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Sexually Related Uses of the Internet
Before any examination of the addictiveness potential of the Internet and its relationship to sex addiction, Griffiths (2000a) has argued that the first step is to examine all the different ways that the Internet can be used for sexually related purposes. The reasoning behind this is that only some of these activities may be done to excess and/or be potentially addictive. Griffiths (2000a) goes on to outline that the Internet can (and has) been used for a number of diverse activities surrounding sexually motivated behavior. These include the use of the Internet for seeking out sexually related material for educational use, buying or selling sexually related goods for further use offline, visiting and/or purchasing goods in online virtual sex shops, seeking out material for entertainment/masturbatory purposes for use online, seeking out sex therapists, and seeking out sexual partners for an enduring relationship. Other sexually motivated uses of the Internet include seeking out sexual partners for a transitory relationship (i.e., escorts, prostitutes, swingers) via online personal advertisements/"lonely hearts" columns, escort agencies, and/or chat rooms; seeking out individuals who then become victims of sexually related Internet crime (online sexual harassment, cyber-stalking, pedophilic "grooming" of children); engaging in and maintaining online relationships via e-mail and/or chat rooms; exploring gender and identity roles by swapping gender or creating other personas and forming online relationships; and digitally manipulating images on the Internet for entertainment and/or masturbatory purposes (e.g., celebrity fake photographs where heads of famous people are superimposed onto someone else's naked body).
It is evident from these types of sex-related Internet behavior that very few of these are likely to be potentially excessive, addictive, obsessive, and/or compulsive. The most likely behaviors include the use of online pornography for masturbatory purposes, engaging in online relationships, and sexually related Internet crime (e.g., cyber-stalking). Before examining the implications of these behaviors, the next section briefly overviews the concept of Internet addiction more generally.
Internet Addiction: A Brief Overview
Technological addictions are nonchemical (behavioral) addictions that involve excessive human-machine interaction. They can either be passive (e.g., television) or active (e.g., computer games), and usually contain inducing and reinforcing features which may contribute to the promotion of addictive tendencies (Griffiths, 1995a). They also feature the core components of addiction, including salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse (Griffiths, 1996a, 1996c). It has been argued by Griffiths (1996c) that any behavior (e.g., Internet use) which fulfils these criteria can be operationally defined as addictions. These core components have been expanded upon by Griffiths (2000a) in relation to Internet sex of whatever type it happens to be (e.g. downloading pornography, cybersex relationships etc.).
Salience occurs when Internet sex becomes the most important activity in the person's life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings), and behavior (deterioration of socialized behavior). For instance, even if the person is not actually on their computer engaged in Internet sex they will be thinking about the next time they will be. Mood modification refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of engaging in Internet sex, and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing "buzz" or a "high" or paradoxically tranquilizing feel of "escape" or "numbing"). Tolerance is the process whereby increasing amounts of Internet sex are required to achieve the former mood modification effects. This basically means that for someone engaged in Internet sex, they gradually build up the amount of the time they spend in front of the computer engaged in the behavior. Withdrawal symptoms are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects which occur when Internet sex is discontinued or suddenly reduced (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.). Conflict refers to the conflicts between the Internet user and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (job, social life, hobbies, and interests), or conflicts within the individual themselves (intrapsychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control), which are concerned with spending too much time engaged in Internet sex. Relapse is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of Internet sex to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of excessive Internet sex to be quickly restored after many years of abstinence or control.
Young (1999a) claims Internet addiction is a broad term which covers a wide variety of behaviors and impulse control problems. She claims this is further categorized by five specific subtypes: (a) cybersexual addiction, typically involving the compulsive use of adult websites for cybersex and cyberporn; (b) cyber-relationship addiction, typically involving the over-involvement in online relationships; (c) Net compulsions, typically involving obsessive/compulsive activities such as online gambling, shopping, day-trading, and so forth; (d) information overload, typically involving compulsive web surfing or database searching; and (e) computer addiction, typically involving obsessive computer game playing on games such as Doom, Myst, Solitaire etc.
Only two of these specifically refer to potential sexually based addictions (i.e., cybersexual addiction and cyber-relationship addiction). Such distinctions are potentially very useful as it would be helpful if researchers in the area used the same words and had exemplar descriptions of such behaviors so that everyone could be clear as to what exactly they are researching. This would be helpful for both comparative and evaluative purposes.
In addition to definitional considerations, Young's classification also raises the question of what people are actually addicted to. On a primary level, is it the sexually related behavior or is it the Internet? Griffiths (1999a, 2000b) has argued that many of the excessive users highlighted by Young (1999a) are not Internet addicts but just use the Internet excessively as a medium to fuel other addictions. Griffiths (1999a, 2000b) argues that a gambling addict or a computer game addict is not addicted to the Internet. The Internet is just the place where they engage in the behavior. The same argument can be applied to Internet sex addicts. However, there are case study reports of individuals who appear to be addicted to the Internet itself. These are usually people who use Internet chat rooms or play fantasy role-playing games--activities that they would not engage in except on the Internet itself (some of which are sex-related). To some extent, these individuals are engaged in text-based virtual realities and take on other personas and social identities as a way of making themselves feel good about themselves.
In these cases, the Internet may provide an alternative reality to the user and allow them feelings of immersion and anonymity (which may lead to an altered state of consciousness). This in itself may be highly psychologically and/or physiologically rewarding. The anonymity of the Internet has been identified as a consistent factor underlying excessive use of the Internet (Griffiths, 1995b; Young, 1998b). This is perhaps particularly relevant to those using Internet pornography. There may be many people who are using the medium of the Internet because (a) it overcomes the embarrassment of going into shops to buy pornography over the shop counter and (b) it is faster than waiting for other non-face-to-face commercial transactions (e.g., mail order). Anonymity may also encourage deviant, deceptive, and criminal online acts such as the development of aggressive online personas or the viewing and downloading of illegal images (e.g., pornography) (Young, 1999b).
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