Many adults wonder if the feelings their teenage children seem to experience in their online relationships are real. They wonder if the conflicts they suffer may be relevant, if the friendships they initiate are sincere or if their children may fall in love on the Internet ???
But this question – which comes up once and again in many different contexts – is wrongly posed and does not help us understand what is actually going on. In fact, if we formulate the correct question, we will very easily find the answer.
The question we should be thinking about is as simple and straight as the following one: ¿may two people develop feelings towards each other? Feelings of affection, love, aversion or hate, for example. Obviously YES. Well, this is the answer to our first question.
The Internet, the cables, the waves, the keyboard – all these are just means involved in the transmission of words and images, just like the letters that were sent during many centuries by family members, friends and lovers of all times. Or is it that the cellulose in the papers used to write letters is a love transmitter? Nobody has ever asked this. Paper is simply a means that we use to exchange words.
Feelings arise inside people. What we feel does not exist outside of us; it can not be spread through the air, waves or cables. We also have the capacity of generating feelings in other people, who will develop those feelings within themselves.
Going one step further we must highlight that, in order to develop feelings and emotions, it is not even necessary for the words we read to be specifically addressed to us. Have you ever read a novel? Your answer will be YES, and the subsequent questions are very obvious: Have you ever felt something while reading a book? May reading some pages make us experience fear? Terror? Pity? Hate? Outrage? Anguish? Joy? The simple fact of reading what others have written, even if the text has nothing to do with us, even if we do not know the people involved, may by itself make us FEEL. And sometimes so intensely that it may surprise us. Or can you say you have never cried while reading a book?
But we can go even further: we may get so emotional that we will cry, even when we know that what we are witnessing is not true, that it is not real. When we watch a film or a play, we all know perfectly well that the people we are watching are actors and actresses playing parts. But this is no obstacle for us to feel what they feel, and we may suffer or feel happy with them even though we know they are acting.
This marvellous ability, which is also present in other animals, has been developed by human beings to its greatest extent. And now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are barely starting to understand how it functions. The explanation has been found in the so-called MIRROR NEURONS. These neurons reflect in us the feelings that we perceive in other people and they make us experience them. Mirror neurons constantly analyse the emotional expressions of those around us, what they say and how they say things… it is these neurons that read between the lines and interpret. Furthermore, we now know that mirror neurons are even able of interpreting other people’s intentions and of anticipating. “I knew you were going to say that…” is a phrase we can utter thanks to our mirror neurons.
Now that we all know that teenagers can develop all sorts of feelings independently from the channel of communication they use, we should perhaps split hairs and reformulate the original question:
Are we able of “creating” feelings within ourselves?
Can what we feel at a certain moment be artificial? Do we sometimes feel something because we want to feel it? Of course, we are able of creating and developing feelings, provoking them or not, on purpose or not, trying to do so or not… We are constantly doing this. The truly difficult thing to do is NOT to feel anything.
Having said that, let’s point out that the coherence and duration of feelings will depend on the quantity and quality of the factors involved. The feelings that arise between two people on the Internet are just as real as the ones that arise through letters, on the phone or through any other means of communication that will allow two people to communicate and get to know each other. But, in the end, the coherence and duration of these feelings will depend on the influence of the remaining factors that require a physical presence.
The truth is that, as long as the physical presence is lacking, our brain will fill in the information gaps that may exist. The brain will immediately invent the missing data. Our mind creates an image of every person we bump into on the Internet. This may be a risk if one creates a deceptive image or an image that is very different from reality. But, be it in the short or in the medium term, everything ends up being scrutinized by the filter of “offline” experience and personal contact, where the importance of non verbal language, body language, gestures, looks, smells, the tone of voice, the laughter and all the factors of what is commonly called “chemistry” will come into play. And this is relevant both to a love relationship and to a friendship. At work, for example, we constantly relate to people we have only met by e-mail: customers, suppliers, colleagues from other offices… researchers, people with similar concerns… And it is only when we meet them face to face for the first time, when we talk and listen to them, and when we observe and analyse them, that we discover how well we get along with them… or right the opposite, that we don’t get a good feeling from them. After the first face-to-face contact, the brain reorganises all the information, the first impressions and many other things.
We may be tempted to state that the feelings that are generated or nurtured by letter, on the phone or on the Internet are “of lower quality”, “less lasting” or “less natural”… but the truth is that there is no evidence of such a thing. They are just feelings that will last for a short time or a long time. Whether these feelings become stronger or not does not depend on the Internet, but on the people involved. Whether they will last or not depends on whether they are nourished or not – just like in offline relationships.
In conclusion, the feelings developed by minors while using the Internet do not depend on the Internet. Those feelings appear inside them and are 100% real from the very moment they start feeling them. The success, the quality and the duration of the relationships they initiate do not depend on the Internet, the telephone or the paper either – all those aspects of their relationships will depend on them.