An op-ed piece by Brent Staples in the NY Times discusses the effects of the internet on some “gregarious, well-connected people” who join discussion groups and communicate “with disembodied strangers online.” He refers to research at Carnegie Mellon documenting the tendency of some such people to allow " low-quality relationships developed in virtual reality to replace higher-quality relationships in the real world."
Staples continues, "No group has embraced this socially impoverishing trade-off more enthusiastically than adolescents, many of whom spend most of their free hours cruising the Net in sunless rooms. This hermetic existence has left many of these teenagers with nonexistent social skills ? a point widely noted in stories about the computer geeks who rose to prominence in the early days of Silicon Valley.
"Adolescents are drawn to cyberspace for different reasons than adults. As the writer Michael Lewis observed in his book ‘Next: The Future Just Happened,’ children see the Net as a transformational device that lets them discard quotidian identities for more glamorous ones. Mr. Lewis illustrated the point with Marcus Arnold, who, as a 15-year-old, adopted a pseudonym a few years ago and posed as a 25-year-old legal expert for an Internet information service. Marcus did not feel the least bit guilty, and wasn’t deterred, when real-world lawyers discovered his secret and accused him of being a fraud. When asked whether he had actually read the law, Marcus responded that he found books ‘boring,’ leaving us to conclude that he had learned all he needed to know from his family’s big-screen TV.
"Marcus is a child of the Net, where everyone has a pseudonym, telling a story makes it true, and adolescents create older, cooler, more socially powerful selves any time they wish. The ability to slip easily into a new, false self is tailor-made for emotionally fragile adolescents, who can consider a bout of acne or a few excess pounds an unbearable tragedy. "