A man in St. Louis and a woman in Seattle enter an online chat room titled "Married, but Lonely," flirt and then switch to a private "electronic bedroom" where their virtual exchange turns erotic. It's not an unusual script for cybersex, said Internet researcher David Greenfield, PhD, at APA's 2003 Annual Convention.
Cybersex--which Greenfield defines as "type-written communication for the sole purpose of achieving arousal and orgasm, generally between two people online"--is a growing problem, he said.
Some cybersex consumers, he explained, have become compulsive in their consumption of cybersex, spending inordinate amounts of time online that would otherwise be spent with family members, sleeping or working on the job--actions that can spark jealousy at home and sanctions at work. For example, they often spend all night on the computer and then get online again at work.
Overall, about 6 percent of Internet users are compulsive in their online behavior, and about half of those are sexually compulsive, Greenfield said. Men and women engage in cybersex about equally, he added.
They also report withdrawal-like symptoms when they're away from the Internet, explained Greenfield, who founded the Center for Internet Studies in West Hartford, Conn., and wrote the book "Virtual Addiction" (New Harbinger, 1999).
But is it really cheating? "[If] you go home and tell your spouse about it, how do you think they're going to feel about it?" asked Greenfield. "Of course they're going to be upset about it...People feel very, very violated, particularly because often that communication occurs on the same computer that Johnny and Suzy use for their homework."
Moreover, in his work, he has found that about 50 percent of people that engage in cybersex take the contact a step further by talking on the phone, and some--about 15 to 30 percent--meet in person.
"The good news is that this does not end all marriages necessarily," he said of the couples he sees in therapy. "In some cases, it can actually be a new beginning for them."
The key to successful therapy, he said, is to address the shame and secrecy that often surrounds compulsive cybersex and help clients restructure their computer use. For example, clients can move the computer to a public room or install software that blocks access to adult sites.
He added that psychologists should routinely ask clients about their Internet use during intakes, including whether others see it as a problem.
--D. SMITH BAILEY