The Cyber-World and Developmental Psychology

Online gaming has advanced exponentially, both in terms of its numbers of users and its sophistication, especially among youths and young adults. The erstwhile “first person shooter,” as well as interactive games played in the same room by two friends, have given way to a vast international network of players. This network, in combination with the sophistication of the games available on it (many for free) have commanded a large audience who devote large amounts of time to it. This has led some to express concern that this cultural trend is dangerous because it lessens people’s face-to-face interactions and leads to social isolation. Is that true?

Attachment Styles and Why They Matter

Attachment is an important psychological concept that owes its origins primarily to work conducted by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and dating to the 1960s and 70s. By observing the interactions between parents and their children in different situations, Bowlby and Ainsworth developed a theory of how children utilized that relationship. They found that some young children did not hesitate to venture into the world, explore it, and interact freely with others, especially when their parent was in sight, but also when the parent was out of sight. They labeled these children secure.

In contrast, some children either displayed anxiety, or else demurred, when it came to interacting with others, for example in situations where a stranger was present, or when the parent left the room they were in. Bowlby and Ainsworth labeled these children insecure, and suggested that this insecurity was a handicap when it came to developing the skills necessary to succeed in a social world.

Adult Attachment Styles

As research on attachment continued two discoveries emerged. First, it appears that the attachment styles that were observed in young children do not automatically diminish, much less disappear, as we age. On the contrary, attachment styles that are developed in our early years tend to endure into adulthood, where they continue to color our social interactions.

Second, psychologists have gone on to identify two variations of insecure attachment. Anxious attachment results when a parent (or other primary caregiver of a child) behaves inconsistently, so that the child is not sure if he or she will be accepted or rejected, praised or ridiculed, at any given time. That child may then develop an expectancy that those they are close to cannot truly be counted upon at a time of need. As adults, anxiously attached people are inclined to seek a lot of social contact, though depending on how anxious they are they can also be clingy in relationships, seeking frequent reassurance and/or praise, and worrying that a loved one will leave them.

Avoidant attachment results when a child’s primary caregivers are not just inconsistent, but essentially neglectful. What emerges is a child—and later an adult—who expects others (even those who profess to love them) to be undependable. Rather than being clingy or seeking constant reassurance, these men and women are inclined to prefer to be self-sufficient and not count on others very much. Others often describe them as aloof and self-sufficient, when in reality they just don’t believe that people can be depended on. So from their point of view it makes sense to "control" their attachments.

Do you know someone whose behavior in relationships fits one of the above descriptions, more or less?

Insecurity, Sensitivity, and Online Gaming

In a study that is currently in press (Kowert, R. & Oldmeadow, J. Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 39, 2014) researchers from Germany and Australia collaborated in an effort to cast light on this issue of whether online gaming can be detrimental to social development. To do so they recruited 409 volunteers who reported a history on online gaming. The sample ranged in age from 18 to 39 and included 256 men and 153 women. First, they took a test designed to determine a person’s attachment style: secureanxious, or avoidant. They were then asked to provide information on their use of online gaming, including:

  • Did they identify with statements such as “I see myself as a gamer”?

  • How much time, on average, did they devote to online gaming per week?

  • What was their motivation for playing? How much did they play online games for “entertainment” as opposed to “social comfort,” meaning playing when feeling stressed, anxious, or sad?

Next, they measured these volunteers’ social skills, meaning how emotionally expressive or sensitive, as well as socially sensitive and socially expressive an individual identifies him/herself as being. Emotionally/socially expressive individuals are friendly and usually have a fairly extensive social network. In contrast, socially/emotionally sensitive individuals are often described as shy and less able to maintain extended verbal interactions.

What this research yielded challenges to a significant extent the popular belief that “excessive” online gaming is necessarily psychologically harmful. What they found, for example, was that social skills per se were not predictive of devoting more time to online gaming. The authors conclude that “sensitivity”—or shyness—by itself did not account for an individual’s inclination to spend more time online.

In contrast to the findings on social skills, the data on attachment styles led to different insights. Of the two varieties of insecure attachment, those who identified themselves as having anxious attachment styles were more inclined to utilize Internet connections, including gaming, and to do so because it was a source of social comfort. Meanwhile, those with an avoidant attachment style also utilized online gaming more, but not for social comfort as much as for the sheer entertainment value.

In summing up their findings, these researchers suggest that, rather than being psychologically harmful, the cyber-world may actually provide “spaces to serve critical attachment functions.” In other words, is it possible that those whose childhood experiences led to either anxious or avoidant interpersonal styles may be able to turn to the cyber-world to satisfy some of their needs? And is this necessarily harmful?

This research, as eye-opening as it is, invites further questions. For example, is there a "red line" of sorts that does indeed separate functional from dysfunctional involvement in the cyber-world? And should we seek to discourage those with insecure attachment styles to move toward "real-world" relationships, or simply accept that this is what works for them?

@2014 by Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Hard to Love: Understanding and Overcoming Male Borderline Personality Disorder, and Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Drinking a Problem?

You are reading

The Almost Effect

Loneliness: A Deadly Form of Poverty for Seniors

Should health insurance cover companion care?

Healing Horses: Equine Therapy for Grieving Children

Can working with horses help children process grief?

Equine Assisted Treatment, Part 2

Helping at-risk youths