Adolescents on the Internet: Issues in Intimacy By Michael F. Shaughnessy, Ph.D. & Russell Eisenman, Ph.D.

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Adolescent intimacy has been investigated and theorized about in the past. However, at the present time, the Internet allows adolescents an opportunity to engage in interpersonal communication with adults and to "try out" mature intimate relationships with peers or older adults literally around the world. This paper examines the influence of the Internet on the intimacy development of adolescents and discusses concerns relative to intimacy, including positive and negative aspects, creativity, a case history of Billy, attachment, and more.


One major aspect of adolescence is the development of interpersonal intimacy. Intimacy and self disclosure has been discussed by Shaughnessy (1986) and Shakesby and Shaughnessy (1994) have specifically addressed adolescent emotional and sexual intimacy. However, with the advent of the Internet, some adolescents are able to engage other teenagers, and literally adults in mature, intimate conversations on chat lines, in games, and on the e-mail. News groups, message serves and list serves all are avenues for communication and interaction.

This paper will discuss some of the relevant issues and concerns stemming from this technological tool which affords adolescents an opportunity to converse with others in a less threatening manner and friendly environment. Some of the negative aspects of this mode of interpersonal development will also be discussed.

The Internet

The Internet is a now established facet of American life, and literally it spans the globe, expanding into most civilized nations around the world. Initially, with e-mail, individuals could correspond literally instantaneously with friends, relative, and acquaintances in their immediate community, and now around the world. What effect has this had on adolescent inter-personal development? As of yet, no specific research has been conducted regarding the effects of the World Wide Web and "chat lines" on the emotional development of adolescents. However, it is presumably time for some comment and theorizing and sensitizing to the issues.

The "E-mail" is one avenue of conversation that enables individuals to communicate without perceiving facial expressions (although some computers have this capacity). Indeed, some computers are able to allow verbal sound transfer via the internet. "E-mail" can allow people to inquire as to the feelings of others, their hopes, dreams and aspirations, while at the same time providing a certain protective distance via the computer.

Games on the Internet also allow individuals to participate in various "interactive scenarios" and allow for on-going communication. On the Internet, one never knows if one is communicating with a male or a female, and how old that individual might be. In some instances, an adolescent may endeavor to pass themselves off as somewhat older and more mature than they are in reality. Sometimes, other adults are fooled. In other instances, common sense prevails and one is suspicious of the comments of another individual.

Some games allow adolescents to "try on" different types of roles. An adolescent can be a slave or a king, a male or a female, or he/she can even experiment with different racial/ ethnic groups. Trying different roles is one way in which normal adolescents develop and learn who they are and what they like. Thus, the games take something which adolescents already do, role playing, and allows them yet another way to do it, in the context of a game.

Marriages can be initiated on the internet and cyber-sex can "consummate" a web marriage. While there is no legality to these "marriages", adolescents are able to experiment with the concept of arranging a meeting place for the marriage, arranging the ceremony, inviting guests and dealing with all the details of a marriage on the Internet.

Newsgroups allow individuals to communicate with others who share an interest in a certain specific topic. Thus, if an adolescent had an interest in a specific rock group, for example, ZZ TOP, they could go to that line and leave messages with others who may also be interested in the music of that group. Some adolescents may be interacting with other younger adolescents and some with 40 year old parents.

Cyber-sex allows adolescents to engage in sexually oriented behavior, with consenting others. While this may serve as an outlet for sexual frustrations, it may also encourage other types of behaviors in the "real world". Also, one never knows how old the other "consenting adults" may be. Adolescents may discern that others in the real world are as ready and eager to engage in sexually intimate behavior as are individuals on the NET.

Chat Lines and Relationships

Chat lines allow for on-going conversations about mutually agreed upon topics. This "chat line" may give adolescents an opportunity to form relationships with others without risking the possible rejection that could occur in the real world. As such, a "chat line" may serve as a transitional vehicle of sorts for the development of adolescent communication skills.

Adolescents can communicate with adults on the Internet without fear of rejection. Mutual interests are the over-riding item of importance, not one's age. Males and females can communicate with each other without fear of reprisals in the form of "the entire school knowing" what was said.

