Blurring The Lines of Physical and Virtual

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. ‘Sorry How do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Well he’s playing a video game and he has to step on these things so that he can get the bonus and win the game’

‘Do you give him this bonus’

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

His son, still oblivious was walking and looking with such urgency that I had to stop for a second and think, how much fun is actually being had to achieve this bonus?

And yet, he is a young boy playing a game. What’s the harm in that?

There is a side of me that agrees with that. Computer games are ingrained into the youth and so it does seem feasible that the child would play out a fictional world in the same way children from my generation would dress up as a cowboy for example – essentially living out their fantasies of a role using their imagination and toy props in a healthy way.

This game the child was playing however seemed to be a little different. The obliviousness to others around him, the frantic looking 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 all 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’ the boy is seeking that of dopamine and seratonin hit many of us are becoming accustomed to? If so, what is the effect of being brought up with this kind of stimulus from a young age?

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

Hobby or addiction?

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

So is technology impacting negatively on us and society? I am speaking in general terms as there are so many avenues to explore. Technology has had a very positive impact on us and I’ve grown up with television, but I’ve not found it turn from a hobby into an addiction.

We do hear of people spending hours a day in front of the television but it has 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 (arguably the most physical connective act) in favour of playing with their smartphones or tablets.

To play Devil’s Advocate I am sure many of us have watched TV instead of sex (box set anyone?) So what’s the difference and why are these types of technology having more of an impact on us according to studies?

What has caused the change?

I see two reasons:

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.

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

An interesting study on the matter featured on the telegraph website called: The World Unplugged which saw how students without technology for 24 hours would react. What the 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.

(see also my blog post on my experience of 3 days of no social media and mobile phone)

2: The newer technological mediums are interactive; whereas the older ones are passive (such as television). This gives us a different level of connectivity than we are used to and is 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. We are not only getting the relaxing passive sensation but also the stimulus of the interactive element. This further engrosses us in the experience which is not from our lived experience of the event, but the experience of interacting with others through technology.


To return back to the topic of hobby and addiction I can see that the way we have accepted and integrated technology has seen it change from a fun hobby to a needy addiction. We need our smartphones with us wherever we go and are changing where we seek validation, not from lived physical experiences but sought through our virtual selves; this, in turn, is changing the way we relate to each other physically.

To return back 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. Can you blame them? Games are a fantastic way to pass the time, with many giving us validation, a sense of omnipotence, reward and community which is harder to achieve in the less structured physical world.

I would be extremely grateful to know what your thoughts are on this matter looking at your own usage of technology.

Philip Karahassan

Therapy in London

7 thoughts on “Blurring The Lines of Physical and Virtual”

  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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