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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?
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WebMD Feature

Fifteen-year-old Lily has finally found Kevin, the man of her dreams, on the Internet. He has a gift of knowing what to say to make her feel good, despite the disappointments she's had with a broken family and a recent move to a new city with her mom.

So she spends hours chatting with her online companion, alienating herself from family and friends. Soon after a face-to-face meeting with the 20-something-year-old, she gives in to his aggressive sexual demands and contracts chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease. When Lily's friends try to intervene in the relationship, Kevin becomes angry and tries to kill one of them.

Sound too far-fetched to be true? Maybe. Maybe not. While this is a current storyline on The Young and the Restless, a daily soap opera on CBS, there are viewers who can attest that elements of the plot are a bit too realistic for comfort, according to Jack Smith, executive producer and co-head writer of the daytime drama.

He says many parents have responded to the fictional situation, writing letters about their own concerns and experiences of their children's extensive use of the Web. According to him, they say things like, "You're telling our story."

Dangerous Online Habit

The possibility that kids will meet sketchy people online during their extended use of the Net surely strikes deep into the fears of parents. Smith himself has a 14-year-old daughter who has dozens of virtual buddies, a number of them strangers. It was his worries about the number of hours she was logged on that inspired the cyber abuse tale.

Although he says he does not regard his daughter as an Internet addict like the character Lily and he does not think that she has had a risky online encounter, the Y&R exec still finds disturbing the idea that people could take on anonymous personalities on the Web and not be held accountable for their actions.

"The Internet could be a real environment for predators," says Smith. His remarks mirror the words of some mental health professionals who say that particular features of the Web not only promote compulsive behavior, but danger, too.

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."

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