Future Style: The Growth of Geek Chic; Is Spending Hours Pushing Buttons in Front of a Screen Cause for Concern? and What Does It Spell for the Art of Conversation in the Future? Lesley Richardson Steps into Cyber Space to Explore the Implications of This Brave New Technical Age on Human Communication

Article excerpt

Byline: Lesley Richardson

Spending hours in front of a computer screen, surfing the internet or zapping imaginary monsters on laptop computers is becoming an important part of daily life for millions.

As computer chic replaces the old image of computer geek, increasing numbers of people are turning to the cyber world for entertainment, finding relationships and easy ways of interacting.

In fact, according to figures from the European Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA), demand for software and consoles increased by 36 per cent from the year 2000 to 2001, making the UK the third largest market in the world for computer games.

The home-grown software industry is also thriving with exports exceeding those for both British film and television.

And surfing the net is booming in popularity, with research showing almost half of all home internet users are online for between one and five hours a week.

But is text messaging every second or email mania simply a fast and cheap way of staying in touch? Or is spending hours pushing buttons in front of a screen cause for concern?

Pam Briggs, chair in applied cognitive psychology at the University of Northumbria, says: 'That depends on the circumstances. Some people use the internet and email solely as an add on to normal communication.

'But a smaller proportion who find it more difficult to communicate when face-to-face try and replace their social lives with the internet.'

Pam Briggs quotes an American study which showed those who over-use the internet at home - logging on for over five hours a week - were more likely to experience depression and feelings of isolation than less frequent web surfers.

She believes this is because online relationships do not offer the same level of social support as face to face contact.

'Some people argue that internet relationships form weaker ties and by solely relying on them you will feel more isolated in society,' she says.

'It is a text-based relationship so they can't give you a hug when you feel down. You're not doing things with friends but in a room on your own engaged in these relationships.'

And Adam Joinson, psychologist at the Open University, agrees: 'For people who have problems making friends they might use the internet to compensate for their lack of social life, but this will not help them interact with people in real life. However, if you use the internet to research local groups or projects then it is a great way to get involved with real life and meet like-minded people.'

He also mentions the popularity of sites like www.friendsreunited.co.uk as evidence of how the internet can put long-lost schoolfriends or relatives back in touch or even encourage new ties with people.

But the way people interact in cyber space differs greatly from face-to-face communication. …