Facebook generation faces identity crisis

A generation of Internet users who have never known a world where you can’t surf on-line may be growing up with a different and potentially dangerous view of the world and their own identity, according to a warning delivered to the Annual Meeting of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Dr Himanshu Tyagi, a psychiatrist at West London Mental Health Trust, said that people born after 1990, who were just five-years-old or younger when the use of Internet became mainstream in 1995, have grown up in a world dominated by online social networks such as Facebook and MySpace.

”This is the age group involved with the Bridgend suicides and what many of these young people had in common was their use of Internet to communicate. It’s a world where everything moves fast and changes all the time, where relationships are quickly disposed at the click of a mouse, where you can delete your profile if you don’t like it and swap an unacceptable identity in the blink of an eye for one that is more acceptable,” said Dr Tyagi. “People used to the quick pace of online social networking may soon find the real world boring and unstimulating, potentially leading to more extreme behaviour to get that sense.

”It may be possible that young people who have no experience of a world without online societies put less value on their real world identities and can therefore be at risk in their real lives, perhaps more vulnerable to impulsive behaviour or even suicide. This is definitely a line of reasoning that warrants more investigation and research.”

Chat room communication was also more likely to encourage disinhibition because of anonymity, and involve reduced sensory experience: “If you can’t see the person’s expression or body language or hear the subtle changes in their voice, it shapes your perceptions of the interaction differently,’ Dr Tyagi said.

A session in front of the computer was also likely to create “an altered perception,a dream-like state, an unnatural blending of their mind with the other person – something that rarely happens in real life. The new generation raised alongside internet is attaching an entirely different meaning to friendship and relations, something we are largely failing to notice”.

Dr Tyagi said there were significant benefits for the online social networking. It provides an equalised status where wealth race and gender were less meaningful; a loss of geographical boundaries which meant that opportunities to access unrestricted peer support are abundant, which can be important in maintaining good psychological health for many. He said: “No one is a pariah on net, it works great in flattening the hierarchies of the real world.”

But Dr Tyagi warned that while many people today cannot remember a world without the Internet, it may be “quite different for teens and children who cannot imagine a world where you can’t go online to talk and apply the same principles to real-world interpersonal communications, mostly to a dysfunctional outcome. It’s vital that we face up to what is happening. The Internet will not go away so these issues, which would inevitably grow in magnitude with time, need to be addressed soon.”