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The Cyberextended Family

The popularity of Internet access has brought even the most shy among us an opportunity to meet fascinating new friends. Sharing our thoughts and dreams on screen, we become close to people we've never met. But how does this new cybersocial life impact our "real life" relationships?

It's good to have a network of friends we can turn to when we're lonely, sources of information when we have questions, people from different backgrounds and cultures who can broaden our perspect- ives. For some, these online acquaintances become almost like an extended family, and that could be a very good thing. But if we substitute online interactions for more complex daily communication with our own flesh-and-blood families, it can be a very bad thing for those primary (or what should be primary) relationships.

There is a lot of talk going around in psychology circles these days about "Internet addiction." Melodramatic stories abound -- tales of perfectly normal, previously well-balanced people who succumb to this strange new technodisease and abandon their homes and children, even neglect their own basic human needs, seduced by the evil net sirens into a life of electronic oblivion.

Is it real or is it Memorex? Some scoff at the idea that the alternate reality we call "cyberspace" poses any risk to those who venture into it; to hear others talk, the Internet is akin to a dangerous drug, a monkey ready to jump on the back of any casual user. Not surprisingly, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Like any good thing -- food, prescription drugs, exercise, sex -- the net can be misused, even abused. And like the abuse of any substance or activity, excess use can have a negative impact on your life, and your relationships with family members and "real world" friends. Because the online world is still something of a novelty, it makes the news when a marriage breaks up over one spouse's overindulgence, or when a person spends so much time online that he/she neglects important duties to the point of losing a job.

There are plenty of horror stories out there: housewife falls for a stranger she met online and divorces her husband to be with her cyberlover. Mother lets her babies go hungry while she spends all day in an online chat room. Husband ignores his wife and kids, shuts himself up in his office playing Quake 'til all hours of the night. I personally know of similar cases.

Has the Internet played a role in marital breakups? Has it caused friction, or worse, between loved ones? Absolutely. But does this really differ much from what has always gone on, long before everyone got connected and "modem" became a household word? I also know of families that split up over Dad's devotion to jogging or tennis or golf to the exclusion of everything else. I've seen moms neglect their kids because they were "busy" watching soap operas, or reading romance novels. We've all met people who've hurt or destroyed their relationships through their obsessions with gambling, or shopping, or even compulsive "workaholism." What all these have in common is that none of them is harmful when taken in moderation.

Another thing my examples have in common is that they are what are appropriately called "habituations" -- not addictions. Addiction is a precise medical term, and refers to something that causes both physical and psychological dependency. You can become addicted to alcohol, nicotine, and opiate drugs. In true addiction, withdrawing the substance can be dangerous, can even result in death. A "nethead" may feel as if he/she will die if access is cut off, but it's not going to happen. Calling a bad habit, no matter how compelling that habit may be, an "addiction" is inaccurate and denigrates the seriousness of real addiction.

To function effectively in society and maintain happy, healthy family relationships, we must learn to balance the different components of our busy lives. The fast pace of our modern world provides a fertile breeding ground for "addictive personalities." Many of us tend to go overboard with everything we get involved in, especially at first. We're so fascinated by the wonders of this technology that we can't get enough of it, and find ourselves acting like children suddenly turned loose in a candy store with unlimited supplies of goodies. We want to try it all.

And if we aren't careful, we'll find ourselves regretting it later. Moderation is the key in all things, goes the old saying, and that's true of surfing through cyberspace, too. The net can tear families apart -- or it can bond them together. It all depends on how you use it. If you come home, turn on the computer, and disappear into another dimension with your cyberfriends, leaving your loved ones emotionally -- if not physically -- alone, it's not much different from going off to a bar with your buddies every night while those at home fend for themselves.

But the net also has the potential to keep you more in touch with your family than you ever were before. Its wonders can be something to share and explore together. E-mail can open up lines of communi- cation between family members who would never think of writing one another a letter with pen and paper. Websites need not be visited alone; you can take your spouse and children along, especially with the advent of WebTV and computer/home entertainment center combinations. You can build your own family homepage in a cyber neighborhood of your choosing. If your household has more than one computer, they can all be networked inexpensively, and the whole family can share files, send "in-house" mail, and even set up a private intranet.

Communication: that's what modern computer systems and the Internet are all about. And communication is the foundation of good family relationships. It's who you choose to communicate with, and what form that communication takes, that determines whether being online will detract from or enhance your "real world" at home.

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DEBRA LITTLEJOHN SHINDER is a writer, editor and community college instructor who lives in the Dallas-Ft. Worth TX metropolitan area with her husband, Thomas W. Shinder, M.D. and her teenage son, Kristoffer.

For comments to the writer mail to:shinder@dallas.net



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