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“Real” Relationships in the Virtual World

Time Out of Mind (2009), written more than ten years ago, describes the various online social network sites that were available at that time. At this writing, we have a whole new array of sites that offer instant online communication connecting us with participants across the globe. The impact on relationships has been enormous but we have yet to unravel the ways in which it will alter what it means to be “human.”  Through the use of clinical examples, I am suggesting that the relationships that we share online reach only a part of the human experience, and that the depth, the core, of our humanity, remains untouched, sequestered and alone.

A Virtual Tsunami

Since the 1990’s the internet has become a defining characteristic of our society, flooding the culture with a revolutionary technology that has altered dramatically the way we do business, access information, maintain contact and relate as human beings. A wave of technological advance that grows and changes almost daily, it is a vital part of the lives of young people who grew up in its wake even as older generations struggle to learn and keep up. It has opened a new universe of communication and world-wide contact and its effects upon our culture are only beginning to be addressed. The positive consequences are easy and obvious while the negative aspects remain subtle and insidious, placing, as perhaps never before, the control of such a powerful tool in the hands of an individual. The social impact of the virtual world is and will undoubtedly continue to be far-reaching. For the psychoanalytic clinician, its force will be felt as it affects the individual, both in his or her psychological functioning and in the authenticity of relationships that he or she is able to achieve. We might well ask whether or not our interface with the virtual world has the potential to change what it means to be human.

Phenomena such as MySpace (TIME, July 3, 2006) or Second Life allow users to create whole new people with different careers, social status, age and gender. Second Life mimics real life in every way. (Ann Arbor News, November 6, 2006). Users meet other people, throw parties, attend church and even open businesses where they sell virtual goods. Some users begin by treating it as a game but quickly realize that it is real. Some say it has changed their lives by allowing them to create a whole new identity or overcome social anxiety. Its dark side involves those who spend 40 to 100 hours per week at their computers or hide their excessive involvement from others.

Social networking sites such as MySpace have become extremely popular ways for teenagers to meet and interact. As documented in the news, security issues have become a nightmare as in the well-publicized case of the 16-year-old girl who secretly flew to the Middle East to marry a man she met there. While the site has protective measures in place, such as prohibitions against posting last names, street addresses, and phone numbers, it is difficult to check the accuracy of required data such as name, gender, and date of birth.

The Virtual Mimics the Real

In some instances, it appears that users are attaching to the virtual world as if it were a “real” relationship. In fact, it has many of the dimensions of human interaction. It can occur in real-time. People may reveal private thoughts and feelings in ways that allow them to become better acquainted. They work, play, fight enemies, initiate romance and accomplish a multitude of other activities in interactive ever-changing modes that closely approximate real life.

In Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace (Basic Books, 1998) David Bennehum tells the story of his childhood experience with computers and describes his belief that emotional bonds are now related to technology. As an adolescent, he had a self-described addiction to video games that he compares to an addiction to heroin. He expresses the feeling of comfort that he derived from playing old computer games like Donkey Kong, much as one might receive comfort from seeing one’s childhood home.

In some circles interaction in the virtual world passes as a viable and even superior manner of human relating. (InterChange Transcript on Virtual Communities. 12695PI.html) An online discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of virtual communities indicates that some respondents believe that a more open and honest type of communication can develop online than in real life. While participants note the absence of face to face interaction, that particular drawback is outweighed by the possibility of talking to a variety of people from all over the world.

Many of the respondents in the virtual discussion viewed as a strength the opportunity to play a different role than one does in real life. Instant prejudices based on physical characteristics do not exist. The computer network breaks down barriers of time and space and allows us to bring together a large pool of minds to share information, experience, and knowledge. While in real life individuals hesitate to communicate their true opinions, it is easier to do so online because they don’t ever have to meet the people they are talking with.

Some participants cite as an advantage the lack of physicality, allowing us to concentrate more on our words and what we are really trying to say than on how we say it. The leader of the discussion, Wayne Butler, asks whether indeed face to face interaction is the best way to build human relationships. He raises the question as to why the warm and emotional face to face contact is also the mode in which people clam up and become less than genuine. He concludes that we should go with the more “honest” mode that is available in virtual communities.



Ann Arbor News, November 6, 2006

Bennehum, David, 1998. Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace. Basic Books.

InterChange Transcript on Virtual Communities. 12695PI.html

MySpace (TIME, July 3, 2006) MySpace (TIME, July 3, 2006)

Toronto, E. (2009). Time out of mind: Dissociation in the virtual world. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 26(2), 117–133.


“Real” Relationships in the Virtual World

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2019). “Real” Relationships in the Virtual World. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 7, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Dec 2019
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