Sanctuary for the Abused

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Internet and Cybersex Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, Effects and Treatment



The term “addiction” used to be exclusive to chemicals such as alcohol, drugs, or nicotine. With recent research on the brain and its processes, we now understand that many behaviors can become as chemically addictive as a substance. Extreme overuse of the Internet is such an addiction.

Internet Addiction Disorder
Like all other addictions, Internet Addiction Disorder is a psychophysiological disorder involving:

tolerance (the same amount of usage elicits less response; increased amounts become necessary to evoke the same amount of pleasure)

withdrawal symptoms (especially, tremors, anxiety, and moodiness)

affective disturbances (depression, irritability)

interruption of social relationships (a decline or loss, either in quality or quantity).

What are the signs, symptoms and patterns of Internet addiction?
At this time, there is no official diagnosis of Internet Addiction Disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, which defines mental health disorders and establishes criteria to be used by mental health professionals. However, since the patterns so closely match those of Pathological Gambling (which was included in the most recent update of the diagnostic manual), many in the addiction field expect Internet Addiction to be added to the next edition. If it is included, it is likely to require that a person meet three or more of criteria such as these during a twelve month period:

The need for increasing amounts of time on the Internet to achieve satisfaction and/or significantly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of time on the Internet.

Use of the Internet as a way of escaping problems or relieving feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression.

Feelings of restlessness or irritability when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use.

Lying to family members or friends to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet.

Giving up or reducing important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of Internet use.

Risking the loss of a significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of excessive use of the Internet.

Two or more withdrawal symptoms developing within days to one month after
reduction or cessation of Internet use (i.e., quitting cold turkey), which cause distress or impair social, personal or occupational functioning, including: tremors, anxiety, and voluntary or involuntary typing movements of the fingers.

Use of the Internet to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

What causes or precipitates Internet addiction?
While it may appear that addictions are pleasure-seeking behaviors, the roots of any addiction can usually be traced to a wish to suppress or avoid some kind of emotional pain. Addiction is a way to escape from reality, from something that is either too full of sadness (such as an abusive relationship) or too devoid of joy (an emotionally empty life). Emotional trauma in early life may be at the source of many addictions.

Internet addiction offers a fantasy world in which there are endless people who appear to be interesting to—and interested in—the person. Young, sexually inexperienced people, especially males, may find it easier to engage in Internet “relationships” than risk the face-to-face rejection of a real person. As the addict becomes more immersed in this shadow world, denial takes hold and he or she comes to view these these “friends” and “partners” as more real than the actual spouse or family.

What is cybersex addiction?
Until recently, men dominated the overall use of the Net but women are now online more than men. Both men and women use the Internet for "cybering" (cybersex). Cybersex is defined as the consensual sexual discussion online for the purpose of achieving arousal or an orgasm.

In addition to viewing and/or downloading pornography along with masturbation, Dr. Jennifer Schneider says that cybersex activities also include:

reading and writing sexually explicit letters and stories

visiting sexually oriented chat rooms

placing ads to meet sexual partners

e-mailing to set up personal meetings with someone

engaging in interactive online affairs sometimes using electronic cameras for real-time viewing of each other

While some people will eventually move away from the Internet back to the real world, others will escalate their involvement, arranging meetings with online contacts for in-person sex. For some, this increased danger in real life grows out of viewing dangerous content online, what Dr. Michael Conner calls “danger downloading.” Often, their cyber screen names reflect this view toward risky behavior.

What are the effects of Internet addiction?
Like most addictions, Internet addiction disrupts relationships with family and friends and tends to replace education and other positive activities. A spouse or partner who discovers this behavior usually feels “cheated on,” as real a betrayal as any infidelity, and one that can lead to a break-up. In addition, Internet addiction creates risks and losses in the workplace. For example:

Nearly 55% of workers exchange potentially offensive messages at least once a month (PC Week).

Personal e-mails – 47% of employees send up to 5 per day, 32% send up to 10 daily, and 28% receive up to 20 per day (Vault.com).

Almost one in five people go to cybersex sites while at work (MSNBC poll, June '98). 68% of companies characterize messaging misdemeanors as widespread, with losses estimated at $3.7 million per company a year (Datamation).

Recently a major US computer manufacturer installed monitoring software and discovered that a number of employees had visited more then 1,000 sexually oriented sites in less than a month. Twenty people were fired for misusing company resources (USA Today).

Can you break addiction to the Internet?
Treatment for people who have been diagnosed with Internet addiction is very hard to find:

Not all psychologists or physicians acknowledge that the disorder is real.

Many psychologists do not know how to diagnose, treat, and follow-up for these patients.

Spouses or other family members who become aware of the addiction may try to intervene.

Just as an alcoholic’s spouse or child may pour contents of bottles down the drain, the Internet addict’s family may try to monitor computer use, put blocks on chat rooms, or make frequent calls to the person to interrupt computer activity. While these interventions may have brief effect, the only lasting change will occur when the addict fully realizes the costs being paid for his or her behavior: loss of family, job, money, etc.

Treatment alternatives include:
quitting “cold turkey” – can work for some, but is particularly difficult for people who work in a job where computer use is a requirement

12-step group programs developed from the Eating Disorder model to help participants gradually reduce the addictive behavior

other methods analogous to the treatment of alcohol or drug addictions

Psychotherapy with an addiction specialist
professional counselors offering chat and telephone counseling at reasonable rates to provide immediate assistance for individuals, partners, and parents in crisis

Clinics specializing in treatment of computer/Internet addiction, such as those at Proctor Hospital in Peoria, IL and at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA.

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