Experts are predicting that cybersex addiction is the next tsunami of mental health. According to data gathered at the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP) 40 million Americans visit porn sites every month, and the gender prevalence of men versus women with cybersex issues is 60%-40% respectively. This has tremendous repercussions for their families, as children suffer lack of attention due to extremes of parental preoccupation; become involved in parental conflicts; struggle with their parents’ marital separation and/or divorce; live in a home where the atmosphere holds an inappropriate erotic charge, and the heaviness of emotional trauma; or are directly exposed to cyber-porn on their family computer or their parents’ cell-phones. I can’t tell you how many times a couple has come into my therapy office over the last five years and told me that their young child, while on the computer or playing with the phone, is the one who accidently discovered a father or mother’s secret life.
When I speak of cybersex addiction I’m referring to the compulsive use of Internet pornography, adult chat rooms, or adult fantasy role-play sites, impacting negatively in real-life intimate activity. Perhaps you don’t see how any of that could be relevant to you, nor can you fathom how it could possibly be relevant to anyone in your family. On the other hand, some of you might ask, “What’s the big deal? Looking at pornography can be a normal part of growing up, especially for boys; it doesn’t hurt anybody, and it can actually enhance a couple’s sex life.”
Glenn is a forty-eight-year-old father of three girls. He coaches a middle-school girls basketball team and is a deacon in his church. He and his wife have been married for 25 years, and I first met Glenn when they, both crying, came into my office in crisis. Their oldest daughter was applying to colleges, and though Glenn had been a successful medical supplies salesman for years, the balance in their daughter’s college fund was down to one-thousand- dollars. Where was the rest? Glenn had spent it all – first, on porn sites; later on prostitutes.
One-third of all downloads per month, and one-fourth of all searches per day are for pornography (IITAP, 2011). Internet porn supplies an immediate, private, and easily-accessed “hit” thus changing the erotic template of the brain. Benjamin Wallace provides a clear description of its aggressive, seductive power in his article, “The Geek Kings of Smut” in New York Magazine’s February 7, 2011 issue: “ There you are, Porn Surfer, googling your way to a little adult material – you know, a little plain-vanilla, middle-of-the-road grown-up content – when, wham …you’re in free fall through this insane, cross-linking wilderness-of-mirrors chaos of pop-ups and pop-unders and portals and parasites.”
Some say that cybersex addiction is the crack cocaine of sex addiction. It has a drug-like effect on the body and mind. It stimulates reward and pleasure centers of the brain instantly and dramatically, increasing the production of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with both sexual arousal and drug highs. Rob Weiss, LCSW, author and expert on the relationship between technology and human sexuality, explained it succinctly at a workshop he gave for therapists in Atlanta: “It’s all about chasing that emotional high, loosing themselves in image after image, prostitute after prostitute, affair after affair. They end up losing relationships, getting diseases, and losing jobs.”
The scenario in Rob’s description above is similar to Glenn’s story earlier in this blog, because the compulsive use of Internet pornography often leads to compulsive sexual behavior in real life, and, much like drug addiction, recovery from its lure takes a lot of therapy. Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., founder of IITAP, noted author, and specialist in the clinical treatment of sexual addiction has found, after 40 years of research, that a viable recovery process for sex addicts takes at least 3 ½ years and for most, 5 years. New neural networks in the brain need to be formed; synaptic connections need to heal and this takes time and appropriate, comprehensive treatment. Because addiction is a shame-based illness and becomes a solution to anxiety and the stress of trauma, the patient’s recovery includes developing a complete understanding of his or her unresolved issues. Significant change occurs only as a result of deep attention, discipline, and dedication to the lifelong process of emotional learning.
