On Oct. 6, a 61-year-old man was arrested by Ventura police after he engaged in an online chat room with a 15-year-old girl. He had arranged to meet the girl, but when he arrived to do so, police met him instead. He was arrested, as he’d been chatting with a detective pretending to be the girl.
This case is not rare in Ventura County. Getting into trouble or even danger because of deceptive Internet communication happens often. Virtual reality seen on websites can paint improbable visions that have no basis in real life. Sexual predators take advantage of that. Last January, Ventura Police Department detectives had completed another, similar sting operation by working online.
“Detectives entered various Internet chat rooms primarily designed for teens, and posed as 14- and 15-year old girls. Adult male sexual predators entered the same chat room and contacted the undercover officer, thinking they were a young teenage girl,” said Ashley Bautista, civic engagement specialist for the Ventura Police Department.
“During chat-room conversation, each of the suspects engaged the undercover officer in sexually explicit conversation, describing in detail what sex acts they wanted to perform with the teenage girl,” Bautista said. “In each case, the suspects agreed to meet the teen girl near what they believed to be the girl’s residence.” When they arrived, they were taken into custody.
When such events are not undercover police operations, children can fall into the hands of predators. “We do have incidents that have had to do with cybercrime, and specifically predators targeting children in chat rooms and in gaming platforms” Bautista said.
Teens are not alone: People of all ages can be unable to judge who is authentic and who is not truthful, when they connect with other online users. The desire to be distracted from real life can feed the allure of virtual reality, at any age. AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, hosts a Fraud Watch Network that includes warning articles with titles like Don’t Fall for a Fairy Tale.
Apart from sexual predators with criminal intent, adult online chat-forum users and gamers can believe they are building personal relationships.
“Many Internet addicts seek the connection to others so desperately that they will invest time, energy and money to fostering their virtual relationships,” said Westlake Village’s Dustin Weissman, PsyD, who specializes in Internet addiction. .
Bautista gives cyber-safety presentations at local schools to educate students about choices they make. Because of teens’ vulnerability, she uses NetSmartz, a program created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as a resource for students, parents and teachers.
“The use of technology has led to serious incidents with children, and dangerous traffic incidents in Ventura,” said Bautista, who also works with AT&T to teach students about distracted driving. Research linked to AT&T’s Distracted Driving Is Never OK program, along with the company’s ItCanWait.com program, has found that 75 percent of teen drivers report that texting while driving is “common among their friends.”
The AT&T surveys also suggest social media overuse by adults creates significant danger. Almost half of commuters ages 16-65 admitted to texting while driving, as well as checking social network sites — 27 percent on Facebook, 14 percent on Twitter, 14 percent on Instagram and 11 percent on Snapchat.
“Teens and adults alike are compulsively checking their cell phones much more than they realize,” Weissman said. “Many teens will tell you that they do this for fear of missing out. Their lives revolve on an Internet platform with endless scrolling. The amount of likes and reactions that they get are translated as a reflection of their popularity and social acceptance. It is important that today’s youth learn that their self-worth is not best measured in this manner.”
Compulsive checking of social media sites has been linked to suicidal thoughts. Suicide prevention and cyber-bullying are a focus of the Ventura County Behavioral Health Department, since suicide is a leading cause of death in this age group.
“We know that young people we treat who have mental health or substance abuse issues, and are already at higher risk for suicide, often come to our crisis response programs with social media being a significant catalyst,” Patrick Zarate, Ventura County Behavioral Health chief operations officer, wrote in an email. “In response, we have given local schools, educators, school resource officers and parents resources to raise awareness and know when to intervene.
“VCBH provides Bullying Tool Kits to schools that include information about some of the family and social problems specific to online or cyber-bullying,” Zarate said. VCBH also partners with the Ventura County Office of Education to reach families who may be affected. The health department’s suicide prevention site provides numbers to contact for those feeling in crisis, and a link to chat online non regular business hours from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. There is also information about a Facebook initiative: “Now a friend can report someone who has posted suicidal content, and Facebook then sends them a confidential message reaching out, trying to help them connect with someone,” Zarate said. “They are also prompted to reach out to ‘close friends’ as determined by Facebook (and their many algorithms) for help.”
People like being distracted from reality because it blots out their actual reality, which might be painful or boring. Like addiction, the deceptive aspects of social media distract users from facing facts, just as drinking, drugs and gambling do.
“Relying on the Internet and social media as a barometer creates a false facade of what real life is,” said Sherry Gaba, LCSW, a Westlake Village psychotherapist and life coach. “It can cause a feeling of ‘unworthiness’ that you aren’t living up to the perception of how you believe others are living. It can create a feeling of ‘missing out’ on what is most likely an illusion you have created in your head. It’s important to stay mindful that real life is not what you see on the outside, but is based on how you feel about yourself on the inside.”
