A new face in cyberspace

Feb. 9, 2011, 11:28 a.m. | By Stella Bartholet | 9 years, 7 months ago

Scrat is everything a 14-year-old girl might want to be. She's positive and understanding, always listening patiently to others' problems. Scrat always knows the right things to say at the right time. In a sense, she is perfect - except that Scrat isn't exactly human. She is the alternate online personality of freshman Tammy Sidel.

According to psychologist Danille Drake, based in Bethesda, creating Internet identities has become increasingly popular among teenagers. The high school years are a period of exploration, as well as angst - a time for students to examine who they are and find their place in the world, she says. Teenagers become different characters online in order to have fun, express their opinions anonymously and escape real-life pressures.

According to Drake, however, students must be careful not to spend too much time in the virtual world. The hobby can become more than just an interest, she says, and it's easy to get caught up in the fantasy and neglect reality.

'A clean slate'

When Sidel logs on to her FanFiction.net account, she is not just playing a role. She actually begins to think like a different person. "It feels like there is one mind that acts like myself and one other mind that acts like [Scrat]. It switches as I switch between browsers," she says.
Sidel began socializing on the Internet in July 2008, more than a year before she created Scrat. She decided to make an account with the web site FanFiction.net after she learned about the site from a friend at camp.

The web site is a forum where users can write their own fantasy stories, read other people's tales and discuss fiction books. At first, Sidel joined to publish her own stories for other users to read. But the appeal became even stronger after she created Scrat.

Sidel conceived the new character as a way to escape a social predicament. She had befriended a few users on FanFiction.net, but acted insensitively towards them, she says, not paying attention to their feelings. After taunting her newfound friends, Sidel realized they no longer liked her.

In order to reestablish their friendship, she created a new profile with a different name and personality, without revealing the true identity behind the account. "I started Scrat to create a new person, so I had a clean slate," says Sidel. And Scrat has stuck ever since.

Sidel has continued to use Scrat's profile because she feels more accepted as her alternate identity than as herself. According to Sidel, Scrat is a really "huggable" person who is approachable and sensitive to other people's feelings. Sidel describes herself as being more self-centered and short tempered. In her view, Scrat is a character without any imperfections and is someone she aims to be. "I don't fit in and Scrat does fit in," she says.

Junior Daniel Smith decided to create his online identity for different reasons, but has continued to use it because of the attention he receives on the Internet. In November 2010 he was looking for videos online when he came across Livestream.com, which was different from any other web site he had ever encountered. Smith could enter chatrooms about specific topics and contribute to conversations anonymously.

He found that people responded to his comments, and that his contributions were important to the discussions, which made him feel appreciated. "They listen to my opinions more on the Internet," he says. "For some reason, they happen to matter more there."

Smith decided to create a fake name so that people couldn't him track down, but he also found it easier to relate to people under this different identity. When Smith becomes 18-year-old Afroleus, he acts more outgoing and helpful so that more people can relate to him. In real life, Smith says, he tends to be shy. "I think if I kept my personality the same [online], I wouldn't really stand out as much," he says.

Comfortable, confident and covert

Smith finds comfort in being heard, but he also just has fun ignoring reality for a few hours and taking a break from his normal routine. He enjoys the social aspect of the online community.

According to Smith, his alternate identity helps to diminish one of his inner struggles: The feeling that no one is there for him. "I'm trying to escape from a kind of loneliness," he says.

According to Bethsda-based psychologist Edward Spector, it's not uncommon for students to want to leave worries behind - school stress, social anxiety, family issues - and enter into a world where they have more control. He says that many people utilize the media and online games as a coping mechanism. "I think people in general take on a virtual life, whether that's playing video games or whether it's a Facebook page, to cope with the stress of real life problems," he says.

But Smith thinks the appeal of the virtual world is more complex than leaving worries behind. He concedes that he does like to use the Internet as an escape, but he also just likes to be able to express his true views anonymously. This allows Smith to be himself to a fuller extent, since he doesn't have to limit his opinions. He is more comfortable expressing his viewpoints online, where people don't make broad assumptions about him, since they don't know the person behind the username well. "Strangers, they don't know what you are going to say until you say it. It's really a whole new type of dimension when you are talking to strangers," he says.

Smith feels misunderstood in the real world because he tends to relate to women better. "The topics that I generally talk about are more feminine because I usually connect more with females, and as a result I have more feminine outlooks," he says. "My new character allows me more confidence, a lot more confidence than if I were talking as myself with strangers I didn't know."

Smith, who is heterosexual, has been labeled as gay multiple times in person. But online, people don't make assumptions about his sexuality. He feels misinterpreted in person, whereas on Livestream.com people understand his personality and viewpoints.

Even if Smith does get offended or ignored online, he finds it easier to move on. "In person, it hurts a lot more than on the Internet, where you can brush it off and keep on going," he says.

Back to reality

Unlike Smith, who has an online identity in order to feel more comfortable expressing himself, Sidel uses Scrat to change her personality so that she can feel accepted. "It gets to a point where I'd rather be her than myself, because she is a lot more of a likable person," she says.

According to Drake, becoming too attached to an online identity can lead to unhealthy consequences. She says that teenagers need to be able to moderate the amount of time they spend online as their alternate ego. "It can lead to the direction of taking over so much time that the kid doesn't have enough time to experiment in the real world," she says. "Kids have to have the opportunity to experience those challenges."

Spector says that a healthy amount of time varies with each child's ability to still actively participate in other activities, but that two hours a day seems like a good estimate of the maximum. Smith and Sidel spend different amounts of time as their alternate identities. Smith typically participates in chatrooms three to four hours a month, whereas Sidel uses Fanfiction.net on an average of two hours a day.

Sidel acknowledges that Scrat interferes with her life, however, she has started to make a change. "The problem was that as Scrat stayed on the forums for longer and longer and started becoming more developed, she became an actual person," she says. "It began blurring the line between reality and fantasy." Now that she is aware of the consequences, Sidel has accepted the fact that Scrat isn't real. "I am much healthier now that I realize that Scrat doesn't actually exist, and that it's not healthy," she says.

Sidel also understands now that these users on FanFiction.net aren't her true friends. "Eventually I just realized that if I have to create a kind of identity to be friends with them they aren't really my friends," she says.

Even though Sidel continues to spend time on FanFiction.net, she is beginning act more like Scrat in person. Her goal is to better relate to people offline, and spend less time as her alternate persona online. Creating Scrat on the Internet has helped Sidel discover the kind of person she wants to be in the real world.

The line between fantasy and reality is no longer blurred.

Stella Bartholet. More »

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