Many recovering cybersex addicts bemoan their initial entry into the world of Internet porn. “What’s the big deal?” has been replaced by “Why didn’t anyone tell me this could happen?” I think parents of today should tell their kids; it needs to be included in their sex education conversations, and I bet life will present them with plenty of opportunties to do so. Parents and grandparents are becoming increasingly aware that cybersex has become a powerful cultural phenomenon, because they witness how it’s slipping into their lives and the lives of their families in most unexpected ways. Consider the stories of Amy and Kevin:
Amy was six years old when one day while her baby sister was taking a nap, her mother promised to help her look at the Sesame Street website on the family computer. The computer was on a desk in the kitchen, and Amy and her mom sat down together to begin their search. After logging on to the computer and explaining a few things to Amy, her mom hopped up to go to the bathroom and on route called out the web address letters that Amy should strike. Moments later, she heard Amy’s shriek: “What’s wrong with that man’s penis? Ewe!” Her mom charged out of the bathroom, ran to her side, and clicked off the image of a huge red, rash-covered penis that was on the screen. Amy had accidently pressed a wrong key during Mom’s only minutes-long absence.
Disconcerting for many parents is the statistic that 90% of eight to sixteen-year-olds have viewed porn, mostly doing homework; the average age for a child to first be exposed to pornography on the Internet is 11-years-old; and the largest consumer of Internet porn is the 12-17 year-old age group. (IITAP, 2011).
Eleven-year-old Kevin loved spending the night at his grandmother’s house and she was delighted to have him. Unlike his father, who had been a quiet child, Kevin freely confided in his grandmother and this night was no exception. When Grandma came into his dad’s old room to kiss Kevin goodnight, she found him sitting up, with the light on.
“Grandma,” he began. “I want to talk to you about something that is important and very embarrassing.”
“Well, would it help if I just turned around, so I wouldn’t be looking at you?” she asked, smiling.
“No, it’s OK. Maybe you could sit on the bed.”
And she did.
“I’m really curious about breasts, lately,” Kevin continued. “But you know, not four-year-old breasts, like my little sister – I’m interested in like18-year-old-breasts.”
Grandma smiled again. “Well, have you told your parents about this?”
“I tried to talk to my mom and she said ‘Boy, we’re not goin’ there yet!’ …And you know how shy my dad is.”
Grandma wasn’t smiling now. “Yes, I do,” she acknowledged, patting his hand. “But I think he’d be quite able to talk about this with you and I know he’d want to. In fact, I bet your dad remembers how curious about breasts he was when he was your age. Give it a try.”
“I don’t know, Grandma. I guess I’ll try…And you know what else? My friend Matthew said he googled breasts on the internet and the weirdest picture of a naked lady came up.”
“Really? Did you see it too?”
Kevin shook his head.
“Good. The Internet is a terrible place to look at breasts,” said Grandma, because they usually don’t even look like real ones. They photo-shop them in a weird way. Looking at breasts in a photograph of a real woman or in paintings in the museum would be a lot more realistic. I think your dad really could help you with that… Let me know how it goes.”
My goal in mentioning these two children is not to imply that they’ll become addicted, but rather to accentuate just how vulnerable they are and how dangerous and accessible internet porn can be for them. The cumulative effect of sexual images kids are already bombarded with on TV, advertisements, and music videos from the time they are little, already concern me. I’ve read reports for instance that girls as young as 3 are already getting the message from the media that thin is beautiful and that there’s something wrong with them if they don’t look like the distorted body types they see on screen. Peggy Orenstein, best-selling author and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, has written extensively about this phenomenon. You may want to refer to her website @ www.peggyorenstein.com.
When I began studying this topic it shocked me to learn that the pornography industry has grown so large that it generates revenue exceeding the combined revenues of ABC, CBS, and NBC, and that money generated by cybersex addiction totals more than the combined revenues of football, baseball, and basketball franchises (IITAP, 2011). As I see it, the Internet pornography industry is a voracious monster prowling around every neighborhood, looking for entry into each family’s home, and who is more vulnerable than our youth?
When I was a teen it was common for boys to look at pornographic magazines, but the sexual development of many adolescents today is dramatically affected by their easy access to the Internet, where exposure to cybersex grooms them to believe that being sexually active at a young age is normal. Colleagues of mine who work extensively with teenagers confirm that it’s now common for oral sex to be seen as the new goodnight kiss and for girls to send sexual photos of themselves via cell-phones to boys as special gifts. Ralph Earle, Ph.D. and Mark Bell, MS reported in an issue of Family Therapy Magazine (2010) that teens who use pornography engage more often in oral and anal sex, have more sexual partners, and experience an increase in oral and genital STD’s.
