The advent of the Internet has changed the way we live, for better and for worse. People loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more openly, a phenomenon called the online disinhibition effect (Suler 2004), which can work in two seemingly opposing directions. At times it is a benign disinhibition, as when people show unusual acts of kindness or generosity, but at other times it is malignant, as when visiting the dark places of the Internet – pornography, crime, and violence – through email, chat rooms, and video. Using the Internet, one can go to youtube.com and see videos about the top ten cyber crimes.
Cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken (2016) studies the impact of emerging technology on human behavior. I was surprised to discover that cyberpsychology is the subject of approximately thirty peer-reviewed journals. It refers to anything digital or technical, from Bluetooth to driverless cars. Online, people feel a sense of anonymity that promotes saying and doing things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do face-to-face, self-disclosing or acting out more frequently or intensely than they would in person.
The effect of technology on addictive behavior is extraordinary. Addictive individuals are attracted to the Internet because their behavior, which usually requires secrecy, is easier to satisfy online because of what (Cooper, 1998)(1998) called the "Triple A Engine," in which the A's stand for anonymity, accessibility, and affordability.
Some time ago a young man was referred to me with a tentative diagnosis of paraphilia, the scientific term for sexual perversion. Although he was soon to become a sex offender, convicted of having online sex with an under-age girl, oddly enough he had no perverse inclinations. It was puzzling to me because, in fact, he struck me as being a wholesome Norman Rockwell kind of all-American boy. He loved to bowl and play golf. He was an avid musician like both his parents. He played with his father in his church band and sang as well. He enjoyed singing karaoke in bars, although he rarely drank. He had worked as a lifeguard for several summers in sleepaway camps, where he had sexual access to minors. A few girls had even propositioned him, which he refused; he had always been invited back to work at the camp the following summer. He had been enrolled in a doctoral program in one of the healing professions when he was first investigated.
When I first met Jack, he had recently discovered that he was being investigated. He was frozen with anxiety, afraid that I would not believe that he is not the kind of person who would prey sexually on minors. He had a great deal of difficulty in identifying and expressing his feelings. Although I did not have a lot of experience treating sex offenders, I had some. My experience told me that those with real sexual perversions tend not to seek treatment voluntarily; they cling to their perversion ferociously, not wanting to give it up because it provides an ecstatic release, unlike anything they might get from "vanilla" or ordinary sex.
Two years before his investigation began, Jack started going online at chat rooms, hoping to meet a girl. He had become very lonely after it became clear that continuing to see his girlfriend would be problematic when they enrolled in different colleges. They had been good friends in high school and then began a sexual relationship when he was eighteen, his first experience with sexual intercourse, and he cared about Susan a great deal. When he became frustrated with the way they had to conduct their relationship, she abruptly broke up with him. Life without her felt empty. He felt somewhat depressed and it was easier to go online to try to meet another girl than risk an encounter in real life. While chatting with a woman in a chat room, she suggested they go on Skype so they could see each other. When he did, he was startled to find her lying naked on a couch, masturbating. He became immediately aroused and began masturbating too, and seemed to have become immediately addicted to this behavior, which seemed to be more common than he imagined. So much gratification so quickly, like magic.
Although sometimes the girls involved seemed several years younger than him, he paid little attention to this. He understood and made it clear that although some of the girls seemed a bit young, he had not sought them out; he simply did not care that they were underage. He did not care about anything other than sexual gratification.He had been doing this for the past two years at least once or twice a week as well as going to porn sites regularly.
I suggested that as frightening and shocking as being investigated as a sex offender was, it may well have been a blessing in disguise, a wake-up call. Had it not occurred, he undoubtedly would have remained addicted to this behavior and to online pornography, which could ruin his ability to ever have a healthy, satisfying sexual relationship with a woman. His online escapades provided a dissociated release from his emotional pain. They seemed unreal, happening as if he were in a trance. The harsh reality of being under investigation was a terrible shock to him. He had been seduced by the Internet.
Aiken, M. (2016). The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes Online. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
Cooper, A. (1998). Sexuality and the Internet: Surfing into the new millennium. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 1(2), 187-193. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 1(2), 187-193., 1, 187-193.
Suler, J. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 7, 321-326.