Internet Addiction & Cyber Sex

"People go on-line looking for something missing in their life or they become involved in content and relationships on-line that begin to interfere with important routines, responsibilities and relationships. Making a conscious effort and commitment to a balanced life in crucial..."

Revised: May 21, 2014

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D

When your computer says "You�ve Got Mail!" try telling yourself, "I Don�t Care."

Over 130,000,000 Americans are on-line. About 46,000 more people are getting on-line each day. Use of the Internet (also called the Net) has grown faster than any technology in history including the telephone, television, computers, video games and CD players. The Net provides everyday users with access to the Web, e-mail, instant messaging, movies, radio, live chat and the ability to purchase goods, services and even therapy on-line.

How could anything that feels so safe and innocent looking be unhealthy for so many people? Feeling good and not realizing the problem is precisely the problem. People can go anywhere, see almost anything, find out virtually anything, do anything and be anybody they want. They act out in ways that are exciting and they can do without leaving their chair or being with a real person. Accountability, supervision and social consequences are missing in a virtual society.

Women are now on-line more than men. More than one half of the people on-line lie about their age, weight, job, marital status and gender. At least 20% of the people going on-line will experience clear negative impacts to their life. Use of the Internet is now a contributing factor in nearly 50% of all relationship and family problems. An estimated 11% of the people going on-line are becoming compulsive or addicted.

Nearly 20% of the people going on-line will encounter one or more of the following problems.

  • Personal neglect
  • Compulsive checking and "clicking"
  • Isolation and avoidance from people
  • Lost productivity
  • Depression
  • Marital problems
  • Sexual addiction
  • Gambling away savings.
  • Internet abuse in the workplace
  • Academic failure.

Using the Net is not a problem if you are on-line less than two hours a week. Heavy users are "at risk" if they are plugged more than 18 hours a week. A compulsive and potentially addicted user is on-line more than 10 hours a day in non-work related activity. You may be addicted if you answer yes to the following questions.

  1. Do you feel better when you are on-line, chatting, or exploring the Net?
  2. Are you or have you been spending more and more time on-line?
  3. Are you on-line when you should being doing something else?
  4. Have you tried to cut back and don�t?

Once on the Internet, a user can go anywhere and see almost anything without social consequences or anyone knowing. That�s entertainment! But for some, the Internet is a fostering uninhibited social and sexual behavior. Many children and adults are becoming uninhibited, dishonest or secretive on the Net.

The Internet is now a contributing factor to nearly one half of all marital or family problems. In many cases, relationships are breaking down when a men or woman develops a relationship in cyber society. Children are becoming less involved with real peer groups. High levels of Internet use will often produce social isolation, loss of real intimacy and depression.

The Internet is not only cutting into social and family time but it is also cutting into work. For some employees the Internet is just part of the job. But up to 70% of employees who have high speed Internet access at work can spend up 1 hour a day involved in non-work related activities.

Anyone with children has seen how children can watch television for countless hours. Children and even adults watching television long enough will enter a "hypnotic trance." They "meld" into the television and disconnect from reality. Prolonged on-line chats and mouse clicking on the Internet will produce what psychologist call a dissociative state. Net users separate from reality and enter cyber reality.

Psychologists explain the seduction and addictive nature of the Net primarily in terms of a behavior modification process called a variable reinforcement schedule. That means you don�t know how much of a reward you will get and when for your behavior. A variable reinforcement schedule is the most addictive reward system. Slot machines are designed and operate in the same principle.

When you keep playing a slot machine, the odds are that you will eventually loose everything. But the human brain loves the possibilities and excitement of "winning" in the moment and it ignores the long term consequences. The occasional win doesn�t make up for the overall loss. People play anyway because the occasional win is highly rewarding for those who play long enough. Some people can walk away and stay away. Other can�t walk away or they always come back.

The Internet is also more addictive than a slot machine � especially once they begin to master the technology. Playing on the Net can give you self-confidence. A slot machine doesn�t. The most common rewards from a slot machine are those curious noises, spinning pictures and flashing lights. Once in a while a person wins some money.

Without question, a cable modem is more addictive than a slower dial-up modem. Most people had no patience for the Internet when they had a dial up modem. The rewards were slow and boring. People with high speed modems are now disappearing into a world where they wait anxiously for the rapidly appearing result of the next click. The surprise, shock value and speed in which a person gets these "hits" of information and imagery are the key to creating a compulsion and addiction. Time begins to have no meaning when your next "hit" is just a "click" away.

More than a slot machine, everything on the Internet is an adventure with social opportunities. It can be mildly or tremendously exhilarating. Every improvement in your skills, including upgrades in software, and your access to new and exciting links can produces a mind altering change in your brain chemistry. The most powerful change is called a dopamine rush. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that controls brain function including decision making, impulsiveness, and it is released when you experience certain stimulation. Internet used increases dopamine and can produce a feeling of pleasure as you become more and more isolated. And dopamine plays a central role in creating addictions.

