This article was originally posted on PsychCentral by Robert Weiss
Tech-Connect: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly
For many of us, digital information gathering and online interaction have become integrated into our daily routine from the first multitasking moments. We check email, tweet and text, update Facebook, and simultaneously peruse “newspapers” from all over the globe, all while draining the morning coffee. And we do all of this on faster, more sophisticated, more portable and affordable electronic devices than ever before.
This incredible array of sophisticated interconnectivity provides endless new opportunities to support our very traditional human needs for community and social interaction. Innovations like Facebook, with over 500 million users, and Twitter, with over 300 million users, offer real-time interactions with an increasingly wider and more diverse group of people.
Friends and family who may have been too distant for regular contact just a few years ago can now be intimately folded into our lives. For partners, spouses and families separated for long periods of time by work or military service, the tech-connect boom is a godsend. Couples are now able to bond long-distance in real time, share a growing child’s latest milestone, and even engage in visual intimacy via the webcams now routinely incorporated into computers and smart-phones.
Those not yet in a committed relationship can put technology to good use when home or traveling via e-dating—establishing and growing budding relationships with a decreasing focus on who lives where. We make friends, we share and grow from our experiences, we celebrate, and we commiserate—one world, a growing interactive community.
One downside of the tech-connect boom is that whenever humanaccess to intensely pleasurable and arousing substances, like cocaine and crystal meth, previously rare treats, like refined sugar and sweets (now on sale at every gas station), or experiences, like gambling and sex, is increased, the potential for impulsivity, compulsivity, and addiction rears its ugly head.
This is especially true when the pleasurable essence of these substances or experiences is both highly distilled and amplified, as is the case with newer pharmaceutical drugs, online gaming/gambling and Internet porn/sex. As our increasing technological interconnectivity has brought with it affordable, easy and relatively anonymous links to intensely pleasurable sexual content and casual sexual encounters, mental health professionals are seeing a corresponding increase in people struggling with porn abuse, multiple infidelities and sexual/romantic hookups and sex addiction.
It’s just that simple. For sex and romance addicts, computers, laptops, smart-phones and other mobile devices are as much a gateway to problematic behavior as an unlimited buffet meal is to someone with an eating disorder.
While online sexual and romantic activities are a source of highly pleasurable amusement and distraction for the vast majority of healthy people who choose to engage in them, those individuals predisposed to addictive and impulsive behavior patterns can easily find themselves lost in an escalating, obsessive quest for sexual and/or romantic intensity.
Ultimately, some of these individuals begin abusing online sexual experiences—more as a means of emotional escape than sexual pleasure. For such people, repeatedly viewing online porn and/or following up on anonymous online hookups can escalate or underscore pre-existing problems, eventually producing profoundly negative relationship, personal, health, career and even legal consequences.
Protecting Your Online Self
So here’s the rub, if we’re not online, we might as well be living in the Stone Age, a concern that presents a serious dilemma for recovering sex and romance addicts, specifically those who’ve abused the Internet as a means toward sexual acting out. For these men and women, there are only two options: disconnect and miss out on life, or find a way to be online and connected in safe and healthy ways that enhance rather than detract from life and recovery.
Fortunately, there are numerous software programs that sex and romance addicts can utilize to protect themselves from impulsive online decision-making. Most of these are “parental control” programs, and, as the “parental control” label suggests, they were designed and intended to protect children/teens from exposure to age-inappropriate content. Fortunately this software can serve as an equally effective tool for adults in sexual recovery.
Romance and sex addicts, their partners and clinicians who treat them should consider the following in any protective software:
- Customizable Controls: First and foremost, the software should include a customizable Internet filter. Most products offer various preset filtering levels. These preset levels are usually appropriate “as is” for children and teens. Adults, however, have different issues and needs. The best products allow for the blacklisting and whitelisting of certain sites—meaning sites that would normally be allowed at a certain preset filtering level can be manually blocked (blacklisted), and sites that would normally be blocked can be manually unblocked (whitelisted). The filter should work regardless of the language in which the website is written.
- Accountability: The software should include some sort of accountability function, meaning an “accountability partner” is notified of the user’s online travels, including websites visited, attempts to visit blocked websites, chat-room activities, IM conversations, GPS location (on mobile devices), and time of usage (both when and for how long). For sex and romance addicts, the accountability partner who will best serve them is a neutral therapist, supportive friend, or 12-step sponsor (as spouses can initially be too understandably reactive to manage this task). Ideally, the software should allow for more than one accountability partner. The accountability feature should be customizable, meaning the accountability partner can get daily reports, weekly reports, monthly reports, on-demand reports, and even instant notification if the addict uses or attempts to use the Internet in a certain way.
- HTTPS and Proxy Blocking: Tech savvy addicts have been known to use proxies (intermediary web servers) and encrypted HTTPS connections to circumvent filtering software. The software you choose should have features that prevent such abuses. The software should also be un-installable without a password. Ideally, the program will notify the addict’s accountability partner if the addict attempts to uninstall or circumvent the filtering and accountability features of the program.
- Ease of Use: The software should be easy to install and to customize. If you are protecting more than one device, you should be able to configure global settings using a web-based interface. In this way, you can establish settings on all of your devices simultaneously instead of dealing with each machine individually.
- Availability for Your Device, and Use on Multiple Devices: It doesn’t matter how great a program’s features are if it doesn’t function on your equipment. Software websites will let you know if their product is appropriate for your computer, laptop, smart-phone, and other mobile device. It’s also important to note how many devices (and what types of devices) the software license will cover. Most people need protection on a home computer, a laptop, and a smart-phone, and it’s nice if that can be accomplished with the purchase of only one piece of software through one company.
It is important to remember that even the best Internet filtering software is not perfect. A resourceful, desperate and/or tech-savvy romance or sexual addict can find ways to access whatever it is that he or she is looking for – if they work hard enough. As such, parental control software programs should not be viewed as enforcers of recovery, they should instead be looked at as tools of recovery that can help an addict maintain sobriety (through the filtering features) and rebuild trust with a spouse or partner (through the accountability features).
There are dozens of parental control software products. The best options today for sex and romance addicts appear to be:
Before you purchase one of the products or recommend it to one of your clients, make sure it is compatible with your/their device or devices. For full reviews of these and other parental control software products, including information on device compatibility, click this link:www.sexualrecovery.com/online-controls-for-sex-romance-addicts.php.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of three books on sexual addiction and an expert on the juxtaposition of human sexuality, intimacy, and technology. He is Founding Director of The Sexual Recovery Institute, www.sexualrecovery.com, in Los Angeles and Director of Intimacy and Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch in Tennessee, www.recoveryranch.com, and Promises Treatment Centers in California, www.promises.com. Mr. Weiss is a clinical psychotherapist and educator. He has provided sexual addiction treatment training internationally for psychology professionals, addiction treatment centers, and the US military. A media expert forTime, Newsweek, and the New York Times, Mr. Weiss has been featured on CNN, The Today Show, Oprah, and ESPN among many others. Rob is the Sex and Intimacy blogger for Psych-Central, an online psychology site, and can also be found on Twitter at @RobWeissMSW.