Dr. Steven Rothstein is a psychologist who practices in Oxnard. “My experience is that everyone suffers some fear and pain, and they seek ways to cover up that fear,” he said. Rothstein finds that most people cannot process these emotions without taking action to release them — through counseling, therapy or other means — and people cannot feel peace until this happens. Covering up fear with addictions, control, denial and distraction is common.
“The ways we cover up fear are drugs, alcohol and distraction,” Rothstein said. Distraction can include many behaviors, like gambling, workaholism, shopping and social media use.
Rothstein sees current events playing a role as well. “Clearly, this country is polarized,” he said, and this can cement users’ thinking into realities of their own creation. People want to read or see what they believe, because this fuels their distraction from fear and pain. Internet media allows people to see what they want to see, and not to see what they do not believe, in order to fuel their distraction.
The need for distraction can also be linked to expectations of perfection, which are not realistic for anyone. “The words ‘human being’ and ‘perfect’ should not be used in the same sentence,” Rothstein said. “Distraction is a psychological defense against fear.”
Justin Rosenstein, the engineer who invented Facebook’s “Like” button, would agree.
A recent national news article, “Our Minds Can Be Hijacked,” describes how Rosenstein has now blocked all apps from his own laptop, and he compares Snapchat to heroin. He describes “Likes” as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure.”
He no longer works at Facebook, and now leads a company whose mission is improving office productivity; research shows that some people touch, swipe or tap their phone as many as 2,617 times a day. There is some evidence that addiction to devices limits people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowers I.Q.
“Everyone is distracted,” the “Like”-button inventor said, echoing Dr. Rothstein’s assessment, “all of the time.”
National data collected by researchers matches what local experts are seeing. One survey suggested that one-third of Americans would rather give up sex than give up their smartphones. Another report found that 70 percent of Internet use by people at work has nothing to do with their jobs. A consequence: a Ph.D. who was interviewing for a college administrator position did not get the job because, during dinners and meetings with his interviewers, he constantly checked his phone. A type of headache or dizziness, similar to car sickness or motion sickness on a boat or roller-coast ride — and dubbed “cybersickness” by researchers who’ve studied it — can hurt users who spend hours scrolling through a smartphone, or hours of video gaming. “The more realistic something is (on a screen), the more likely you are going to get sick. No one got sick playing Pac-Man,” said one expert in “Cybersickness: The new ‘illness’ sweeping the nation” in The Telegraph in the U.K.
The “Like”-button inventor and other ex-tech workers who were interviewed about leaving their jobs at Facebook, Google and other firms, are not only pulling themselves away from their own inventions. Per the old adage “Actions speak louder than words,” they send their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and laptops are banned.
“The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions,” according to Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. “It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later.”
Proof is plentiful. “Next time you’re surrounded by people in public, look around,” Weissman said. “That’s your example; hundreds of people staring at their phones, many of which do it compulsively. They’re a neighbor, a friend, a sibling, a spouse or partner, kids, peers, and often oneself. How much time do you spend online? How many times a day do you check your smartphone? Are you a gamer? Do you view pornography in excess? How many hours a day do you spend on social media?”
For those curious about how much time they or a loved one is spending online — there are apps for that. “It’s very easy to track, especially when that usage is on smartphone,” Weissman said.
He notes that if users are losing their jobs, or missing medical appointments or classes, these are important warning signs about addiction. Such events are typical in diagnosing mental health disorders, but can become typical for Internet addicts as well. Do some users not sleep due to Internet addiction? “Absolutely,” said Weissman. “Lack of sleep is very common among online gamers. It is also a significant warning sign that their online use is transitioning toward more addictive behaviors, and becoming more compulsive.”
If a user’s family or friends insist on a cutback, it’s important to fill the time with something else — physical exercise works best — or the user can become aggressive and deceitful. “When removing someone’s problematic behavior, it is important to replace it with something meaningful and productive. I’ve encountered some very aggressive behaviors, lying and deception,” Weissman said.
In the national news article, one of the ex-tech workers who was quoted has left Silicon Valley to become a neurosurgeon. He is not an addiction expert, but what he’s learned in medical school suggests to him that devices can impact the same neurological pathways as gambling and drug use. “These are the same circuits that make people seek out food, comfort, heat, sex,” he said. All of it, he said, is reward-based behavior involving the parts of the brain that seek good feelings and rewards.
“Smartphones are useful tools,” one of the ex-tech workers said in the article. “But they’re addictive . . . I regret the downsides.”
Provided by Ventura County Behavioral Health
How to Stop Cyberbullying Resources
Gwendolyn Alley of Ventura, college professor, professional blogger and mother, shares her perspective on the issue: