American Psychological Association

108th Convention
Washington DC, August 4-8, 2000

[APA Town Hall Meeting]
TOWN HALL MEETING - Humanity at a Digital Crossroads:
Psychology's Role in the Converging Internet Culture

APA's historic Town Hall Meeting, with dot com magnates, APA's director, and NPR's Mara Liasson. Some very potent points, and a glimpse of psychology's future. What follows is an edited presentation of the report filed, "asynchronously live from Washington" at the American Psychological Association's 108th Annual Convention, in Washington D.C., August 4-8, 2000.

APA Town Hall Meeting - August 5, 2000
Humanity at A Digital Crossroads:
Psychology's Role in a Converging Internet Culture

I've just come from a Town Hall Meeting sponsored by the APA's practice directorate, moderated by Russ Newman,Ph.D., J.D. (executive director of Practice) and NPR's Mara Liasson ("All Things Considered"), which used instant polling to get some demographics from the audience and assess our ideas about the extent to which psychology can and should take a lead in helping understand and utilize principles which apply to Internet use. The whole gamut was explored, not only "online therapy", but information-seeking, education, publication, politics, and commerce, with a legion of pioneers and CEO's up on the panel. (Both Storm and I got to make some comments, too, about the integration and role of the Internet in people's every day lives.)

Before an audience of psychologists, and with a panel including authors, enrepreneurs, political consultants and a linguistic anthropologist, Dr. Newman began by offering a general perspective highlighting how pervasive the Internet has become within our society. In terms of sheer numbers, 706 new (U.S.) households join the online community every hour! From an economic perspective, in 1993 8% of the S&P Index consisted of tech stocks, while the percentage rose to 30% by 1999. There are now over 20,000 health-related web sites on the Internet.

Under the watchful eye of HMO's and fueled by consumer and professional interest, Dr. Newman feels that the trend towards accessible mental health information on the web is in sum tremendously positive, "especially with non-biased presenters without conflicts of interest". Some of the panelists addressed technical issues, such as the present limitations of bandwidth, while others explored sociological and psychological impact. On one hand, recent studies suggest that time spent online can lead to a decline in f2f (face-to-face) family and social relationships (Carnegie-Mellon,1999) or an increase in loneliness (Stanford U., 2000), while on the other hand there appears to be a tremendous potential for increased societal involvement, such as registering opinions. For example, a recent poll found that 50% of respondents would prefer to e-mail government officials as opposed to writing ("snail mail") letters. As Phil Noble (President, Politics Online) noted, there are clearly different groups of people sharing Cyberspace, ranging from "kids that know the Internet, not politics" to the "old geezers who know politics, not the Internet. The only thing they can't do: shake hands and kiss babies. But somebody will certainly introduce virtual lips!"

Now, what I found *very* interesting is research which was cited by Harvard University and others, which compared negotiating and communication styles across the 3 major modalities: f2f, phone, e-mail.

What happened is that the majority of f2f negotiation yielded satisfactory compromise, the majority of phone communication led to one party or the other being slightly the "winner" in terms of concessions, and with email only, the majority of negotiations led to impasse. The discussion broadened to mention the value of emoticons or other cues -- e.g., (grin) -- to clarify humor, sarcasm, and playfulness in particular. I think this has many implications not only for direct online "therapy" or counseling, or even support and chat, and so forth (written about eloquently by many of our members), but also for an International list-serv such as ours... It is just sooooo easy to misunderstand good intentioned efforts at supportive, light-hearted communication. As Paulina Borsook pointed out, in practice very often "e-mail accentuates the negative", or so it is perceived. Mark Resch (CEO, CommerceNet) noted that the medium is lacking in the ability to impart nuance, creating an experience at times of "looking at the world through a business card" and lending itself best to factual information (like "I'd like that book for $8 please"). Of course, I know others strongly disagree. (ISMHO member John Bush quipped, "but I know how to write!"). Yes, me too, John, but I'm learning that not everybody reads with the same "ears"!


Of course, over the past few days I've heard both the positives and negatives about online communication... the anonymity, disinhibition, mobility and opportunity for those who may be isolated or shy, for example, versus the opportunities to use these things negatively, invade privacy, misrepresent oneself, etc. Also, as Russ Newman pointed out, while written text is often taken as the standard for well-thought-out ideas, it often is sent out in practice without much reflection, and sometimes regretted afterwards. Then again, being instantaneous can sometimes be a *good* thing for communication. Or, OTOH, a *bad* thing, for a compulsive person acting out addictions online, as one prime example. Also, while the time-shifting nature of e-mail can certainly be a convenience and lend itself to thoughtful composition, at other times one may be in a foul mood when replying, and the recipient lacks context for why a response may seem so apparently hostile or otherwise "out of sync" with the tone or intent of the original message. [Storm King referred to this phenomenon, in his comments, as the effect of "mood congruence"] There is an also an emerging issue with regard to privacy, with some recent evidence suggesting that as users perceive their privacy is being violated there is a tendency to be untruthful in responses to inquiries.

All these aspects of "the good, bad, and ugly" were discussed, along with the prevalence of Internet Culture in American society today (already well-integrated into daily life, from age 14 and down, for sure!). While, as Phil Noble pointed out, "half the world has never made a phone call", for many American children and adolescents, "if it doesn't exist on the web, it doesn't exist. Nothing pre-1995 exists!". Dr. Newman agreed that "nobody should underestimate the ability of the Internet to foster communication", and cited the need to adequately prepare the therapists, negotiators, parents, and students of tomorrow. This is now a growing concern of the APA-- and they have clearly become very focused on getting up to speed, doing research, and updating graduate and undergraduate education, while also engaging in public education and public service... That can only be a good thing.

I learned a lesson here, myself, about how easy misunderstandings can arise via email, and also about how much I truly enjoy and celebrate the diversity of opinion and personality which come under the big tent of ISMHO. (Gee, and I thought it's only on the list-servs which *I* belong to!) :-) And I am re-affirmed in my own commitment to do what I can [as President of the International Society of Mental Health Online] to promote our own research, education, and discussion into *all* aspects of "mental health online", including the "International" and also the universal. We are all a Society, n'est-ce-pas?

Sure is great to see ISMHO members in the audience at these events, making those great comments! Storm commented how different the audience is than 3 or 4 years ago, something I've been speaking about as well. It's been only a short time since the #1 question I got was "What is a browser?". (Now it is, "how do I make a web page?", "how do I register a domain name?" and "how do I accept payment?") The times they are a changin'.

That's the Weekend Edition of the Y2k APA Convention News.

Panelists (left to right):Russ Newman, APA; Bette-Jane Crigger, The Hastings Center; Mark Resch, CommerceNet; Mara Liasson, National Public Radio; Andria McClellan, Enrepreneur; Phil Noble, PoliticsOnline; Paulina Borsook, Author.

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