Ineffective use of a higher-level mental skill called executive control may help explain why some people who access pornography over the Internet develop symptoms of cybersex addiction, according to new findings from a team of German researchers.
People with cybersex addiction develop dysfunctional patterns of Internet-based sexual behavior, thought or fantasy that significantly disrupt their mental equilibrium and/or ability to function well in daily life. In a study published in March 2015 in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, researchers from two German institutions looked at the impact that poor use of higher-level control over decision-making processes has on the odds that an individual will be affected by this form of addiction.
Like all people dealing with sex addiction, people with cybersex addiction have significant problems avoiding dysfunctional or damaging involvement in sexual thinking, sexual fantasy or sexual behavior. The telltale characteristic of cybersex addiction is the central role of Internet use in the development and continuation of sex-related dysfunction. For this reason, the concept of cybersex addiction overlaps to a substantial degree with the concept of Internet addiction, which applies more broadly to a generally damaging or dysfunctional pattern of Internet use. Sex addiction, cybersex addiction and Internet addiction are all behavioral addictions; this means that they produce some of the key changes in behavior and brain function found in people with substance addiction but don’t center on substance consumption.
Manifestations of cybersex addiction include an inability to regulate the amount of time spent using the Internet for sex-related purposes, a preoccupation with sex-related Internet use while engaging in other daily activities, use of the Internet to explore increasingly risky or taboo forms of sexual expression, purposeful shielding of sex-related Internet use from others, reliance on sex-related Internet use to avoid dealing with real-world problems, exposure to serious personal or social harm as a result of sex-related Internet use and recurring dysfunctional use of the Internet for sex-related purposes after exposure to serious harm. There are no unified criteria for diagnosing the condition in the U.S. However, doctors can use questionnaires called screening tools to identify affected individuals.
Executive control is also known as executive function. Psychologists use both of these terms to refer to an ability to do such things as regulate your emotions, limit your involvement in reckless or impulsive behavior, think rationally or logically, use past and present experiences to make sound decisions or judgments, plan for the future and take the steps necessary to fulfill future-oriented plans. The parts of the brain responsible for supporting executive function only fully develop when a person reaches his or her mid-20s. Like teenagers and adults below the age of 25, older adults with poorly developed executive mental skills have increased risks for behaving in reckless or impulsive ways.
Impact on Cybersex Addiction Risks
In the study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, researchers from Germany’s University of Duisburg-Essen and Erwin L. Hahn Institute for Magnetic Resonance Imaging sought to determine the impact that relative control over executive mental skills has on the odds that a person will develop cybersex addiction. Specifically, the researchers focused their examination on the relative ability to use executive control to multitask effectively and switch from pornography use to other situation-appropriate Internet activities when necessary. A total of 104 men participated in the study. The researchers conducted experiments that required each of these men to switch from the viewing of pornographic images to the viewing of non-pornographic images at situationally appropriate times. In addition, the researchers looked for symptoms of sex addiction in each participant.
When they analyzed the gathered data, the researchers concluded that a relatively poor ability to multitask and switch between pornographic images and non-pornographic images is associated with increased chances of developing symptoms of cybersex addiction. In some cases, study participants with cybersex addiction symptoms spent substantially larger amounts of time viewing pornographic images than viewing non-pornographic images. Interestingly, participants with cybersex addiction symptoms also sometimes spent substantially larger amounts of time viewing non-pornographic images than viewing pornographic images. In contrast, the study participants unaffected by cybersex addiction symptoms displayed an ability to switch back and forth between pornographic images and non-pornographic images at appropriate times and did not spend more time viewing one type of image than the other.
The study’s authors believe that their findings point toward poor multitasking executive control skills as a potential underlying factor in the development and continuation of cybersex addiction.