Cybersex addiction is discussed controversially, while empirical evidence is widely missing. With respect to its mechanisms of development and maintenance Brand et al. (2011) assume that reinforcement due to cybersex should lead to the development of cue-reactivity and craving explaining recurrent cybersex use in the face of growing but neglected negative consequences. To support this hypothesis, two experimental studies were conducted.
In a cue-reactivity paradigm 100 pornographic cues were presented to participants and indicators of sexual arousal and craving were assessed. The first study aimed at identifying predictors of cybersex addiction in a freely recruited sample of 171 heterosexual males. The aim of the second study was to verify the findings of the first study by comparing healthy (n = 25) and problematic (n = 25) cybersex users.
The results show that indicators of sexual arousal and craving to Internet pornographic cues predicted tendencies towards cybersex addiction in the first study. Moreover, it was shown that problematic cybersex users report greater sexual arousal and craving reactions resulting from pornographic cue presentation. In both studies, the number and subjective quality of real-life sexual contacts were not associated to cybersex addiction.
The results support the gratification hypothesis, which assumes reinforcement, learning mechanisms, and craving to be relevant processes in the development and maintenance of cybersex addiction. Poor or unsatisfying sexual real-life contacts cannot sufficiently explain cybersex addiction.
Positive reinforcement in terms of gratification plays a major role in cybersex addiction
Several authors consider Internet-pornography-use disorder (IPD) as addictive disorder. One of the mechanisms that has been intensively studied in substance- and non-substance-use disorders is an enhanced attentional bias toward addiction-related cues. Attentional biases are described as cognitive processes of individual’s perception affected by the addiction-related cues caused by the conditioned incentive salience of the cue itself. It is assumed in the I-PACE model that in individuals prone to develop IPD symptoms implicit cognitions as well as cue-reactivity and craving arise and increase within the addiction process.
To investigate the role of attentional biases in the development of IPD, we investigated a sample of 174 male and female participants. Attentional bias was measured with the Visual Probe Task, in which participants had to react on arrows appearing after pornographic or neutral pictures. In addition, participants had to indicate their sexual arousal induced by pornographic pictures. Furthermore, tendencies toward IPD were measured using the short-Internetsex Addiction Test.
The results of this study showed a relationship between attentional bias and symptom severity of IPD partially mediated by indicators for cue-reactivity and craving. While men and women generally differ in reaction times due to pornographic pictures, a moderated regression analysis revealed that attentional biases occur independently of sex in the context of IPD symptoms.
The results support theoretical assumptions of the I-PACE model regarding the incentive salience of addiction-related cues and are consistent with studies addressing cue-reactivity and craving in substance-use disorders.