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The Internet and Social Alienation

In my article Time Out of Mind, (Toronto, Ellen L. K. (2009).  Time Out of Mind: Dissociation in the Virtual World. Psychoanalytic Psychology.  26 (2) 117-133. ), I discuss the pros and cons of the idea that internet use can become an addiction.  It is unclear at this point whether we can call it thus. But seems very likely that overuse can contribute to personal and social alienation. An excerpt from the article follows:

Some respondents, however, mourned the loss of face to face interaction, noting that participants seem uncomfortable talking to real people after conversing freely with strangers online. They pose the question as to whether we will lose the ability to communicate in physical ways. Others state that it may “cheapen” the culture by diminishing genuine human contact. The opinions of those who are less enthusiastic about online communication coincide with authors such as Winnicott (1974), Eigen (1993) and Beebe (2005) who consider face to face contact to be central in the development of deep mutual attachment between mother and infant and indeed throughout life.

Is Excessive Internet Use An Addiction?

Excessive internet use has been called an addiction by authors such as O’Reilly, 1996; Young and Rodgers, 1998.  Recent reports have indicated that some online users are becoming addicted to the internet in the same way that others have become addicted to drugs or gambling. Such compulsive overuse has been linked to academic failure, reduced work performance, and marital discord. A study by Young (1996) has endeavored to develop a workable set of criteria that could be effective in diagnosing addictive internet use. Gambling addiction was viewed as most akin to pathological internet use since it is an impulse-control disorder that does not involve a substance or intoxicant.

Young employed questions such as the following to distinguish normal from dependent internet users: Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop internet use? Have you lied to family members, therapists or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the internet? Dependent users spent a mean of 38.5 hours per week “surfing the Web” in activities other than academic or employment-related purposes while normal users spent an average of 4.9 hours per week. Thus dependent users were spending nearly eight times the number of hours per week as normal users. Chat rooms and multi-user dungeons (MUDS) were the media most frequently accessed by dependents.

Other researchers such as Grohol (1999, 2005) and King (1999) have however questioned the concept of addiction as an accurate description of internet overuse. Grohol points out that there are people who read too much, work too much or watch too much TV. Yet we do not refer to their behavior as addictive.  Grohol points out that many of the exploratory surveys have methodological weaknesses and theoretical inconsistencies. While they may describe a behavior they are not able to ascertain the cause in any compelling manner. In his article “Is the Internet Addictive or Are Addicts Using the Internet?” King points out that research has frequently failed to address the nature of previously existing mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, or relationship issues.

The Internet and “Real” Life

The question of whether or not the internet is addictive is beyond the scope of this paper.       From a psychoanalytic perspective, it may be used, as Monder (2007) has pointed out, in a variety of ways, including forays into alternative experiences and lifestyles that facilitate beneficial changes in self-perception and ways of being. It is when the individual user is either unwilling or unable to integrate that vast array of information into his or her own real existence that it may become problematic. When it becomes a substitute interpersonal world, controlled by the click of a mouse and outside the demands of time, genuine emotion and meaningful engagement, it has the potential to draw us away from the essential characteristics of social interaction, a 21st-century manifestation of social alienation and anomie.


Beebe, Beatrice (2005). Faces-in-relation: Forms of Intersubjectivity in an Adult Treatment of Early Trauma. In Beatrice Beebe et al. Forms of Intersubjectivity in Infant Research and Adult Treatment. Other Press: New York.

Eigen, M. (1993). The Electrified Tightrope. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson.

O’Reilly, Michael (1996). Internet Addiction: A New Disorder Enters the Medical Lexicon. Can Med Assoc J. 15 June, 154(12); 1882-1883.

Winnicott, D. (1974). The Mirror Role of the Mother and Family in Child Development: Playing and Reality, England: Penguin.

Young, Kimberly(1996). Internet Addiction: The Emergence of a New Clinical Disorder. Cyber Psychology and Behavior, Vol. 1, No. 3,pages 237-244.

Young, Kimberly and Robert C. Rodgers (1998). Internet Addiction: Personality Traits Associated with its Development. Paper presented at the 69th annual meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in April 1998.



































While greatly facilitating ease of interaction across time and geographic boundaries, the virtual world presents an unreal universe comprised of instant connection and gratification. Our culture has embraced this alternate reality in the form of online journals, chat rooms and excessive involvement with video games as well as internet pornography and sexual solicitation. Psychoanalytic principles can greatly illuminate our understanding of individuals’ involvement with virtual reality as it becomes disruptive to work and meaningful relationships. Two cases will be used to illustrate over-involvement wit


The Internet and Social Alienation

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). The Internet and Social Alienation. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Dec 2019
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