Psychologists Teach Us How To Separate The Digital You From The Real You

How we use the internet reveals a lot about our offline lives and how we can live better.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 9, 2022

Over sixty percent of the world's population regularly uses the internet to create, share, and consume media and knowledge. It is transforming our lives in ways we are just beginning to understand.

With a large number of us now spending so much time online, researchers in the field of psychology have turned their focus to understanding what our internet behavior says about our true nature.

Here are four science-backed findings that teach us how to use the internet for self-betterment, not self-detriment.

#1. If you are feeling blue, don't look at your social media

Social media offers a quick fix for our psychological and social needs. But what happens when the likes and comments don't come?

According to a study led by psychologist Maria Carmen Herrera of the University of Granada, published in the Journal of Psychology, social media has a lasting effect on identity formation in adolescents.

The study found that adolescents, not surprisingly, place a great deal of importance on social comparison and social reinforcement-seeking — and that negative emotions resulting from a lack of online validation can have consequences that stay with adolescents well into adulthood.

"Intensive use of social media sites has been associated with increased body image concerns, self-objectification, social comparison, envy, as well as the likelihood of suffering from and engaging in cyberbullying," says Herrera.

So, if you've been feeling low lately, it might be worth taking a step back and examining your relationship with social media.

#2. Internet use and loneliness can combine to form a vicious cycle

All too often we find ourselves resorting to the internet to replace our need for social interaction. It is easier than going out and meeting people. But recent research published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that this is a futile attempt at increasing social interaction and, in most cases, only leads to a vicious cycle of loneliness.

"It seems that any potential vicious cycle linking problematic internet use and loneliness starts with excessive internet use, which then increases loneliness because of withdrawal from face-to-face interactions," says Tania Moretta, a psychologist at the University of Padova in Italy.

Problematic internet use can be characterized by poor emotional regulation and also a decreased ability to respond flexibly to life's challenges. If you find yourself unable to control your internet use or craving the internet in situations where you are unable to find access to it, Moretta recommends not ignoring it. It is best to seek help from a mental health professional.

#3. Excessive internet use could be an indicator of a pathology

In the same study, Moretta also found evidence that individuals who reported being addicted to the internet also scored high on an obsessive-compulsive questionnaire.

When internet use causes distress and/or interferes with normal life functioning, it is likely to be diagnosed as internet use disorder. Similarities between internet-related problematic behaviors and addictive behaviors, especially in their psycho-physiological mechanisms, have been found.

"Findings suggest that internet use disorder may be characterized by a pattern of symptoms resulting from a disturbance of networks and mechanisms underlying anxiety/mood disorders and OCD," explains Moretta.

#4. Using the internet can stave off age-related cognitive decline

It's not all gloom and doom on the internet-use front. One study conducted by Ted Schwaba of the University of Texas at Austin, published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, revealed that internet use among older adults was associated with higher cognitive engagement scores.

"Cognitive engagement is about what you do, and how you do it (exploring, learning, wondering, and questioning)," says Schwaba. "People who keep broadening their horizons even in older age tend to be people who live longer and more meaningful lives. That's certainly something to strive for on a day-to-day basis."

It is important to note, however, that internet use among older adults is often plagued by the same issues that befall young people.

When asked how one can maximize the benefits of internet use while minimizing its harmful effects, Schwaba puts the onus on tech companies.

"I think it's really on companies like Google and Facebook to do a better job of designing their websites in ways that maximize human well-being, rather than profits," says Schwaba.

Another recommendation that comes from Schwaba's research is to avoid getting dragged into arguments with strangers on the internet, which serve no purpose other than to spread misinformation and destroy your mental peace.


The internet is more than just a trove of information about the external world. It can also tell us a lot about ourselves. Whether you are young or old, the internet is built to keep you learning, engaged, and connected.

It would benefit us to see the internet for what it really is: a tool to connect and engage with real human beings sitting behind their screens. A change in perspective will go a long way in establishing a more productive and fulfilling relationship with the internet.