One of my clients, Lisa, 25, a socially anxious software engineer, hadn't been to a party, let alone on a date, in months. She was far too busy racking up points on a new online multiplayer game. "I'm lonely most of the time, she confessed "but when I get lost in the game, I forget all about how terrible I feel. "
On the face of it, Lisa's solution to social discomfort seems harmless enough. After all, the occasional night alone, kicking back with some sangria, snack chips, and an epic video game, can be as much fun as a night on the town. In Lisa's case, unfortunately, her "breaks" now spanned not just hours but entire weekends. In fact, somewhere along the line, without even realizing it, she'd joined the ranks of people I call the cybercelibate -- those of us who shut out not only friendship, but even romance and physical intimacy, in favor of the rush that comes with online connection and gaming thrills. Having thrown herself into multiplayer gaming (or Twitter, her other favorite haunt, where she used a pseudonym), she wasn't spending any time with people outside of work. And as harmless as her choice might have seemed at the time, it had deep and enduring psychological consequences. Because each time Lisa disappeared into cyberspace, her fears not only lived on inside her, they got worse. The reason has to do with how anxiety works.
In the absence of any real danger, our fears fade naturally; the human nervous system simply can't stay in an anxious state forever. But when we approach an experience that scares us -- say, a social situation -- and then veer away, it ends up feeling dangerous forever because the anxiety never gets a chance to run its course. All our relief comes from avoiding what we're afraid of instead of seeing that that it's not as bad as we imagine. It's a bit like timidly circumnavigating a "bad neighborhood." There's a chill up your spine because you picture all kinds of horrible things. Never mind that the place hasn't been dangerous for 20 years. Your nervous system tells you it is. Just as Lisa's nervous system continuously told her people were dangerous because she rarely spent enough time with them to prove otherwise. Her cyberworld became both a refuge and prison, and the more she retreated to it, the more anxious she became.
Addicted to Love -- Er, Make That Tech
But the problem of cybercelibacy is deeper and more far-reaching than its potential to reinforce shyness or social anxiety. Once we've turned away from the world around us in favor of online games or Facebook or pornography, the thrill we get doesn't just offer respite from our loneliness. It replaces our need for connection and intimacy, temporarily, with a euphoria we then come to crave.
Whereas people are unpredictable -- sometimes providing sex or affection or comfort, sometimes withholding the very rewards we long for -- games, pornography, and social networking always offer some kind of payoff. That's where the troubles starts. Because strangely enough, our brains don't seem to care if the thrill comes from great sex, drugs, or an epic win in World of Warcraft; they all cause massive amounts of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, to start spilling into our brain's reward center. And being something of a neurological prime mover, dopamine tends to keep us chasing after the same thrill again and again, regardless of the consequences. So while gaming or pornography can't ever cure our loneliness, over time they do become an incredibly addictive salve -- and that makes it easier and easier to turn away from people and back to cyberspace.
The end result is that much as people in pain sometimes drown their sorrows in alcohol, the cybercelibate abuse technology, relying on it to provide relief, relaxation, self-soothing, excitement, and even connection (albeit limited) that they could be getting from live people. In their minds, close relationships remain a dangerous neighborhood--and cyberspace becomes Vegas. For people already leery of intimacy, the chance to lose themselves in an exciting world they can enter and exit at will can easily become a way of life.
And that's why cybercelibacy is a problem for all of us. We're all a little anxious about intimacy, aren't we? After all, letting people in is inherently risky. Which means that even though we won't all slip into Lisa's extremes, everyone's at risk for the occasional retreat -- and technology offers plenty of places to hide. In fact, if research is any indication, many of us may already be turning away from close relationships Studies show that we're spending increasing amounts of time playing video games and surfing the web instead of hanging out with friends and neighbors, so much so that some researchers have even suggested that technological isolation is at least one contributing factor to the decline in marriage and committed long-term relationships. All of which means that our capacity to hide in addictive technologies could be turning more and more of us into intimacy-phobes.
So what, if anything, can we do about this? What I've come to believe is that the most powerful defense we have against the isolating effects of technology is to live with intention. Both dopamine (excitement) and fear can drive, and be driven by, mindless habit, so to overcome their influences, we have to force ourselves, first, to make a conscious choice. With Lisa, each time she had an impulse to leap into cyberspace, I had her ask herself, is this fear or desire? Do I want to connect with someone online, or am I afraid to connect offline? The question, itself, focused her attention on what she wanted most: to feel less alone, not just for a few hours, but for the rest of her life. And the only way to accomplish that was to seek opportunities among people and overcome her fears.
In the end, that's the only way any of us can nurture healthy relationships and intimacy. By being mindful of our choices to turn toward or away from the people we love. Technology is only as healthy as our use of it. We can deepen our connections online, learning from, and even loving, people who live half a world away, or we can use social networking to withdraw and hide, seeking shelter from potential judgment and rejection, foreclosing the possibility of true intimacy. The choice is ours, but only if we make it consciously and deliberately every time we face it.
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