Every day, millions of people come home from work or school, boot up their computers and enter a world we wouldn’t have dreamed of 15 years ago. They “talk” with anonymous strangers in chat rooms and news groups; “visit” museums and African plains; “kiss,” “hug” and “have sex” by typing into a computer; “swim underwater” in simulated oceans.

It’s a new world, alright—one in which we are confronted daily with new emotional issues, or new twists on age-old issues. These three brief vignettes illustrate some of the uncharted waters we are wading in today.

Real Life vs. Net Life
George spends five to eight hours a day on the Internet talking with a vast assortment of friends in various chat communities. He presents himself alternately as an assertive and confident Casanova, an opinionated scholar or a focused, take-charge businessman. In “real life,” George is none of these. Painfully shy and extremely self-critical, George keeps to himself. “ I feel more like myself when I’m online,” he says. But what he really means is, “I feel more like who I wish I was.”

Internet interactions don’t carry the same risks as face-to-face conversations, and people often use the anonymity to put forth an alternate “self.” While this can free people to explore previously underdeveloped parts of themselves, without integrating those new parts into real life, identities remain dependent on a machine. The computer becomes simply a safe haven in which to hide.

Virtual Infidelity
Every time Cynthia’s husband heads upstairs to his desk, her stomach tightens and her jaw clenches.

“ I feel paranoid whenever he is on the computer,” she says. “I can’t get it off my mind that he is cheating.” Cynthia confronted Victor after reading an email from a woman who lived in another country. Victor denied having an affair. After all, he had never actually seen the other woman, much less touched her, and he had no plans to do so. “A bunch of typed words don’t amount to an affair,” he maintained. It was just talking and exploring fantasies. But to Cynthia, the intimacy expressed in the email is more threatening than a purely sexual relationship. She wonders why her partner can’t be that intimate with her.

Intimacy issues are often at the heart of Internet affairs. And time spent on-line serves only to distract from the marital problems at hand. Plus, the absence of visual cues tends to give flight to the imagination, making the person at the other end of the keyboard seem infinitely more wonderful than the imperfect, live person who shares your bed.

Simulated Experience
Four-year-old Eddie spends hours at a computer screen studying whales and porpoises; he can identify almost anything that swims. But Eddie has never seen real fish, though he lives near the ocean and a world-class aquarium. Like pint-sized hermits peering out of their windows, Eddie and huge numbers of children today are learning about nature on a computer screen, not from direct contact with the natural world. Adults, too, are increasingly willing to accept simulation as sufficient.

Simulation is seductive; it avoids imperfections, cracks, rough edges. Watching elms shimmer in the bright fall sunshine on a flashy website is not the same as actually strolling through a wood of shimmering elms.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of balance and awareness. There is no question that computers and the Internet are here to stay. The most important question is: How can we get the best of both?