The mainstreaming of pornography is turning it into a spectator sport, says Dr. Jill Manning in her book What's the Big Deal About Pornography? : A Guide for the Internet Generation. Teens may turn to it to fulfill sexual curiosity, but unfortunately at their stage of brain development they don’t have the ability to grasp the notion that what they’re seeing is fantasy, rarely achieved in reality. Instead, they compare what they see to themselves and become anxious because they don’t perform or look like what they’re viewing – they begin to believe that there’s something wrong with them or with their genitals – which creates the shame base that is core to addictive process.
Another danger in teen use of Internet pornography is revealed in a review of top selling pornography videos by Wosnitzer and Bridges (2007). They discovered that the majority had violent themes with verbal or physical aggression. However, only a amall fraction of the females in them demonstrated a negative reaction, with the majority demonstrating a positive or neutral reaction to the violence. Unfortunately, this translates to teens that violence is normal in a sexual relationship.
And that’s not all: 100,000 websites are child pornography, and an organization dedicated to protecting children on line, http://enough.org reports that child pornography is one of the fastest growing businesses on line. The Internet Watch Foundation found 1,536 individual child abuse domains.
Is reading about all this making you feel powerless? If so, let that feeling go, because there is plenty that you can do:
• If you suspect you’re addicted to cybersex, get into treatment. Likewise, if your teen has become dependent on Internet porn, get him or her professional help. A good place to start for either or both is at www.sexhelp.com. You’ll find access to certified sexual addiction therapists (CSAT’S) on it, as well as questionnaires to be used for your personal assessment process.
• Keep informed about the issues. Here’s an excellent youtube about teen cybersex addiction. I think it does a great job of illustrating some of the facts in this blog, and it’s very easy to understand:
The following excellent websites will also help you keep informed:
• Keep appropriate child-proof security controls on your computer. These websites may help: www.netnanny.com, www.familysafemedia.com, www.lwf.org.uk, www.protectkids.com, www.spectorsoft.com, www.microsoft.com
• Supervise your kids when they’re on the computer (don’t expect the security controls to supervise them) and teach them about Internet safety. James Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media and author of Talking Back to Facebook: the Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age, advises that in today’s time teaching Internet safety basics at a young age is as important as teaching your child not to talk to strangers or to look both ways before crossing the street.
• Begin sex education with your child at an early age (don’t wait, and thereby increase the chances that the Internet or other kids will teach them) and keep it ongoing.
• If they’re not doing it already, urge your child’s school and your family’s house of worship to bring in speakers who are qualified to teach adults about these important issues.
• Talk to your children about the issues
• Develop an authoritative parenting style, where limits are set with input from your teenager. Research has shown that this style has been connected with more conscientious teen sexual experience, less sexual activity, and would likely help ensure teen Internet safety. (Rosen et.al., 2008)
If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, here are some books I recommend:
Patrick Carnes, PhD, In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Online Sexual Behavior ; Malz, Wendy, The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography. ( I also like her website, www.healthysex.com for a wealth of information on this and other relevant topics); Weiss, Robert & Schneider, Jennifer, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships and Untangling the Web.
* Please note that Rob Weiss, mentioned above, also has a Psychology Today blog, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/love-and-sex-in-the-digital-age.
In addition to references specifically cited in this blog, other reference are IITAP’s Module 1 CSAT Training Handbook, 2011; Rosen, L., Cheever, N & Carter, L (2008), The association of parenting style and child age with parental limit setting and adolescent MySpace behavior. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29, 459-471; Wosnitzer, R.& Bridges, A. (2007, May) Aggression and Sexual Behavior in Best Selling Pornography: A Content Analysis Update. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association.
* Stories in this blog are composites of stories I've heard in different settings. They are not disclosures of confidential information