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COLUMN

Manti Te'o needs a good shrink, and so do the rest of us

When imaginary girlfriends become 'normal,' society has more problems than it thinks

Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - 5:46 pm

The month I left Fort Wayne for Ball State University, my long-distance bill exceeded $50. That was real money in 1973, but I'd been dating the same girl for more than a year and if we couldn't be together, well, it seemed like a small price to pay for hearing her voice almost every day.

Especially since Dad had to write the check.

Today, so far as I can tell, many young lovers are content with inherently generic text messages -- or supposedly deep relationships with “girlfriends” they've never held or even met.

Is that willing loss of human contact inevitable and perhaps even normal, given the increasingly ubiquitous nature of the Internet and the social media it has spawned? You might think so in the wake of revelations that Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o was allegedly duped into an online relationship so passionate that he mourned the non-existent woman's untimely demise on national TV.

Some commentators have questioned whether Te'o was a willing participant in the hoax for reasons still unknown. Others have pointed out that “catfishing” – the creation of bogus Internet personas – has become so common that it is now (notice the irony) the subject of its own “reality” show.

But where is the alarm over the psychosis reflected by an attractive and seemingly intelligent, well-adjusted, mature college student's relationship with an imaginary girlfriend whose “death” supposedly coincided with that of his real-life grandmother? And doesn't that lack of alarm represent its own form of mass psychosis?

Several teenaged girls were seated in front of me at a sporting event recently, each of them constantly texting on their “smart phones.” I don't know what they were doing, but I do know they weren't talking to each other – or watching the game. They were off in their own virtual worlds, each with its own version of reality.

I'm not the only one who finds this alarming. Long before Te'o's ordeal compelled me to question his sanity and ours, a few discerning souls were urging caution where social media are concerned. Facebook, for example – which has about 500 million users daily – has been linked in several studies to a variety of problems, including eating disorders, low self-esteem and narcissism, paranoia, stress and, of course, all sorts of addiction.

Why go out and work to make real friends, one-by-one, when you can sit home in the dark and attract hundreds or thousands online simply by embellishing or reinventing the truth?

Moderation is the key, of course, and people maintaining a healthy degree of caution and real-world awareness have little to fear. As with all tools – including guns -- the Internet can be both blessing and curse, depending on the character, maturity and wisdom of those using it.

Unfortunately, society has shown itself increasingly willing to suspend disbelief when confronted with behavior that would have been deemed incredulous not that long ago.

Former Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa – who hit 609 home runs but this month received just 12.5 percent of the vote for the Hall of Fame because he is widely suspected of having used performance-enhancing drugs – nevertheless called himself and other similarly tainted players “winners.”

That was about the time he posted a glitzy self-promoting page on Pinterest (a photo-driven social network site) one critic said appeared to have been staged in a “fake house that was constructed inside a warehouse.”

And two years before this month's interview in which cyclist lance Armstrong told Oprah Winfrey that he had indeed cheated to win numerous titles, the National Catholic Reporter noted that opening up to Oprah and other TV hosts had replaced the traditional notion of private confession and penance for sins before priest and God.

“In America today, confession is best done in public,” the Reporter concluded: “Shame is gone, replaced by more therapeutic bywords like 'closure' and 'catharsis.' ”

Te'o, by sheer coincidence, will tell his story on TV on Thursday. At least he's ecumenical, talking to the Rev. Katie Couric instead of High Priestess Oprah.

But as the reporting of this story proves, this syndrome can infect even those who don't own a computer. As a journalist, I prefer to generate unique stories by interviewing people face-to-face. That allows me to consider not only what they say but how they say it. Are they afraid to look me in the eye? Do they seem evasive? Is there sincerity in their voice? What is their body language?

That puts me in an ever-shrinking minority in a profession increasingly dependent on news releases and web sites. But then, I also prefer a whisper to a website, a touch to a tweet, a scent to a ring tone and the warmth of an embrace to the coldness of cyberspace.

Does that make me old-fashioned or just old? I must confess: I'm good with it, either way.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.