Flakes in Cyberspace

Alison Manheim

Have you ever been sucked into trying to solve a stranger's intimate problems during an online chat? Have you been alarmed by postings on a bulletin board or online forum? If you spend even a little time surfing the Net, it's hard to avoid it.

People who never think of bringing up their personal problems in real life with strangers or even friends, think nothing of dumping their dirty laundry for everyone to inspect in online chat rooms and on bulletin boards.

"Most people online are normal and honest," says Michael Adamse, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Boca Raton, Fl., and co-author of Affairs of the Net (Health Communications, 1996). But what about the ones who aren't? "There is a small percentage of people who get off on playing with other people's emotions," says Adamse. These individuals use cyberspace to act out the parts of their personalities that they don't or can't reveal in real life.

"There are several reasons why people choose to ask for and receive help online rather than from a therapist or counselor," says Adamse. These are: time, distance, and accessibility. For example, whether someone is lonely at 2 a.m., lives in a rural area, or cannot afford professional counseling or don't know where to get it, the Web is a likely place to turn. While that's a good thing if someone needs information or simply wants to know that one isn't alone, it can get dicey. You may find yourself in a situation that begins with you offering a sympathetic ear and ends with someone asking you to play a role for which you are not qualified. For example, some people really need to speak to a counselor or a doctor.

The Four Seekers
Adamse and his co-author, Sheree Motta, Ph.D., have identified four personality types that are likely to found in chat rooms and on bulletin boards. A quick scroll down any chat room or forum should reveal the presence of all four types. The four types of "seekers" are:

  • Guidance Seekers: Think "needy." They go online to look for support and nurturing from others.
  • Social Seekers: These "loner" types use the Internet to make the social connections they have difficulty forming in real life.
  • Catharsis Seekers: These people are typically reluctant to share their feelings in the real world, so they dump or unload their problems (and their emotions) online. A red flag that you9re dealing with a catharsis seeker is a posting that reads "I'm Suicidal."
  • Control Seekers: These people often have very little control in real life, so they seek out the more orderly world of cyberspace, where relationships are less messy than in real life, in part because they are anonymous and can be terminated with the click of a mouse.
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