Is the internet changing us?

21:43, Feb 20 2011

Nothing has changed society as much as the internet. Everyone now seems to be more connected and it has completely transformed the way we work.

But there has also been speculation lately that it's actually changing the way we behave and respond to the world, and it might not be for the better.

We now have a study out of England telling us that kids are happier with their virtual lives than they are with reality. Because at least in cyber space, they can be whoever they want to be. Meet Generation Net.

It's also a point explored by Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows. Carr, a freelance journalist, author and prolific blogger jacked into various RSS feeds, is no Luddite.

But in his book, he says the ease of online searching and browsing has affected our ability to concentrate. It's changing the way we think. The internet, he suggests, may have us surfing our way to stupidity.

Carr argues that the internet is actually rewiring our brains, changing our approach to reading, ideas and concentrated work even when we are away from the computer.

''Whether I'm online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet-ski,'' Carr writes.
 
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Stanford University psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude argues that we are now developing what he describes as "e-personalities".

Aboujaoude writes: "E-personality traits found in our online alter egos include grandiosity, or the sense that sky is the limit when it comes to what we can accomplish; narcissism, or how we tend to think of ourselves as the center of the World Wide Web; and impulsivity, or the urge-driven lifestyle many of us are falling into. As a consequence of adopting these traits, we feel more potent, special, and spontaneous. There is something very empowering about these qualities, which helps blind us to their consequences. When it comes to online spending, for example, the effects become less near and concrete. Fueled by grandiose, narcissistic, and impulsive notions, it is easier online to feel as special, deserving, and immune to bankruptcy as a Marie Antoinette - and to shop accordingly."

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I have noticed that some people say things online that they would never say when they are actually talking to someone face to face.

It's there in some of the comments posted on blogs, it's there in chat rooms. The anonymity of the Net allows people to be a lot nastier. The question is whether all that is actually changing their personality, whether it influences who we become and how we interact with others when we're offline as well.

Aboujaoude, who has just released a book on this, certainly seems thinks so.

As he tells this interviewer, it's helped create a more uncivil society. "Society at large is becoming a more angry, uncivil place," he said.

"We should ask ourselves if one reason we've become so uncivil is because of what we do online and how we act on our blogs and in our chat rooms."

One good example of that is the growth of social networking sites like Facebook with some studies suggesting that Facebook is a predictor of narcissism and claims that Facebook destroys relationships.

I'm not entirely convinced about any of these arguments. If a relationship is affected by something like the internet, it can't be that good from the outset.

I don't know whether people's core personality, the synthesis of attitudes, habits, the way we think and feel, our outlook on life and our attitudes towards ourselves and other people, actually changes. 

There might be some changes around the edges but personality is so complicated and interwoven with experience and habits that it's difficult to see how any single force can change it forever.

But then, the internet does seem to have changed the way some of us behave.

Sydney Morning Herald