The Philadelphia Inquirer

A cyberepidemic may just be a cybermarketing strategy

An addiction is porn

by Howard Fienberg
June 3, 2000

When your computer gets turned on, do you follow suit? Are you so hooked on Internet sex you cannot live without your daily dose of chat-room flirtation, pornographic surfing or suggestive e-mail?

If so, a growing number of researchers would diagnose you as a "cybersex addict." But this burgeoning epidemic, likened to heroin by Dr. Mark Shwartz of the Masters and Johnson Institute, may be no reason for panic and may not even exist.

How many of us are actually cybersex addicts? The literature points to some 8% of Internet users. Dr. Al Cooper of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Center, extrapolating from his data, told The New York Times that at least 200,000 Americans have become addicts in the past few years. He has also pointed out that as many as "a whopping 4,560,000 persons could be at risk." However, there are multiple problems with such research.

First, how does one test for this addiction? I filled out the Sexual Addiction Screening Test on SexHelp.com, answering "yes" to only two of the 25 questions. ("Yes" answers to any question mean you are more at risk.) But some "yes" answers on this test -- which one would expect to indicate good health -- are markers for sex addiction. One such example, number five, asks "Do you feel that your sexual behaviour is normal?" Number 16 asks "Do you hide some of your sexual behaviour from others?" Perhaps I am mistaken to think that my behaviour is normal and that sex is a private issue. Well, 7.4% of respondents scoring two are addicts. Also fuelling criticism, those scoring zero are at even greater risk -- 8.6%.

Second, online opinion research regularly captures large numbers of responses -- Dr. Cooper's study on MSNBC.com last spring yielded 13,529 responses (later filtered down to 9,177), 13 times the normal sample of a telephone poll -- but measures the opinion of a group that is self-selected and does not represent the general population. Worse, although some precautions can be taken, respondents often can vote repeatedly, skewing the data. On-line polls differ little from polls on listener call-in shows, dubbed Selected Listener Opinion Polls, with their appropriate acronym: SLOP.

Cybersex research has relied on explanatory surveys, anecdotes and case studies -- notoriously weak methods that detail how people feel but do little to establish why. Such research has also failed to screen other possible causes, to account for the effects of long-term Internet usage and to establish empirical measures of healthy cybersex use for comparison.

Also problematic is the slippery definition of "addiction." Many experts agree it means giving your life over to a compulsive activity to which you develop a tolerance, that carries symptoms of withdrawal and that physically alters the brain. But cybersex addiction gives a clinical diagnosis to what is primarily a social (or anti-social) behaviour. Dr. Peter Nathan, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa, notes that the American Psychological Association has ceased formally using the term addiction because the word has been devalued and is too "imprecise." It is "confusing when such excessive behaviours as gambling ... [and] overeating are included." Potato chip addiction (suffered by those that "can't eat just one") differs dramatically from drug and alcohol dependency.

"It seems misleading to characterize behaviours as 'addictions' on the basis that people say they do too much of them," Dr. Sara Kiesler of Carnegie Mellon University told the American Psychological Association's APA Monitor (Apr. 2000). "No research has yet established that there is a disorder of Internet addiction that is separable from problems such as loneliness or problem gambling, or that a passion for using the Internet is long-lasting."

The popularity of the "cybersex addiction" diagnosis fuses this current fascination with pornography and its new delivery medium with commercial self-interest. Dr. Kathy Young, whose presentation at an academic conference several years ago launched the media craze over Internet addiction, now heads the Center for On-line Addiction, a "virtual clinic" providing "direct and affordable online or telephone counseling." Malcolm Parks, Assistant Vice Provost for Research at the University of Washington, argues that "it is as much about marketing" as about a health issue, summarizing Young's Web site as "a common sales pitch." Like most health Web sites, those on Internet and cybersex addiction aim to sell treatment services and books.

A May 16 article in The New York Times offered several anecdotes from people claiming cybersex addiction had ruined their relationships. But it takes more to discover whether the addiction caused the love-life troubles, or vice-versa.

There is enough anecdotal evidence to point to a social phenomenon that might be a problem. But when we graft our age-old hang-ups about sex onto new media, it is important to define our terms and clarify our methods.

While we see some smoke, we have no idea where the fires are coming from, what they are really like, how many fires exist or even how to put them out. There's not yet a need to declare cybersex addiction a four-alarm blaze.

Howard Fienberg is research analyst at the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a non-profit non-partisan organization dedicated to public understanding of scientific and social research.

[original article at http://web.philly.com/content/inquirer/2000/06/03/opinion/FEINBERG03.htm]

[This article was also printed in the National Post on May 24: "Cybersex addiction is a virtual myth."]


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