The news that a couple has split up because the man was having an affair with someone else playing Second Life - not that they'd met, you understand, they were having this online thing - and the wife wants a real-life divorce is no great surprise. They first met online, they flattered themselves with avatars (the Times report is here) - frankly it's an odd set-up overall.
What concerns me is that some people I know have done the same thing. And they're not misfits, they're not hiding themselves in a virtual world (or if they are then it's not to flatter themselves, they're quite attractive people). Thing is, they hit a rough patch. I've known rough patches in marriage - my wife and I have been together for 16 years - but normally you'd ride them out, work at it, compromise and hopefully get over it. The people I'm talking about - well, the husband decided he'd met someone else in Second Life. He didn't hit it off with her in real life but nonetheless the marriage collapsed, at least partly because he was using SL as an alternative to facing stuff that needed facing.
To me, this is where IT can be a great diversion but it can also be a menace if you use it as a cover for something else that needs addressing. And it's not just second life. How many people have recorded falling out because of a misunderstood email, or because someone put something on a website that was less than flattering? Enough has been written about how we miscommunicate through email because of an absence of body language, verbal nuance and other niceties (here it is again from Rider University if you're not sure) for me not to have to go through much of it again, but the couple splitting up make me think this is the same thing in a different context.
So what do we do about it? It's here that the IT community in business might hold the key. Business has done great things with IT. It has pressured the education system internationally so that everyone (more or less) leaves school in the developed world knowing how to operate a PC, which end of a mouse is which and soforth.
Maybe it's time to start educating them about the social and psychological side as well. When I was at school in the 1970s we learned about reproduction. We learned purely about the mechanical, physical side. The next generation in the 1980s found that schools were bringing in stuff about relationships, about the consequences of reproducing, about responsibilities. It's a tenuous comparison but maybe we should start to take it for granted that people will know about the mechanics of computing, how to take part in SL or whatever, and start educating them a little about boundaries, e-mail etiquette, the long-term consequences of being auditable over the Internet.
Or we could just take a load of these people to one side and say 'It's a game, bozos," until they believe it.