Relationships can be formed on the Internet. E-mail can lead to phone calls or "snail mail" and later some type of arranged meeting, should both parties desire a face to face meeting with a person that they have conversed with over the net for a certain time.

The Internet allows adolescents who are self-conscious about appearance to safely interact in an environment of anonymity. The Internet can allow adolescents to attempt social skills without fear about repercussions from others or rejection. The Internet is a new environment for adolescents to experience a wide variety of social interactions that may never occur (for many reasons) in the real life of the adolescent.

Many positive as well as negative repercussions emanate from adolescents "surfing the net" and visiting chat sites as well as seeking out information from anonymous sources (that may or may not be legitimate).

Adolescents really can "practice" making new friends to making small talk to actively listening and can also learn about other cultures and other age groups. Adolescents can learn some sophistication about the world and the people in it. Different age groups can interact and learn how other people value certain things and learn other perspectives on life and love.

Adolescents can also type on the Internet, which may lead them to believe that they have the skills to attend college or university. This may be a double edged sword as adolescents may believe that writing is nothing more than typing what they are talking and may encounter difficulty in college level writing classes.

Emotionally Sensitive Adolescents

For adolescents who are emotionally sensitive (Shaughnessy, Cordova, Strickland, Smith and Eisenman, 1995) the Internet may provide an opportunity to interact with others without risk of criticism and confrontation. Adolescents can practice certain skills in a relatively safe environment and can attempt to form relationships on an on-going basis where there is no fear of rejection or apprehension about criticism or mocking.

There are "virtual worlds" where adolescents can meet people and try out love and friendships and can pretend to be something other than what they are-they can try on the role of hero, fair maiden, slave, king, or minstrel.

Cyber-Sex is a very new phenomenon, directly linked to the Internet. It may hold some ambivalence in that adolescents may be able to learn about sex in a non physical way, yet, if they are exposed to something strange or bizarre they may think that aberrant sexual activity is the norm.

Cyber-Love- on the other hand can be quite intense and may lead to infatuation with a person on the other side of the world, or to a meaningful interpersonal relationship with someone in an adjacent city or state.

Adolescents can get more feedback from others on a net discussion than in real life. On a message, they can get "flamed" - a phrase that means embarrassed, or put down. A fifteen year old may be awkward in real life, but may be able to procure a "lover" on the Internet, and be able to converse and carry on a conversation with other individuals who share mutual interests.

Internet Relationships

On the Internet, individuals can "hang out" and go "steady" and have an on-going relationship. These individuals may also converse by "snail mail" or phone or later perhaps even meet in person. For some individuals, conversing on the net may be a very healthy outlet for some people. In general, adolescents can receive some healthy feedback from others and enhance their communication skills. Many message boards serve as communication devices. This enables people to be aware of what is going on in the cyber-world and elsewhere.

Negative reactions can be posted on message boards. Some negative feedback can be very harshly indicated on message boards and in some instances, in some games, feedback in voice fashion can be brusquely stated.

Immediate feedback can be painful, personal, and quite emotional. For adolescents who may not understand the "rules of the game", they may find themselves interacting in a domain that they do not quite understand. On the Internet, names can be very personally attached to individuals. For a person who has created a game, or a character or a routine, that name is inextricably linked with a degree of notoriety. The uncle of one adolescent posted a message in that he believed that his nephew had been treated badly by the others involved in a game.

Often, adolescents commit faux pas that they are unaware of--They may type in a capital fashion (indicating to sophisticated others that they are yelling) or may not use the appropriate signs, symbols or procedures.


refers to one being happy and


refers to one being sad.

An adolescent can get on a game and be unaware of the folkways and mores of certain games and "newbies" may be unaware of these rules and regulations that may sometimes not be written or communicated. "Newbies" are often welcomed to a game if they are honest and indicate that they are beginners. However, if a person tries to pass themselves off as an experienced D & D person (Dungeons and Dragons) and they lack the skills to participate, others on the net may subtly or not so subtly give feedback regarding their behavior.


