don’t those people just move?’ ” Sethre-Hofstad says. “Would they say the same thing if they had to look people here face to face?”
But not all digital communication is anonymous. We still send angry tweets, texts and emails bearing our names, Aboujaoude says. He thinks an equally influential factor is invisibility – we can fire off a missive without having to look in someone’s eyes or see their facial reactions. It’s almost like road rage toward a faceless vehicle; it somehow depersonalizes the whole exchange.
Think before you tweet
Of course, not everyone is so quick to villainize our cyber-life. In the Aug. 16 issue of The Wall Street Journal, several different studies reported that “time spent online may be helping people learn to be more empathetic and make more friends in real life.”
Either way, Aboujaoude argues that we need to do more studies on the long-range, psychological effects of our cyber-obsession.
“We’re always so quick to celebrate all the wonderful things the Internet has brought about, and it certainly has when you look at things like economic productivity, connectedness, information-sharing. All these things are great things. But if we want to be objective about the virtual revolution, we also have to have a serious discussion about the psychological impact of this revolution.”
In the meantime, the experts advise people to slow down and think before they tweet, text or post.
“The humanity of us still has to remain in our interactions,” says Sethre-Hofstad.
Adds Aboujaoude: “Try to make who you are more like your offline persona rather than the other way around."