Virtual world can lead to real-life problems

It’s harder than ever before to define what exactly constitutes cheating in a relationship. With the combination of increased access and greater anonymity the Internet affords, more and more people are flocking to the Web to meet needs otherwise met in the “real world,” or perhaps not satisfied at all.

Before the advent of the Internet, fidelity was at least a little bit more clear-cut. If you spent an inordinate amount of time with someone other than your spouse, and certainly if you had romantic physical contact, you were a cheater. Of course, there have always been the more subtle emotional affairs that can drag on for years between two longing souls who never technically cross the line.

With the help of technology, that line has become infinitely fuzzier.

Most everyone knows about the proliferation of pornography online. This is nothing new. When innovators in the film industry developed video for home use, an entirely new adult video industry emerged soon thereafter. Wherever there is a new means to convey information cheaply and privately, you’ll find porn.

However, there are other uses of the Internet that some still may not realize. Since the creation of “chat rooms” – places where people can go online and have discussions on any topic of their choice – there has arisen the phenomenon of cyber-sex. This practice reached even greater levels of popularity with the introduction of private Web cameras. It’s a common enough practice that reaching sexual climax while participating in such activities online has its own name: cybering.

Just like in the physical world, however, there are many types of intimacy expressed between two people online. Some folks, both single and married, carry on years-long emotional relationships with people they have never met. In some cases, they never even see what the other person looks like, and there are people who prefer this safe sense of removal.

As if chatting and exchanging messages was not enough, now there’s the avatar factor. An avatar is an image or character created by its user to represent them online. This allows a balding, pudgy banker from the Midwest to recreate himself on the Internet as a buff, bronze rock star. With the introduction of Web sites such as Second Life, the fantasies become even more elaborate.

Second Life is, quite literally, exactly what it sounds like. You create a character you present into this virtual community, and then you proceed to live a life that doesn’t exist. There are homes, jobs, spouses, pets, churches, schools and entertainment complexes, much like what you find in the world around you. However, the sense of escapism and control over one’s identity and environment is fuel for fantasy in millions of American minds.

There are reports of people going onto sites such as Second Life and spending hours in front of the computer screen with a virtual spouse, managed by some other woman or man they don’t know at all. Meanwhile, their real partner sits in the next room, flipping through channels or reading a book. The Second Life character cohabitates, makes love, buys gifts, gets sick, and conducts him- or herself as realistically as one can imagine.

It’s not real. Or is it?

Can someone cheat on a spouse with someone they don’t know and will never touch? While many find great safety in the shadows of such so-called games, the potential damage is evident.

Communities of faith offer a potent antidote to this addiction to safe anonymity. The key word is community: unity through togetherness. With this togetherness comes accountability, not necessarily in the form of judgment and guilt. If we have a group of people that lovingly expects us to be more generous, faithful and kind than the average person, then we tend to want to live up to these expectations.

Church communities aren’t perfect, but there’s something basically important about physical presence. It demands something of us, and in the cases when the vision for the group is affirming and based in hope and love, it nudges us into expressing the best parts of us we already have within us.

Christian Piatt is the author of “MySpace to Sacred Space” and “Lost: A Search for Meaning.” for more information, visit http://www.christianpiatt.com.

Advertisements