"This is a hidden public health hazard exploding, in part, because very few are recognizing it as such or taking it seriously," Dr. As a result, the diagnosis of cybersex addiction is often missed, Dr. Especially vulnerable to becoming hooked on Internet sex, he wrote, are "those users whose sexuality may have been suppressed and limited all their lives [who] suddenly find an infinite supply of sexual opportunities" on the Internet. Dana Putnam, a psychologist in San Luis Obispo, Calif., said other factors that could increase a person's vulnerability to cybersex compulsion were depression and other forms of emotional distress, relationship problems and a failure to get one's sexual needs met. Schneider among 94 family members affected by cybersex addiction revealed that the problem could arise even among those in loving marriages with ample sexual opportunities."Sex on the Net is just so seductive and it's so easy to stumble upon it," she said."People who are vulnerable can get hooked before they know it." To those who say a behavioral compulsion is not a true addiction, Dr.

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Cybersex • Personal Health: First Step Is Recognizing the Signs of Internet Abuse (May 16, 2000) Related Articles • Health: Behavior • Health Columns • The New York Times on the Web: Science/Health Forum • Join a Discussion on Mental Health and Treatment ex is the hottest topic among adult users of the Internet, with studies showing that fully a third of all visits directed to sexually oriented Web sites, chat rooms and news groups. And it's very difficult to treat because the people affected don't want to give it up." Those most strongly hooked on Internet sex are likely to spend hours each day masturbating to pornographic images or having "mutual" online sex with someone contacted through a chat room.

For most people these forays into cybersex are relatively harmless recreational pursuits, but experts in the field say that the affordability, accessibility and anonymity of the Internet are fueling a brand new psychological disorder -- cybersex addiction -- that appears to be spreading with astonishing rapidity and bringing turmoil to the lives of those affected. Occasionally, they progress to off-line affairs with sex partners they meet online. Al Cooper of Stanford, who has conducted the largest and most detailed survey of online sex, calls the Net "the crack cocaine of sexual compulsivity." The survey, conducted online among 9,265 men and women who admitted surfing the Net for sexually oriented sites, indicated that at least 1 percent were already seriously hooked on online sex.

"Simply sitting down to work at the computer can start a sexual response that may facilitate online sexual activities," he wrote in the journal.

As with other addictions, tolerance to cybersex stimulation can develop, prompting the addict to take more and more risks to recapture the initial high, Dr. Online viewing that began as a harmless recreation can become an all-consuming activity and even lead to real sexual encounters with people met online.

Cybersex compulsives can become so involved with their online activities that they ignore their partners and children and risk their jobs. Cooper's survey, 20 percent of the men and 12 percent of the women reported they had used computers at work for some sexual pursuits.

Many companies now monitor employees' online activities, and repeated visits to sexually oriented sites have cost people their jobs. Schneider, who has written extensively on sexual addiction, responds that the damage to a cybersex addict's life and family can be as devastating as that caused by compulsive gambling or addiction to alcohol or drugs.

The sexual stimulation and release obtained through cybersex also contribute importantly to the continued pursuit of the activity, Dr. He wrote: "Intense orgasms from the minimal investment of a few keystrokes are powerfully reinforcing." He added, "Cybersex affords easy, inexpensive access to a myriad of ritualized encounters with idealized partners.

Many cybersex abusers are re-enacting aspects of past losses, conflicts or traumas in order to foster illusions of power and love." Some cybersex addicts develop a conditioned response to the computer and become sexually aroused even before turning it on, Dr. This can exacerbate the problem for people whose jobs involve work on a computer.

And some people, including two physicians, have landed in federal prison for two years because they downloaded child pornography when authorities were watching, Dr. Still, most who pursue cybersex consider it harmless and safe to do so. In her survey, 91 women and three men in committed relationships said they had experienced serious adverse consequences, including broken relationships, from their partners' cybersex addictions.