Blurred lines: Physical and Virtual identity

In this blog post, I’ll be taking a look at the blurred lines between physical and virtual identity. I was recently struck by the behaviour of a young boy on the street. He was running around stepping on manhole covers and yellow hose covers in the street – seemingly oblivious to others around him. His father apologised for his behaviour saying: “He’s just trying to get his bonus”, to which I replied, “Sorry what do you mean?”

“He’s playing a video game and he has to step on these things, so he can get the bonus and win the game”

“Do you give him this bonus”, I asked.

“No, it’s all up here”, he explained as he pointed to his head.

His son, still oblivious, was running around looking with such urgency that I had to stop for a second and think. How much fun is he really having?

Imagination, playing and virtual identity

Some people might think, he’s just a young boy playing a game. He’s using his imagination. What’s the harm in that?

There is a side of me that agrees with that. Computer games have become a huge part of growing up. So, it does seem feasible that the child would merge his physical identity with his virtual identity. Was he simply playing in a fictional world in the same way children from my generation would dress up as our favourite characters and pretend to be someone else?

This game the child was playing however, seemed to be a little different to the way in which we used to play – using our imaginations and toy props in a healthy way.

The obliviousness to others around him, the frantic searching and finding of items on the floor in order to get a ‘bonus’ in his head. It seemed more like a need to do it rather than a want. I couldn’t help but see this behaviour in parallel to how we constantly check our phones or check our emails. Are we checking because we feel we need to or want to? Or are need and want so intertwined in our society that many of us can no longer tell the difference? Is the ‘bonus’ that the boy is seeking actually that dopamine and serotonin hit so many of us are becoming accustomed to? If so, what are the effects of being brought up with this kind of stimulus from a young age?

Returning to the parallel that I see with many of us and our phones, is most much of our phone usage a want or a need? Is our phone use a hobby or has the fun aspect turned into a need or in fact an addiction?

Hobby or addiction?

So, is technology having a negative impact on us and wider society? I’m speaking in general terms as there are so many avenues to explore here.

Dr. Linda L. Simmons says that ‘a hobby turns into an addiction when it impacts your life in a negative way’.

While we do hear of people spending hours a day in front of the television, I found television to be a positive impact on me growing up and it never turned from a hobby into an addiction.

More recently, it’s come to my attention that many people seem to be developing an unhealthy relationship with mobile technology, games and social media. I would even go so far as to argue that what many of us see as normal technology usage is in fact, excessive. So much so that we are spending less time together – for example having less sex, in favour of playing with  mobile devices.

To play Devil’s Advocate, I’m sure many of us have watched TV before bed, instead of having sex (box set anyone?) So what’s the difference? and why is mobile technology having more of an impact on us according to studies?

What has caused the change?

I see two reasons:

Reason 1

Prof Kaye Wellings says that ‘People [are] taking laptops to bed, iPads, the fact work comes into our home now there’s no strict divide.”

To me, it seems that it is our tablets or mobiles and in turn, apps and social media have become extensions of us. The lines are being blurred in terms of the physical and virtual. So, we find it harder to switch off and be in just one of those worlds.

If we were to switch the virtual world off what would happen?

An interesting study featured on the telegraph website called: The World Unplugged  showed us how students reacted without technology for 24 hours. What it found was that the students would open cupboards to look inside, in the same way, they would check websites and phones when they were bored.

I would argue they were trying to gain the same satisfaction that they got from checking their technological devices in the real world. The Telegraph article even likened the addictive nature of technology usage to that of drug addiction.

(For more information on this read my post on my experiment: 3 days with social media and mobile phone)

Reason 2

The newer technological mediums are interactive; whereas the older ones (such as television) are passive. This gives us a different level of connectivity than we’re used to. It’s another reason why many film and TV companies are looking to incorporate social media and tablets (the second screen) into television. It gives the audience a much greater connectivity than has been experienced previously. Not only are we getting the relaxing passive sensation, but also the stimulus of the interactive element. This further engrosses us in the experience of interacting with others through technology rather than lived experiences.


The way we have accepted and integrated technology has changed from a fun hobby to a needy addiction. We need our smartphones with us wherever we go. Where we’re seeking validation has changed too. We’re no longer getting this from physical lived experiences, and we’re seeking them through our virtual selves. This, in turn, is changing the way we relate to each other physically.

