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Expertise in Internet-Based Social Life

copyright Angela Taormino licensed to Geoffrey Steinberg, Psy.D.

Today, an ever-increasing portion of social life takes place through digital media. Text messages, Skype, Twitter, and Facebook are just a few of the innovative environments where crucial social exchanges occur in people’s lives. From online dating to break-ups by text, It is becoming commonplace for personal relationships both to begin and end by way of technology.

In addition to digital communication with people you may otherwise know face-to-face, the internet provides nearly infinite possibilities for social and sexual exchanges with anonymous strangers. Such anonymity also creates the potential to present oneself via alter egos constructed through text-based profiles and even graphics-based avatars.

Mental health professionals and everyday computer users alike tend to wonder, are these forms of interaction an evolution in how people relate to another? Or facsimiles of relationships that substitute for the so-called real thing?

Like much in human psychology, I think it depends. The same act for one person may signify an avoidance of relationships, while for another it may signify growth in capacity to relate to others, with nearly infinite shades of meaning in between. Rather than viewing such experiences through a categorical value statement, I think the point is to acknowledge that for many people, presenting oneself and relating to others by way of digital media is simply a reality of social life in the present day.

As digital exchanges of all varieties have become increasingly important facets of social life, it is likewise important to examine the meanings of these experiences in psychotherapy. Treatment works best when you as a client feel comfortable bringing your whole self into the therapeutic relationship, including those aspects of your life that exist online. Such comfort is increased when you can be confident that your therapist is versed in the nuances of both traditional and digital forms of socializing.

Because the clients I see in my practice tend to be highly fluent in multiple forms of digital technology, I make it a priority to stay current by way of continuing education in this area of psychotherapy. This past weekend, I attended the conference, Hooking Up: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Sexuality in the 21st Century, co-sponsored by the New York State Psychological Association’s Division of Psychoanalysis and the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis.

The speakers at this conference–as both practicing psychoanalysts and innovators in understanding how the digital age is shaping emotional life today–helped me to refine my understanding of both theory and practice in this area. The conference also reinforced the value I have perceived in encouraging clients to talk about their on-line experiences in therapy, particularly among clients for whom the importance of digital experiences is equivalent to (or even greater than) the analog facets of their family, career, and sexual lives.

For clients who do not experience conflict or distress regarding their internet use, this may simply take the form of exploration of yet another facet of life. However, for clients who have concerns related to their internet use, it can be invaluable to understand how such concerns are intricately tied to the broader contexts of personality and interpersonal life.

Common internet-related concerns I have encountered and have experience treating in clinical practice include the following:

  • The challenge of establishing boundaries between personal and professional life when feeling compelled to be available by mobile communication at all times.
  • Feelings of anxiety while waiting for replies to digital communications.
  • Concerns about using internet porn, for example when over-use starts to interfere with work, school, or social responsibilities.
  • Discomfort in relation to a partner’s use of the internet.
  • Reactions to discovering an on-line affair.
  • Reactions to reconnecting with people from the distant past by way of Facebook and other social media.

Any of these concerns tends to be highly emotionally charged, and therefore helpful to identify and work through in therapy. I have learned to welcome clients not only to talk about such online experiences in therapy, but also in some cases to bring in samples of digital life, for example, reading a text message or looking at a website together in session. In these ways, I may be able to help you clarify what your online experiences mean to you and how you may successfully integrate your experiences within the broader context of your personal life.

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