Seeking companionship engaging in interpersonal relations and participating in social activities is an inherent skill of human beings. People traditionally acquire it over time through interactions with family, friends, relatives, or acquaintances. The internet has ushered in a new era of Cyberspace, altering the way users socialize by transitioning from real-life offline interactions to forming online friendships. Within these virtual social environments, individuals have the opportunity to forge new connections and establish interoperability. This expansion of our social networks into previously uncharted territories also facilitates collaborative efforts. Socializing in this virtual space has affected both, our social interactions and social presence.
The Digital Divide
Netizens are getting more comfortable with the virtual world than building ties with the people they have a chance to interact with real world. Online space has enabled users with the possibility to interact and communicate with people, diluting the barriers of gender, working or non-working, community, religion, geography, and language. Professor Wellman articulates the effect of the Internet on the interaction among the users, “Interaction on the Internet has increased social capital, civic engagement, and developing a sense of belonging to the online community” (Wellman 2002). An estimated more than 85% of working professionals utilize virtual platforms such as Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, Slack, and Microsoft Teams. Similarly, social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, etc. have become equally popular among the masses.
There are 4.66 billion active internet users in the world, approximately 59.5 percent of the global population. Of this total, 92.6 percent (4.32 billion) accessed the internet via mobile devices. Nonetheless, many social scientists argue that it is not aiding users in the development of their social skills. Instead, it has diminished their ability to engage in interpersonal interactions and communicate effectively with people in offline settings.
Another aspect of Cyber Space is Online Gaming which provides its users an enhanced imagery providing surroundings, a visual environment, and interactivity giving unique experiences to the people that can be experienced as if they are in real life. This psychological experience occurs as users feel present in a particular computer-mediated environment. It differs from their experience in real life. This domain provides individuals an escape route from real-life problems and can be equally dangerous as it limits one’s ability to focus on things that are important in real life. The presence in virtual space can distract people to such an extent from their real lives that they forget who they are. They become deeply immersed in the alternative reality they’ve created, often leading them to avoid addressing their personal issues.
The degree of user absorption in the virtual environment depends on certain factors. One key factor is the technology’s capacity to create a sense of belonging within that environment. This contrasts with the experience of living within a physical environment. Studies suggest that increased absorption experienced by users while playing online games intensifies their emotions negatively. As users become more absorbed in the virtual domain, they experience psychological effects such as anxiety, mood swings, and anger. Additionally, their physiological responses, including changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels, are also affected.
Over time, users who become increasingly connected to the virtual community may encounter challenges similar to those experienced in the physical world. However, they often find it difficult to modify the characteristics of the online groups to which they belong. The users sometimes face long-term psychological effects after exposing their vulnerabilities to the people they met in cyberspace. It no doubt offers us connectivity, an escape route from our problems, but it is important to find a balance. We must learn how it changes our perceptions about ourselves, others, and the world.