A new Web site called Chatroulettehas debuted. The site randomly pairs web cam "chatters," putting a user face-to-face with any one of tens of thousands of users around the world. If you don't warm to the stranger you're paired with you just click a tab, and another stranger appears.
One obvious problem with this is that it is a paradise for predators who can go hunting for young or naive users who might have the bad judgment to identify themselves and make contact off the sit. Another is that children or adolescents who hear of the site and decide to try it out can be randomly paired (if only in the online environment) with the many naked men or women using the site who are touching themselves erotically in front of their cameras.
The more subtle and perhaps even more damaging consequence of the site is that it reduces human relationships to anonymous, quick, sometimes intense, sometimes sexual, sometimes meaningless interactions. It is another instance of the Internet chronically, continually training us to think that what should be complex and textured interpersonal connections are really nothing more than channel surfing. It encourages us to treat others and ourselves as mini-reality shows, not as individuals. A user can click through hundreds of people in one visit to Chatroulette, and the brain is constantly assimilating the toxic lessons: If you want to move on, just move on. If you like what you see, linger. You can always shut the other person down. You can reveal anything you want to another human being and still stay strangers. No connection need be more permanent than your finger tapping a computer mouse.
No wonder rates of attention deficit disorder are skyrocketing. No wonder a large percentage of young people are hobbled by narcissism and think they are the stars of their own celluloid or "pixeled" lives. No wonder so many now think that sexual interactions aren't necessarily ones that should relate to emotional bonding.
We are passively allowing technology to strip away the insulation of our humanity and leave us like exposed wires--neural circuits that spark with exciting imagery and focus only so long as the scenery is ever-changing and full of intrigue.
There is a real possibility that Chatroulette and its offspring (which will not be long in coming) will lead to assaults and kidnappings and murder and the rest. But those events, though dramatic and tragic, will be few and far between. The much greater carnage will be the quiet destruction of that prized interpersonal alchemy called the human relationship. It is based on empathy and a sense that one is dealing always with a feeling, sentient being worthy of respect. We are at the leading edge of absorbing extremely toxic messages that say the opposite-that people are disposable, that they are anonymous, that they are mostly valuable for their ability to grab attention and hold it, if only for a minute or two.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be emailed at email@example.com.