Special Report: Addicted to virtual love

The lure of internet chatrooms is proving irresistible to a growing number of surfers who are becoming addicted to a world of virtual sexual encounters, causing rifts between spouses and affecting their jobs.

American psychologist Dr Kimberly Young, who claims to have first identified the problem of online addiction, has devoted herself to the correction of the 'disorder'. As head of the Center for On-Line Addiction in Pittsburgh she has written a stack of self-help books on the subject, and tours the US giving seminars.

Spurred on to study internet addiction by a friend's experiences, Young has since had more personal experience of this problem, describing her "brief involvement with chat and a man I met online" in her book, Caught in the Net.

In her research, Dr Young found using a PC for cybersex was perceived as the ultimate safe-sex method of fulfilling sexual urges and exploring erotic fantasies without fear of catching sexually transmitted diseases.

Young terms these virtual online liaisons 'cyberaffairs', but says online addiction takes many forms. "Online sex is perhaps the most common form of addiction, however, we receive calls about a variety of online problems from day trading, gambling, eBay, to shopping. It really depends on a case by case basis."

Addiction affliction

Internet addiction is a problem which is growing as more of us get online, says Young, who concedes the Center's online addiction clinic at www.netaddicion.com exacerbates the problem to an extent. "We do both online and offline [counselling], and frankly, online seems more popular."

Dr Young thinks that the ease of access to online divorce services has encouraged 'quickie' divorces, especially among already addicted surfers. "According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, this is certainly the case." And in the UK, too, the path to getting legally un-spliced has been smoothed by online divorce sites such as Divorce-Online.co.uk and DesktopLawyer.co.uk.

Solicitor Roger Bamber of Mills & Reeve in Cambridge, says, "Statistics are not yet available on how many divorces have been filed through solicitors' sites, but the standalone [legal divorce] package accounted for six percent of divorces in this country."

In cyberspace, no one knows you're a dog The clear advantage of meeting people via the internet is the iron-clad assurance of anonymity and disguise - benefits which certainly seem to have worked for UK dating agency Dateline. In the four years since launching its site, online members now comprise a quarter of Dateline's clients.

Dateline's Pauline Lancaster puts the success of the site, launched almost four years ago, down to its convenience for busy people or the housebound, rather than the obsessive pursuit of cybersex by surfaholics.

"Our service is very accessible and affordable. Many people suffer phobias or disabilities so joining online and conversing with others is very helpful even if they don't want a long-term relationship.

"Internet join-ups are growing because the need to own a computer is in vogue - everyone wants to email, and it's easier than ever for people to get online," says Lancaster.

But Lancaster admits Dateline still cannot ensure that users won't meet married people via the service: "We could never personally screen all these people, so we have to trust them. If we do find out they're married we do revoke their membership."

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