Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Amy takes a look at Online Image...

Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder.
But knowing there could be millions beholding your image at once?
That’s a pretty daunting concept!

However that’s the reality of the internet today and image certainly plays a big part – whether it be through social networking, virtual worlds or gaming.

This week on Insight, Homepage producer Amy Spear explores the complex world of online personal image and discovers the impact that it has on users, particularly the younger group.

She chats to Dr Nadine Pelling, a senior lecturer at the University of South Australia and Dr Ashley Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Multimedia at Central Queensland University.

So, Dr Pelling, could you explain what kind of impact this has on internet users?

I think adolescents to begin with have a lot invested in their image and how they’re portrayed to others. So, indeed, a medium like the internet where you can control how you’re portrayed in your own pages at least, could actually be quite popular and have quite an impact.

Is a positive or negative impact? Or is it too hard to generalise?

Well, I’d say it’s probably hard to generalise but from a psychologist point of view, I’d actually prefer it if someone was to put forward their ideas, their thoughts, their feelings and their actions simply a little more than just a simple appearance on a photograph that could be touched up, a photograph that could be posed and carefully chosen to portray an image that someone wants to present based on their appearance vs their actions.

Going on from just straight websites these days, we’ve got virtual worlds and places where people can go online and be a whole different person. Particularly for young girls and guys, there’s been a bit of debate about how they can dress and act older. Is this a concern from a psychological perspective?

I think a lot, of people, when you think of children, they play ‘pretend’, they play ‘dress-ups’, they imagine things and I don’t see much difficulty in that. I think when it becomes something that’s overwhelming, when it takes on a very large part of someone’s existence and when its not age appropriate, it might be when we start being slightly concerned.

There’s been a bit of attention given to controversial sites such as ‘Miss Bimbo’ lately, where gamers can dress their dolls in any fashion they choose and buy products such as diet pills. The main concern aside from the ideas portrayed, stems from the concept that people begin to lose the distinction between real and online life.

I think some people realise that it is, quote, “just a game” and other people get too involved in it. Unfortunately there are always going to be people that take any activity that is meant for fun and take it to the extreme. From a feminist, psychologist point of view, I would have some concerns regarding a page that obviously that is dealt purely on appearance and appearance not in a healthy manner, but in an overly sexualised manner personally.

What are the impacts of everyone having a piece of this celebrity culture and the repercussions down the track do you think?

I don’t know about repercussions for the average person down the track. I think it’s more likely to have repercussions for those that are famous, for those that become famous. For the average person, simply putting out a few photographs describing themselves, I don’t see that as a difficulty. It’s the people that go overboard, the people that spend way too much of their awake time involved with such a difficulty, that I see as a problem.

Is there a concern about the rivalry? Having the most friends, having the best photos? Is the competition aspect of it a concern at all?

Once again it probably depends on how far you take it. I personally would be more concerned, and if I had clients that were discussing were discussing competition on such webpages, I’d probably try and focus them on the quality of their relationships. Not the quantity.

Do you think spending so much time and having a whole other persona online can have positive or negative impacts on your mental health and who you are as a person?

I’d say it’s more likely to have a negative impact. When you talk about psychological health, when you talk about health in general, we like to take what’s called a bio-psycho-social approach. You want to be healthy physically with your biology. You want to eat well, you want to exercise, you want to take care of your health. You want to take care of yourself psychologically as well. You want to have a good self image, you want to do what you believe is right, you want to think positively but not in a Pollyanna sort of manner. And you want to be healthy socially, you want to have real social connections, real friends, real family connections. You need to have people to talk to, so you can discuss not just problems but positive things that are going on in your life. Now, if you are well-rounded in a bio-psycho-social manner, I don’t see such things having a difficulty in your life. However, if you are not healthy physically, if you are lacking some of that psychological reliance, if you are lonely and you don’t have those connections, that’s when involvement with the internet, involvement with drugs, involvement with sex, involvement with just about anything can cause problems because you’re not healthy enough to handle it in a balanced manner. That’s probably when you need to get some professional assistance, not on the internet.

Dr Ashley Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Multimedia at Central Queensland University, points out that this idea of personal image online isn’t necessarily a new one. Let’s face it, image is something that concerns just about everyone and it’s been around for a little bit longer than the internet!

I believe that the internet is really just facilitating or enabling people to do more in terms of their social connections than they have been able to in the past. This happens at the level of even just keeping in touch with family, email, that sort of thing. But it also happens with the creation of new social groups or activities. Of course we all know that people like to share videos these days, which in the past they haven’t been able to do easily. Young people in particular like to participate with various types of gaming activities. Sometimes these are done on their own, as individuals, and sometimes they’re done in groups and indeed with huge groups. So there’s quite a wide variety of activities and social activities that people can engage in and they’re just enabling us to do what we’ve always liked to do really.

So it’s not a new phenomenon, it’s just an old phenomenon in a new medium?

Well I think so yes. Certainly there’s a lot of people that say that this is the case. There is nothing new in it. There is greater individualism, possibly, in the way that people are working online. We know this because we have this almost one-to-one relationship with the computer itself. But in that we’re not working in isolation or in alienation if you like. There’s a source of meaning constructed around the projects and desires of the individual. But this doesn’t substitute for face to face sociability, it just adds to it. It also doesn’t counteract forms of social disengagement that exist. In other words, if people are socially dysfunctional, it’s not going to necessarily help or improve their situation. So on the whole people are using it for fairly normal activities.

So what about this idea of having another image or persona online or getting to involved with this portrayal of yourself or other image-driven activities, such as the ‘Miss Bimbo’ game we’ve been speaking of. Dr Holmes points out that this is a line most people can distinguish.

I think being able to differentiate between play and reality is a skill that we all have. I believe that to some extent and, indeed, some philosophers would argue that we all share an illusion for our cultural activities that somehow we call actuality or a shared reality. So it’s kind of ironic really that people that the things we do engage in when we do this sort of gaming can be a bad thing. I mean certainly there are image types that one doesn’t like to encourage and I think that the site you mentioned has come to the attention of the world media for those very reasons. But it don’t seriously believe that there would be many girls who take that ‘game’ play and the role playing that is part of participating in that site to be something that they take as a real situation.

There certainly is a whole other element to the way we see ourselves when it comes to the online world – be it for better or for worse! As Amy Spear discovered the impacts of personal image on the net can be quite varied – from good to bad and all that’s in between.