On the negative side is the false sense of intimacy that is created by a false sense of anonymity. There may be an opportunity for people to censor what they say, and thus not be concerned about the "foot in mouth" disease that some of us have.

Adolescents are hopefully able to discern the difference between reality and the Net. What may occur on the Net may not be true. Other adolescents may discuss various sexual conquests or experiences. Such "locker room chat" may not be true, but adolescents, seeing it on the Internet may believe what they see on the NET.

All too much on the Net is left to the imagination. In type-based format, one cannot hear the sound of a voice, body language, clothes, hair, the sneer on a face, a scowl or a frown. Thus, nonverbal communication, which is a major way we understand things, is eliminated.

Some adolescents may be put in situations that they are not ready to handle-such as being the recipient of the self-disclosure of a chat mate who may confess a sexual infidelity or unfaithfulness. Misrepresentation can be very problematic for all parties on the Internet. A fourteen-year-old adolescent may interact with a 24-year-old woman who is actively seeking a mature, sexually intimate relationship. Feelings are often tender and both parties may end up being hurt by deceit. It is very easy to lie on the Internet and invent a false identity to trick another person into revealing very private intimate information about themselves. False hopes may be flamed and caution is sorely needed. The development of both sexual and emotional intimacy is problematic for both adolescents and adults (Shaughnessy, 1995). Adolescents may be able to discuss "feelings" on the Internet, but in real life, intimate conversations may not occur. In real life, we expect others to respond to our questions, probes and queries. On the net, people have a certain allotment of time to think about what they are going to say. In real life, people often respond in a very rapid fashion. People are allowed and allotted more time to think about what the proper thing to say is on the internet. In a sense, there is a "filter" of sorts, on the Internet that allows individuals to think about what they are going to say, before they say it, so that what they type, in a sense is in the best light.

The Story of Billy

The internet can be used for psychologically harmful purposes, such as withdrawal from others. Take the case of Billy, aged 14. Billy was a very bright boy who had a difficult time relating to other children. He actually seemed to communicate better with adults than with peers. He was both intellectually gifted and creative, but he lagged behind in peer group associations. His problems are typical of some adolescents who have trouble growing up in certain ways (Crossen, 1998, Rutter, 1998 Shaughnessy, et al,1995), in this case, socially. He did very well on the internet, connecting with people his age and with adults in his field of interest, which was science. However, when he had to meet with some of these Internet friends in person--as happened, for example, when some lived near him and persuaded him to meet them in person?the meetings always went poorly. Billy seemed better suited to relating to people around his age on the Internet than in person. The Internet seems to have had both positive and negative influences on Billy.

Positive Aspects

On the positive side it allowed him to avoid personal contacts, which were difficult for him, but still relate to peers, as well as others. So, for a youth with some problems in relating to others, Billy still had the Internet to deal with people. In an earlier day, before the Internet, he would have been shut out completely from peer group associations and communications. Hopefully, when he is more comfortable with peers, his Internet experiences will prove valuable in making relationships smoother than they would have been had he not been able to have this technological communication with peers.

Negative Aspects

On the other hand, this situation can also be seen as negative, since it reinforced his tendency to withdraw from others, e.g., why relate to others in person when he can just deal with them on the internet? Thus, any need for others his age was met via the Internet, and there was no push for Billy to deal with peers in everyday life. His Internet experiences took the place of normal face-to-face interactions. Consequently, the Internet helped him to withdraw from his peers. Whether or not Billy will eventually be able to have healthy dealings with peers remains to be seen. In the future, we may be able to say that the internet was helpful for him, since it did not force a too early (for him) dealing with peers in face-to-face encounters, but allowed for some communication technologically.

In some ways, we may conclude that the Internet was harmful, since it made it easy for him to meet his needs for contact with peers without ever dealing with them in person. As mentioned previously (Shaughnessy et al, 1995) gifted children often repress their feelings, becoming emotionally sensitive children with special problems. Perhaps Billy with his high I.Q. and special learning of science via the Internet will grow up to be a successful scientist, maybe a little uncomfortable in social situations, but capable of making socially useful contributions. Many researchers are introverts who do not do well with people, but are very much at home in the laboratory or in the world of ideas.

