November 13th, 2008

Does having sex online make you sad? What about looking at porn? What about sending erotic emails? According to a new study to come out of Australia, men who engage in those activities have a higher tendency to be depressed and anxious. Trouble is, lots of news outlets have been running with this story as if it implies that anyone and everyone who engages in some sort of sexual entertainment online must be, by definition, mentally ill. You can imagine how happy that makes me. Let’s look at the facts from the strangely ubiquitous article about the study and see what’s wrong here:

Most [of the men studied] spend more than 12 hours on the sites each week mostly chatting, participating in cyber sex with webcams, downloading video and images, or sending erotic emails… More than 27 percent of them were moderate to severely depressed on the standard scales. Another 30 percent had high levels of anxiety and 35 per cent were moderately to severely stressed. Apparently the more they engaged in online sexual activity, the higher their level of depression and anxiety was.

Issue #1) We need a much more tightly conceived, well-informed definition of cybersex here. The study claims to be the most extensive on the subject currently available, and yet we hardly know what it’s studying. Any man who spends any amount of time doing anything sexual online?

Issue #2) Only men were taken into consideration for this study. Sure, researchers claim women are too hard to track down — like “the holy grail,” apparently — but are they really expecting us to believe women don’t flirt via email or AIM? According to this wishy washy definition of cybersex, that might count just as much as hardcore porn.

Issue #3) Who the heck are these guys? From the little reporting (instead of wild, judgmental speculation) that’s been done on this study, it’s impossible to tell how these men were selected. Frankly, spending 12 hours a week engaged in some sort of sex online is quite a lot. Some experts would say that borders on internet porn addiction. So really, what these researchers are saying is there’s a link between depression and anxiety and addiction? Well yeah, duh.

Issue #4) We’re too quickly assuming we’re dealing with a cause and effect situation. Cybersex doesn’t make you sad. Maybe there’s some reason people who are sad are having cybersex.

Issue #5) We need to know how these numbers compare to national standards for depression. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same number of non-cybersex-loving males would turn up the same numbers given the same questions.

Tags: cybersex

7 Responses to “Cybersex makes me happy, not depressed”

  1. Duoae Says:

    I recently wrote a post on shoddy reporting and the lack of any scientific methodology or reasoning in articles in general. Although i was tackling a different issue the point still stands: the media is all but useless in relating research or statistics outside of the financial markets and really should stop before they all become vacuous outlets that have no informational value at all.

  2. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    Hey, I’m a member of the media. Granted, a suspicious one. Then again, I totally hear what you’re saying. We journalists tend to hear about a study, then report on its implications because they’re sensationalist, not because that’s what the report actually says.

  3. SusanC Says:

    If you haven’t already read it, I really recommend “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre. It’s about how bad newspapers are at writing science stories (particularly medical ones).
    (I’m not blaming Bonnie here, but the reporting of this story elsewhere has been pretty bad).

    As far as I can work out, the research paper behind this story is:

    Squirell, M. R. Psychological Dimensions of Online Sexual Activity. In proceedings of the 43rd Australian Psychological Society, Hobart, Tasmania, September 2008.

    Unfortunately, the paper itself doesn’t seem to be online. (Cue the usual rant that in some other subject areas – like computer science – most of the major conferences put their proceedings online, for everyone to access for free, and these guys need to get into the 21st century).

    Searching for that paper online was a load of fun. As I typed “squirell cybersex” into Google, my heart sank at the thought of all the Furry links that it was going to return.

    I ought to get hold of the paper before commenting further, but I’ll note that webpronews quotes Squirell as saying that “But there’s also a chance that depressed people are spending time on these sites to help lift their mood or reduce stress”. So the unjustified leap from statistical correlation to causation is probably just bad reporting by some of the journalists who have reported on the story, rather than in the original research paper.

    On the face of it, it seems quite possible that depression causes cybersex, rather than the other way around: you’re stuck alone at home, lonely and bored, and go and log on to the net to find someone to talk to.

    People have cybersex for lots of reasons, but one of them is people whose real-life relationships have jsut broken up, looking for a replacement sexual activity. Now, people whose relationships have just broken up may be depressed, and they may be looking for cybersex, but the cybersex probably didn’t actually cause the depression.

    Also: sampling bias. Suppose you go into a gay bar, and ask everyone in there to fill in a survey (this is actually done quite often, for e.g. evaluating the risk of AIDS/HIV epidemics). It may turn out that everyone in the bar was a guy. This doesn’t mean that women don’t exist, or that lesbians don’t exist, just that the kind of bar you went in to mostly attracts guys. Similarly, if a sample of people engaging in cybersex doesn’t include any women, this is a hint that the researcher wasn’t looking in the right places to find them.

  4. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    I’m actually hoping to write a Click Me about this this week, so thanks for all the thoughts and research, Susan!

  5. soulofaqua Says:

    what if these man were depressed and try to get rid of it by engaging in this sort of stuff in a futile attempt making their life’s more enjoyable?

  6. Marcus squirrell Says:

    Dear All,

    I am the researcher for the Cybersex study which was published by various media outlets. Unfortunately, so much of what you report is misquoted and presented differently from what was originally said. My sample was a group of men and women recruited from cybersex news groups, so by mere virtue of where I recruited them, they were more likely to be heavier users than your average porn surfer.

    I also think that depressed and anxious people are likely to be drawn to chat-lines etc just as much as people spending hours a day online is likely to likely to lead to depressive symptoms. Thank you SusanC for your comments above!!!! This is not a causal relationship, it is merely correlational, but your average person on the street does not have any understanding of statistics and the media like to create a story. But it is really hard to find lots of women to fill in cybersex research questionnaires because far less women engage in the activity. And I went out of my way to find sites that women were more likely to use. My sample consisted of about 9 % females, and other more representative studies have found around 15 % of the sample to be females.

    Overall, I do not think that cybersex or online sexual activity is a bad thing and for the majority of people, they can manage their time online quite well and find it an enjoyable distraction or a way to meet new partners or flings. But as yet, I have not published my study and hope to do so mid 2009. But thank you all for your comments. There is loads ore intereting stuff that I researched than just the stuff on mood. And my five minutes of fame has been fun!!!! :)


    Marcus Squirrell

  7. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    Hi Marcus,

    I’m hoping you see this response. I actually tried getting in touch with you a number of times. I have your email address, and I spoke with your academic advisor who said she was going to pass along your number. I actually wrote an article in response to what I could find about the research, which hasn’t been published yet, but I’d love to include your input and talk to you more. Please do get in touch. My email is bonnie [at] heroine-sheik [dot] com. I really would love to hear from you!


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