In a TIME magazine article published Monday, May 12th, Kristna Dell reports on the impact that the use of online Avatars (personal characters created by users) can have on the real world behavior of those using the Avatars.
This is more than just a curiosity or social oddity. Second Life, a highly popular virtual world on the internet which uses Avatars, has over 13 million registered users. The Second Life virtual world has shopping districts, distinct neighborhoods, parks, beaches, clubs, etc. Where previously there was concern that individuals would get lost in online chat rooms, Second Life, or other such virtual worlds provide not just a chat "room", but a complete virtual world.
World of Warcraft, which is a war game played in a virtual world, while not using Avatars also provides opportunity for individuals to lead virtual lives online. World of Warcraft has over 10 million subscribers.
Although the TIME article points out that in an appropriate therapy setting these virtual worlds might actually aid patients, it would seem that for many no real benefit is being gained. Conversely, what may be lost is not only time, but real world associations and perhaps even portions of an individuals real world personality.