Having a world of virtual friends can be a rich environment that allows a person to learn more about others and about themselves. This communication freedom and the ability to reach out is an unprecedented benefit of the Internet and social media.
But a new study suggests Internet use can result in pathological behavior, such as Internet addiction and delusions related to the technology and to virtual relationships.
In the paper, published in the Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, Dr. Uri Nitzan of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine presents three in-depth case studies linking psychotic episodes to Internet communications.
According to Dr. Nitzan, patients shared some crucial characteristics, including loneliness or vulnerability due to the loss of or separation from a loved one, relative inexperience with technology, and no prior history of psychosis or substance abuse.
In each case, a connection was found between the gradual development and exacerbation of psychotic symptoms, including delusions, anxiety, confusion, and intensified use of computer communications.
The good news is that all of the patients, who willingly sought out treatment on their own, were able to make a full recovery with proper treatment and care. Nitzan said.
Experts warn that although technologies such as Facebook have numerous advantages, some patients are harmed by these social networking sites, which can attract those who are lonely or vulnerable in their day-to-day lives or act as a platform for cyber-bullying and other predatory behavior.
All three of Nitzan’s patients sought refuge from a lonely situation and found solace in intense virtual relationships. Although these relationships were positive at first, they eventually led to feelings of hurt, betrayal, and invasion of privacy, Nitzan said.
“All of the patients developed psychotic symptoms related to the situation, including delusions regarding the person behind the screen and their connection through the computer,” he said.
Two patients began to feel vulnerable as a result of sharing private information, and one even experienced tactile hallucinations, believing that the person beyond the screen was physically touching her.
Experts say that some of the problematic features of the Internet relate to issues of geographical and spatial distortion, the absence of non-verbal cues, and the tendency to idealize the person with whom someone is communicating, becoming intimate without ever meeting face-to-face.
All of these factors can contribute to a patient’s break with reality, and the development of a psychotic state.
Experts acknowledge that the rapid emergence and unbridled acceptance and use of the Internet and social media have surpassed detailed psychological review.
Nitzan and his colleagues plan to do more in-depth research on Facebook, studying the features and applications that have the potential to harm patients emotionally or permit patients to cause emotional harm to others.
Some psychotic patients even use the Internet to disturb people, abusing their ability to interact anonymously, he said.
Given the ubiquity and cultural importance of social media, mental health professionals should not overlook their influence when speaking to patients, Nitzan said.
“When you ask somebody about their social life, it’s very sensible to ask about Facebook and social networking habits, as well as Internet use. How people conduct themselves on the Internet is quite important to psychiatrists, who shouldn’t ignore this dimension of their patients’ behavior patterns.”