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 ways in which excessive internet use can affect in unwanted ways the interpersonal world of the user and their individual self-development. A humorous and graphic example of that kind of absorption comes to mind from the TV show South Park. The participants become so engrossed that the real world, including the demands of the body, has no meaning. A group of children have vowed to rescue the father of one of the boys by slaughtering his enemies in a virtual game. In order to achieve their goal they must sit in front of the computer for days on end. One of the boys even persuades his mother to bring food to the gaming area and, eventually, a chamber pot, so that he can take care of his bodily needs. In this extreme example, the virtual world has become paramount, and reality, an insignificant distraction.
At first glance, the internet in its various manifestations may appear to present an unprecedented opportunity to create experiences that simulate one’s fantasies and play them out with an endless supply of enthusiastic participants or vengeful opponents. It has an astonishing capacity to create an interpersonal world that is almost real and it presents the user with tantalizing and even seductive choices and experiences. One can be anyone, anywhere and at any time. A person has unlimited access to an infinite array of opportunities to fulfill every fantasy, grant every wish or satisfy every desire. He or she can face any fear or conquer any enemy, all at the click of a mouse. It provides a form of entertainment that we have never known before and are unlikely to give up. If we leave it at that—an unprecedented and fascinating diversion as well as a unique way to access information and connect with people worldwide– we can appreciate its power and potential longevity. But as a satisfying and fulfilling manifestation of meaningful interpersonal experience and an avenue for healthy psychological development, it possesses subtle but important deficiencies.
When Fantasy Forecloses Reality
We know that across the centuries human beings have found a myriad of ways to create rich and varied fantasy worlds. The embodiment of imagination is present in all the art forms: drama, literature, music, dance and the visual arts, beginning with the paintings found on the walls of ancient cave-dwellers. Such expression in any form allows us to project our inner world in a way that permits others to perceive it and resonate with it as some approximation of their own experience. Isn’t that what the internet is all about—a venue that allows millions of users to engage with each other within an ever-changing dream world? I would suggest that the answer is both yes and no. While it permits the user to interface with an infinite variety of imaginative expression, it forecloses, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the crucial interchange between fantasy and reality.
When the world of fantasy in any form becomes a seductive alternative that breaks with ongoing experience, it disrupts the biographical narrative that is critical to the development of agency and the functioning of the relational self. It is no longer part of the vital and continuing perception and processing that moves freely between observation and experience even as the individual operates both intellectually and emotionally. A number of theorists have discussed this function and its impairment in those who have suffered early trauma.