Returning to the boy at the beginning, it gave me a frightening image of the development of children today. With technology so integrated into their lives, they seek satisfaction in the physical world through the reward structure received in the virtual world. But can we blame them? Games are a fantastic way to pass the time. They give many of us validation, rewards and a sense of community that’s harder to achieve in the less structured physical world.

Philip Karahassan

Therapy in London

3 thoughts on “Blurred lines: Physical and Virtual identity”

  1. I suppose I am the last hold-out, but I do not do facebook or instagram and have not checked my linked-in for several months. I do not own a smart phone, but a dumb flip phone that I rarely use. I do have onstar in the car for emergency only. We have two TVs in the house and I do not usually watch either of them. My husband does. I have to use the computer for work, as I teach and am forced to use it. So, I guess I view most technology as an extension of work. Its not that I do not need friends, but we live in the country, have a large garden, animals, I sing in a choir and play in a community college band. I also give private music lessons. When would I use social media? Most things that I enjoy doing have a great physical or kinesthetic component. You cannot play piano or flute — really — by virtual means. You cannot can greenbeans virtually and then eat virtual beans. I often think that living in a city exacerbates the use of social media because the mode of living is more frantic and is more lonely than a farm could ever be. On the farm I have to make choices that impact others at a more visceral level. What am I doing that will positively or negatively affect the people that I SEE, not text or twitter, but SEE everyday. I can see their faces, touch their hands and the physical impression that this closeness gives cannot be duplicated virtually. If I cannot use my physical senses in combination with one another in order to form impressions of a Physical Reality, then, to me, it is not reality. It is even more sad when our children cannot tell the difference between real and unreal. My grown children know that we are dinosaurs and they call us on the land line, and yes, even use snail mail. They know we love them and hopefully have enough maturity and self-confidence to conduct their lives with control and moderation. Finally, what are all these apps for? Are we that insecure? Can’t we look out at the world and see and hear that train coming? yes, the sky is dark, ergo it may rain and thus I get wet. Duh! Let me check an app for that. Are we that dumb? This is sad. Do I need to go to some fancy restaurant 50 miles away? For what? I have maps and know how to read them. if I need to go somewhere. My husband and I have been all over the world and there are many people who are not “connected.” Once I got lost using an itty bitty I-phone app map. I got unlost by looking out my car window and OBSERVING land marks. The world cannot be appreciated in the palm of your hand. Why have an app to view the stars and constellations when I have a perfect and bigger view of them every night with no city lights disturbing the view? The world is a beautiful place with beautiful people. Lets enjoy it.

  2. Thank you for your response and I agree that we all seem to be lost in the world of apps and tech. I don’t think we need to get rid of it from our lives but we must be the master of it rather than it being the master of us. I fear with technology such as Google glasses on the horizon that we will become accustomed to having a technological filter through which we see and experience the world.
    I fear many of us are not aware of the changes that are occurring from the integration of technology which I feel is vital in a healthy balanced life.

  3. I certainly did not intend to leave you with the impression that I do not use technology or think that it is not useful. It is more the fact that I live in a place where cell phones and internet work, but not as reliably as in more urban locations. My neighbor is the former chair of the tech. and math Dept. of a local college and until we got a new cell tower about a year ago, certain places in their house would not connect. I have a cell phone, and I may decide to get a smart phone, but it is for keeping up with students who must take my classes. I really am afraid that I will lose the phone or forget it, since I never turn on my dumb phone now. Also, It is expensive, if I don’t use it more than I do. I do not like telephones in general and usually prefer to talk to people face to face. All my grading is done on line. I have designed my own classroom websites. I have taught hybrid courses for a local college and much of my graduate work has been done on line. I also use E-mail a lot. I have two accounts. I just find that the social aspect of technology is not social for me, and it is time-consuming. I don’t have the time although I am taking the time to write this response. LOL. For those who connect this way — fine. I choose not to live my life as “connected” as some people and I hope that I did not offend you with my heated reply. Excuse my, but I really do need to collect the eggs since I did not do it earlier. LIZ

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