Surfing the Net for compulsions and addictions

Monday, March 6, 2000

Just when we thought we had run out of things to worry about, psychologists at Stanford and Duquesne universities last week alerted us to a new menace: hundreds of thousands of “cybersex compulsives” wandering about the land untethered.

Before we begin tossing our computers on community bonfires, however, it might be worthwhile to pause in our panic to look more closely at this most recent alarm about the hazards of the Internet. It raises rather intriguing questions about what passes for research, what passes for polls and what passes for common sense these days.

This new study, headed by Al Cooper, clinical director at the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre, appears in the March issue of the journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity. In the study, researchers labeled as “cybersex compulsives” anyone who spent more than 11 hours a week visiting Internet sites related to sex and who didn’t perform well on a questionnaire about relationships and attitudes toward sex.

The “subjects” in this study were 13,500 visitors to the MSNBC Web site who apparently had taken a breather from sex surfing to check up on the news. The researchers discarded more than 4,000 of the volunteers’ responses, and kept only 9,265. Of these, 96 matched the researchers’ definition of a “cybersex compulsive.” Since that was about 1% of the sample, they calculated that there must be 200,000 more of them out there somewhere, for about 20 million people visit “sex sites” each month.

This is just one more reason for panic for the great number of academics, journalists, political leaders and ordinary people who have been atwitch ever since the Internet came into being. Nevertheless, there are a couple of observations to be made about this study and its findings.

First, survey and research experts point out that it is impossible to know whether a self-selected group such as this truly represents the universe of Internet users. If it doesn’t, then how can a study based on these people’s responses be a reliable indicator of reality?

Then there is the problem of arriving at a fair — as opposed to arbitrary — idea of what constitutes a “cybersex compulsive.” Does the cybersex compulsive have a plain old “sex compulsive” counterpart? How does a cybersex compulsive differ in essence from a surfer who only visits sex sites 10 hours a week as opposed to 11? Does the cybersex compulsive have to visits the sites 11 hours a week for only one week, a month, or longer to earn the label?

All that aside, why is it that we need to track down and identify these so-called “cybersex compulsives”? Cooper told the Associated Press that “there are a lot of concerns about these people. They are developing problems that can be serious.”

What problems, you might ask. Cooper says that yet another topic to explore is whether sexual compulsion online leads to more sex crimes offline.

“More sex crimes”? So visiting sex sites on the World Wide Web may be not only compulsive, but criminal?

Thankfully, Cooper and his colleagues are not the only academic sex police out there these days patrolling the Internet for deviants. This new medium, in fact, is rife with research opportunities for scholars and psychologists.

A Connecticut psychologist, David Greenfield, last year released a study at the annual American Psychological Association convention that purported to show that 6% of Internet users suffered from some form of “Internet addiction.”

Interestingly, Greenfield used the ABC News Web site to get his 17,251 responses. His questionnaire was adapted from criteria used to determine gambling addiction.

Greenfield predicted in his study that Internet addiction would become worse as modem speed and ease of access increase, just as drug addiction becomes worse when drugs are absorbed directly into the bloodstream.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing is not kept isolated in the ivory tower. Such studies are reported breathlessly by the press. A good question journalists or their editors might want to ask themselves is why they give more credence to claims about Internet “addiction” and “compulsion” than they would to similar claims applied to other aspects of our lives.

For example, how would they cover a study that proclaimed that people who watch television for more than 11 hours a week could be “couch compulsives”?

Or a study that “found” that people who visit the libraries more than twice a week are “hooked on books”? Or one that found that people who watch more than one sexy movie a month are “film-sex freaks”?

And while we’re at it, why aren’t scholars racing to file grant applications for research on those millions of men and women who jog around residential neighborhoods in the dark dressed in the scantiest of attire? I doubt the press would pay much heed to an academic study that labeled such folks “fitness compulsives” for exercising their bodies.

But when you think about it, that makes about as much sense as spending valuable time and good money to study people who are exercising their minds and curiosity surfing the Internet.

Admittedly, these cybersex compulsives probably could find better ways to spend their time than surfing for sex on the Internet. The world probably would be a better place, for example, if people spent more time watching television or perusing back issues of Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity journals.

As for anyone who might resent being categorized as criminally inclined, socially inept cybersex compulsives, they can always move up a notch in their labeling. All they need to do is move to campus, call their visits to porn sites “research,” and lead productive lives as disinterested scholars.

In the meantime, other scholars might want to explore the possibility of a research project that focuses on people who spend hours upon hours, week after week, obsessing about the sex lives of anonymous strangers hanging out at Internet news sites.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at