"Have you have had sex with someone that you have not had sex with in person?"

Cybering", or sex on the Internet, is defined as the consensual sexual discussion on-line for the purpose of achieving arousal or an orgasm. People involved in cyber sex universally minimize the importance and impact of their behavior. They say "It was just on-line" or "It�s not real sex." Patients are telling counselors and therapists that having cyber sex with an adult is not an affair (assuming it really was an adult and not a teenage boy).

What changes people most is their access to sexual content. People would never have access to such a wide range of sexually explicit material without the Internet. The biggest "rushes" for the severe addicts come from violent sexual cruelties that are available on-line. People tell themselves they can just click and look for a second, but they don�t realize that the trauma and stimulating effects are addictive. The most addictive content is the most shocking that changes your mood quickly.

A quick look at graphic violence is a "rush" even if you find it offensive. Normal people can become addicted to disgusting content not because they approve but because it changes and excites their mood. And for some people, a painful or disgusting fantasy is preferable to a less painful reality.

Some sexually addicted users will eventually seek out people for real sex instead of cyber sex. A "danger downloader" is someone who views content that eventually creates a compulsion to explore potentially dangerous behavior in real life. "Danger downloaders" actually go out to fulfill their sexual fantasies with real people who have cyber names like "Slave Master".

People argue that the Internet saves time, but most people are merely spending more time learning how to save less and less time. The end result is that home users are loosing track of time and spending countless hours mastering and playing around with a technology that accomplishes nothing, results in purchases and generates no income. Families end up getting behind on work, chores, child care and spending time with real people. More and more web sites are structured to get you there, keep you there, expose you to advertising and get you to spend money.

There are impacts on developing children. Nearly 1 out 5 children who are on-line regularly are approached to have sex. Shy boys and girls in large school are especially vulnerable to having problems. Small schools appear to have a lower incidence of teenage Internet addiction. Shy kids in large schools are withdrawing into their rooms at home. Some kids are becoming withdrawn, disturbed and impatient. Other teenagers prefer the cyber world and become infuriated and lonely in the real world.

Advice For Parents and Adults

Consider the following questions before you allow your child to be involved with the internet for more than a hour a day

  • Would you let your child go anywhere and spend time with anyone they wanted?

  • Do you want your child working on homework, playing music or shooting baskets with potential friends?

  • Do you want your child spending 2 to 4 hours a day on the Internet playing games, looking at pictures, talking with strange people in chat rooms or visiting a "private bedroom" while they pretend to be an adult?

  • Would you let your husband go over to the house of a woman you don�t know and spend hours talking about love, sex, his dreams, his frustration and the difficulty raising your children while he lies about his marital status?

  • Do you want to meet people on-line when you know that most of that relationship is based on a lie?

  • Do you want to work at building a real friendship that could last a lifetime?

  • Would you let your child go to the library if a pornography shop was in the back and no adults were watching? Or worse yet, would you let your child go into a pornography shop where adults were watching?

The Internet has been designed to be visible and accessible. At present, there is no way to effectively prevent access to inappropriate content nor is there a reliable way to restrict activity. What methods exist can be circumvented by clever children and adults. Fortunately there are a number of ways to control Internet use.

Businesses have developed the technology to monitor employee Internet use in the work place. Employees are less likely to abuse this resource if they know it is being monitored. Human accountability and social consequences are a major deterrent.

Another way to create accountability is to place a computer in a public place. Visibility creates social pressure and consequences for actions. People are less likely to view socially objectionable material in public. Signs of compulsive behavior will become apparent to friends, peers or family members when Internet use is public.

While business has adopted technology to monitor employee use, families do not yet have ready access to such software. There is software to load onto your computer and to your Internet services provider that can monitor and let parents and adults know how their computer is being used.

Psychological and even physical safety are real concerns since children are connecting to all the information on the planet. Very few parents would not let their child go anywhere anytime and speak to anyone. Likewise, parents should not allow their child to go on-line unless they know where they are going and who they will be with. Leaving a child alone in their room with access to the world is a risky decision.

You can�t allow yourself to become Internet ignorant if you care about your relationships or family. You need to know what your employees at work and family members are doing. What adults do in their free time is their business. What you employees and children do is another matter. Children under the age of 16 are not ready to drive a car and they are not capable of resisting or understanding the dangers of being on the Internet. Monitoring and supervision are essential.

Finally, prevention is more likely to be assured if you maintain balance in your life. People go on-line looking for something missing in their life or they become involved in content and relationships on-line that begin to interfere with important routines, responsibilities and relationships. Making a conscious effort and commitment to a balanced life in crucial.

There is no doubt that the Internet is becoming a substitute for a physically active life. Psychologists agree than most things in life that have value require effort to accomplish. The Internet is a tool, but not a life. The Internet is a technological challenge, but it is not a real life challenge. It provides user with a sense of mastery in a machine world but not society, work, school or a relationship.

Copyright 2001, Michael G. Conner