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Manti Te'o: A Psychological Analysis

How what happened to Manti Te'o could happen to anyone in the Internet age.

While the media pundits are scratching their heads, wondering aloud how Manti Te'o could have been so easily duped, I am not the least bit surprised. In my practice and on my advice blog, dozens, no hundreds, of men and women tell me they've been in "virtual" relationships for months (even years) without ever meeting the object of their desire.

They are often devastated after finally learning their tweeting and texting partner was nothing more than a mirage. It's just a fact of the electronic age in which we live, where the Internet and social media have become a substitute for live human interaction.

Manti Te'o's girlfriend, Lennay Kekua

Anyone with teenage kids knows what a challenge it is to tear them away from their smart phones. Even older adults are constantly checking for messages and texts, more inclined to communicate electronically than to speak to the person who is standing next to them at a party or sitting across from them at dinner. As tuned in as we are to Facebook and the Twitterverse, we've tuned out the real world which is right outside our front door.

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A 2010 British study of 2,000 adults conducted by the online casino, Yazino, found that one in four people spend more time socializing online than face to face. Given the choice, 11 percent of these "sofalizers" reported they actually prefer to communicate online from the comfort of home, rather than go out and meet friends or family, even on weekends. 

People even prefer text messaging over speaking on the phone. A 2011 Pew Research Center study found that one in three texters would rather text than talk -- period. Those aged 18 to 24 were the biggest texters by a wide margin, sending or receiving an average of 109.5 messages a day.

At 21, Manti Te'o is typical of a generation who has grown up in front of their cell phones and computers, where intense, electronic social interaction has become their reality. If even an All American, popular, handsome football player gets sucked in, what does that say for the rest of these young people, who can send hundreds of texts in a day, but can't even make eye contact at the Starbucks counter?

The Notre Dame linebacker should have had no problem meeting a real, live woman. But let's face it -- he, like most his age, has grown up glued to an iPhone and iPad, and this has had a profound effect on his level of social awareness and emotional intelligence. Of course he was embarrassed when he discovered the ruse. In his shock and disappointment, he prolonged the narrative, because for months, in his mind, the relationship was very real.

This is why Manti Te'o deserves compassion, not ridicule. He's worked hard to become a rising star athlete, putting in hours of practice before making it into that rarefied bubble of the elite collegiate football world. It's entirely conceivable that he's been just as socially isolated as the average high school nerd, with little opportunity to meet a nice, normal girl in the flesh. He was the perfect target for an Internet predator. 

But, there's a bigger lesson here. The iGeneration's profound lack of street smarts is disturbing. The persistent absence of face to face interaction makes it problematic for these folks to read body language and understand when someone is lying.

They're not trained to pick up on visual cues or even the implications in a tone of voice. As much as their computer savvy has given them unprecedented access to networks and information, there's little sophistication in how to process the bombardment of human interaction data when it occurs, and this makes the average twenty-something much more vulnerable than Manti Te'o. 

As I tell my patients and repeat in my online advice column: No matter how many emails, text messages or phone calls you have with another, you can NEVER verify the chemistry is real until you meet face to face. I know, sounds like basic common sense, right? Unfortunately, this is not something that can be learned on the Internet.

Dale Archer, M.D., is a clinical psychiatrist and author of The New York Times bestseller, Better Than Normal: How What Makes You Different Can Make You Exceptional.

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