Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Speak easy on the Net

I came across an odd little study last week. Researchers at Sydney's University of New South Wales have found that therapy and counselling over the Internet is equally effective in combatting depression as the same thing in person.

That makes no sense! Isn’t therapy one of the few things that is immune to the Internet, effective purely because of the relationship two people – the therapist and the patient –build up through meetings over a period of time? As the patient slowly begins to trust the therapist, he starts to open up and talk more about the issues plaguing him. Then how can the same thing be equally effective over an impersonal medium like the Internet?

Turns out, it is because of this very element of impersonality that therapy over the Internet is more successful. The anonymity offered by the fact that the patient is not actually sitting in the therapist’s office, allows him to feel freer with his thoughts and emotions. It emerges that one of the biggest hindrances in the process of regular therapy is the facade of everything is okay that the patient puts up for the therapist’s benefit. Over the Internet, the patient does not find this necessary and voices his troubles sooner, hence solving them sooner.

Then there’s none of the social stigma attached with therapy. No sitting in the waiting room and wondering if somebody will recognise you. Or even the hassle of getting an appointment or commuting.

This is beginning to sound reasonable. I think I know just what they mean when they say that the anonymity offered by speaking to an unknown therapist at the other end of an Internet connection is liberating. I’m part of the generation that grew up when the Internet was becoming popular and one of the first things we experimented with was chatting. We’ve logged on to chat rooms before they became the hunting grounds of paedophiles and sex addicts and frequently asked complete strangers, “a/s/l?”

Each one of us has had a close friend that we never met; a stranger whom we met in a chat room and got seriously pally with. Whom we told our every secret, every devilish thing we ever did. After all, this was someone who was not a part of our milieu and had nothing invested in it. Their only version of it was the one we painted, from our point of view. They were faceless (though photos were often exchanged), voiceless commentators who were sympathetic to our point of view and, better still, couldn't tell on us because they were not a part of our ‘real’ world.

It was like having an imaginary friend who was your wingman, who always stuck up for you, and never ratted on you; without being considered loony. Like talking aloud to yourself. But having an excuse for it, so no one would think you’re mad.

It was therapeutic.

A version of this was published in the Hindustan Times today


Anonymous said...

Interesting - although the impersonal thing is not as counter-intuitive as it seems.
Any links you would have pointing to the research?

Anonymous said...

1. It depends on what you mean by the term "impersonal". The Internet could be called "impersonal" if tables and chairs interacted with each other through it.

2. "Before chat rooms became the hunting grounds for sex addicts?" You sound like you're saying that sex is such a bad thing! What is wrong with it if people want to chat about sex?

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