Img: George Dolgikh
3 Psychoanalytic Themes for the Digital Age
Author: Bradley Murray
The emerging field of cyberpsychology seeks to understand the human mind and behavior in the context of digital environments such as social networking, online gaming, and virtual reality. Psychoanalysis no doubt has a lot to offer to these efforts, even if interest among psychoanalysts in these topics is still in its early stages. But there have already been some important contributions with psychoanalytic significance. Here are just a few examples that should pique the interest of readers interested in psychoanalytic ideas and digital life.
Playing online throughout childhood development
In a 2017 article published in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, Pamela Meersand considered a topic that has long been of interest to psychoanalysts: children's play. She noted that when children play online their exposure to virtual worlds often happens at a time when their ability to self-monitor and understand the difference between fantasy and reality is not firmly established. While they are playing online, they do not get the same cues as when playing in person. In-person playing requires children continuously to infer and adapt to the internal states of others. These limitations raise questions about what functions online play serves for developing children, and whether we will one day find out that online play has been less beneficial than in-person play throughout childhood development.
Boundaries between self and others in virtual environments
The topic of boundaries between self and others has been central to psychoanalysis since its beginning. John Suler's article "The Online Disinhibition Effect" (2004) considers the way communication using text without face-to-face cues can affect self-boundaries. It can seem to people as if their mind has "merged" with that of their online companion, which makes the other person into a character in their own internal world. As we spend increasing amounts of time online, will we become less likely to experience others as having their own minds that are fundamentally distinct from our own?
Misrecognizing ourselves in social networking environments
A third article, "Psychodynamic Factors Behind Online Social Networking and its Excessive Use," by Thomas Cheuk Wing Li (2016) tackles a topic that can be traced throughout the history of psychoanalysis - the ways we can misrecognize our own inner states. When in social networking environments, we are encouraged to set up a stereotypic personality and imitate others, such as the influencers whose lives seem on the surface to be satisfying and valuable. It is expected that we will unthinkingly "like" the content they share. With so much energy devoted outward in social networking environments, the risk is that it will become difficult for people to cultivate inwardness. Looking inward to recognize our own emotions, thoughts, motivations, and wishes is a cornerstone of psychoanalysis. Perhaps social networking users of the future who feel at odds with themselves will come to especially value this aspect of psychoanalysis.
It can be difficult to explain psychoanalysis, especially when trying to define that which makes it different from other areas of psychology. But the three examples above capture the ways in which psychoanalysis is centered on the inner life of the mind. Crucially, they show why the intersection of psychoanalysis and cyberpsychology will help us better understand ourselves in an unprecedented age of rapidly advancing digital technology.
: Bradley Murray
, DPhil, MEd, FIPA, is a psychoanalyst in private practice. He is the author of The Possibility of Culture: Pleasure and Moral Development in Kant's Aesthetics
(Wiley-Blackwell, 2015). His writing focuses on issues at the intersection of psychoanalysis, philosophy, and digital culture.
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