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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Internet to Sex: Defining Addiction

Addiction is used to describe everything from the Internet to shopping to sex. So how do you tell when something really becomes an addiction?

Dangerous Online Habit continued...

David Greenfield, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Connecticut, says other characteristics of the Net encouraging addiction include easy access, sense of timelessness, the hypnotic quality of the screen, and the unfinished, intermittent nature of information.

What's even worse, he says, is the "synergistic effect" that these characteristics have when combined with stimulating Web content that, in themselves, could be habit-forming. Such content could be found in gambling, shopping, stock trading, video gaming, and porn sites, and cybersex chat rooms.

For instance, "You may have a predilection for liking pornography," explains Greenfield, "but when the pornography is in your face, is easily accessible, affordable, and is available at any time and any place in an anonymous way, that lowers the threshold in regard to acting out with that behavior."

Greenfield, who has authored a book called Virtual Addiction, is one of several mental health experts that recognize Internet addiction as a growing problem, certainly one that could facilitate other compulsions. He says that 6%-10% of online users are addicted to the Web, and about half of them visit porn sites or have cybersex chats.

His estimations appear similar to the figures used by the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, which put the number of addicted Internet users at 5%-10% of those online.

The institute has compiled the findings of various studies on addictions and has determined the following: Of the general population, 8%-10% are addicted to alcohol or chemicals, 1.5%-3% to gambling, 1%-3% to food, 5% to sex, and 2%-8% to spending.

There are specialists, however, who question the legitimacy of the use of the word "addiction" in relation to various topics. The term, critics say, may now be used too loosely.

Defining Addiction

Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh recently confessed to his listeners that he was addicted to painkillers. Actress Halle Berry's estranged husband, Eric Benet, reportedly checked himself into a rehabilitation center last year for treatment of a sex addiction.

There's certainly nothing new about addictions among celebrities and common folk, but the type of compulsive behavior reported appears to be more varied. It seems people used to talk only of alcohol or drug addiction. Now, the discussion also involves things such as food, sex, shopping, gambling, and the Internet.

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