Creativity and Intelligence

It should be noted some adolescents have high intelligence, but are not that high in emotional intelligence, EQ (Gibbs, 1998, Goleman, 1997). Of course, not all scientists or gifted people or creative people are emotionally inept. Some do quite well with both their abstract and emotional intelligence. If Billy becomes a creative scientist--coming up with scientific insights that most others miss (Barron, 1995, Eisenman, 1991, Piirto, 1992)--then society will be the better for it and the internet will have played a major role. Mann (1994) has discussed how new technologies are useful for gifted education. The Internet and other technologies can help the gifted student (or anyone for that matter) learn things they never could before. But, perhaps gifted children and adults may be the ones especially capable of taking advantage of emerging technologies. The high I.Q. of the gifted person allows them to utilize things that may prove difficult or impossible for less intellectually gifted others.

Also, when faced with new technologies, gifted students may grasp the complexities of the task, ask difficult questions, and come up with creative extensions, something that would not likely be done by their lower I.Q. peers (Mann, 1994). The Internet, then, along with other technological advances, can actually foster creativity. As the new questions are asked, new answers are often achieved, and the old models fall and are replaced by more accurate or creative one (Papert, 1980, Polin, 1992).

Creativity may be associated in some instances with lower mental health or deviant behavior (Eisenman, 1991, 2000, 2007). So, it is not unusual for there to be people like Billy, discussed in the above brief case history, or the emotionally sensitive adolescent, (Shaughnessy, et al, 1995) who can show both personal problems or mental disorders on the one hand, and creativity and/or giftedness on the other. However, many creative people are free from mental illness, contrary to the popular stereotype that says that creativity and madness go together. Sometimes they do, but sometimes, they do not ((Eisenman, 2000, 2007).

What is often necessary for creativity to manifest itself is risk taking. The person must take a stance different from that taken by others and back it up with provable hypotheses or assertions. Taking a non-conventional stance can be risky and lead to all kinds of personal and professional rejection. It can also lead to innovative breakthroughs that we call creativity. The Internet can help as adolescents discover new ways of looking at things and build up, in their thinking, ideas that they would not have otherwise had access to. These adolescents on the Internet may learn things they otherwise never would have encountered and, in some of them, this will lead to brilliant thinking that manifests itself in creative discovery and achievement.

Summary and Conclusions

This paper has attempted to begin to examine adolescent use of the Internet to endeavor to ?try out? some social and intimacy skills. Research regarding adolescent use of the Internet and the development of their intimacy skills is certainly in it?s infancy. However, with the development of the Internet and World Wide Web, adolescents will most certainly be using the Internet to meet others, develop relationships, and explore intimate relations. As we have shown, all this can lead to positive or negative results.

The Internet is a great technological advance and it can aid many people in becoming wiser, to meet others, and to hone their interpersonal and communication skills. It cal also take up almost all of a person?s time, allowing them to withdraw from society in a sense, but paradoxically, to participate in society also, with others, albeit on the internet and not in person. Why do some people develop a problem with intimacy? Although there are probably many reasons, one would appear to be attachment problems which occur very early in life, or as one is growing up (Bowlby, 1969 ; Gerhart, 2004; Mikulomcer & Goodman, 2006) . Research shows that the baby, child, or youth who does not receive adequate parental support and attachment, grows up fearful of relationships and is afraid to deal with others in an intimate fashion. They either avoid relationships (Except perhaps on the Internet ) or run from one relationship to another, never being really close, but apparently trying to capture the attachment that was lacking in their upbringing ( Mikulincer & Goodman, 2006) . The lack of love and attachment can even effect the baby?s brain development (Gerhart, 2004). The Internet can help such attachment-deprived people by letting them slowly get into relationships where face to face meeting is not necessary at least not until the person feels ready for it.

In conclusion, the Internet can have a lot to do with adolescent intimacy. It can foster it, or hinder it, and probably does both to the same person on many occasions, as the adolescent struggles with developmental issues, including brain development (the adolescent brain is still developing), moral development, physical development, social development, and sexuality as well as temptations or problems associated with drugs and pregnancy issues (Myers, 2008).


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