Harley Hahn's
Internet Insecurity


Chapter 14...

Protecting Your Family: Sex, Relationships and Children

Understanding Our Basic Nature

One of the themes of this book is that, if we are to have long-term happiness, we must live according to our nature, not only our individual nature, but the common biological nature we share with all human beings. This is why I have spent so much time talking about psychology and philosophy. The Net is a huge force that is new to our culture, and to truly understand how to use it well, we need to understand ourselves. Let's take a simple example.

We all need food, vitamins and minerals. These needs are part of our biological nature, something we can't change. It is possible to stay alive without meeting these needs completely, but we won't thrive. For example, we can get by on junk food, which may lack certain vitamins and minerals. However, if we make an effort to eat high-quality nutritious food, we will, in the long run, be a lot healthier, not because there is something inherently good or evil about junk food but because, by eating well, we are better able to meet our long-term biological needs.

On an emotional level, we have needs that go far beyond food, vitamins and minerals. We have a need to be close to other people and, if we are going to thrive emotionally, we must have ongoing, satisfying relationships. Although our relationships may not be perfect every moment of every day, we must, in the long run, be able to meet these emotional needs if we want to thrive. Doing so, however, can be difficult, because it requires the cooperation of other people, who will cooperate only if we are able to meet their needs at the same time.

Within this context, the Internet is important because it is capable of bringing great emotional forces into our relationships, forces which we were not designed to bear. These forces are strong and, if we are not careful, they may cause significant damage to the emotional fabric of our lives and to the lives of our loved ones.

Does this mean that we should avoid having relationships that depend on the Net? In some cases, yes. Certain activities are nothing more than a breeding ground for unhappiness and only serve to distract us from what is really important in our lives. In other cases, Net-based relationships are just fine, as long as we ensure that our Internet activities don't interfere with other, more important aspects of our lives.

It is another theme of this book that we cannot separate the Internet from the rest of life. If we are to learn how to use the Net well, we must first make an effort to understand how it interacts with other parts of our world. In this way, and only in this way, will we be able to ensure that the way in which we use the Net is in harmony with our real needs. If we do not develop a healthy respect for our inborn limitations, we run the risk of letting our transient feelings lead us into types of behavior that, in the long run, will be bad for us.

The Internet brings brand new questions into our lives, questions that human beings have never before had to answer. Is it okay for a husband or a wife to develop an extramarital emotional relationship over the Net? How much privacy should spouses have when they use the Net? How much privacy should we allow our children? Should teenagers be allowed to spend hours and hours chatting with their friends on the Net? Is it good or bad to use the Net to look at erotic pictures?

These are important questions, and yet, they are without precedent. For example, we know that it is damaging to a marriage when one of the partners has an affair, but can the same be said for an extramarital relationship that is confined to email and instant messaging?

Most of us would not mind our spouse talking privately on the phone from time to time, but how do we feel about private email correspondence? Similarly, we may be comfortable with our children having a certain degree of privacy in their lives, but should we extend that same privilege to their Internet activities?

In this chapter, I am going to deal head-on with these questions. My goal is to do so in such a way as to give you the framework to understand what is happening when such issues arise in your life, and to help you develop the wisdom to make the decisions that are right for you.

However, before we can talk about specific issues, I'd like to spend some time discussing the emotional nature of human beings. So to begin, let me pose the basic question: What are relationships, and why are they so important to us?

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Evolution and Natural Selection

A RELATIONSHIP is a strong, ongoing emotional connection to another person. To understand why relationships are so important to us, we need to spend a few minutes talking about evolution and the nature of human beings. As you will see, our need for relationships is the result of innate traits that developed over hundreds of millions of years. Once you understand this need, it will be easier for you to make intelligent decisions about the ways in which the Internet should be a social force in your life.

EVOLUTION is the process whereby, over a very long period of time, life forms change significantly. On our planet, the evolution of animals occurred over the last 600 billion years, and was driven by two fundamental principles:

Survival: The need for life to survive under changing environmental conditions.

Complexity: A tendency for new life forms to be more complex than their ancestors.

The key to understanding evolution is to realize that, over long periods of time (millions of years), the environment of our planet changes significantly. The reason life is able to survive is that it is able to adapt to new environments, because of a process called NATURAL SELECTION.

Natural selection occurs because there is such a large variety of life forms on the planet. When conditions change in an important way — say, a global warming or an ice age — many animals will not be able to survive. However, because there are so many different types of animals, some will be able to live in the new environment. These animals, the ones that survive, pass on their characteristics to future generations and, in this way, life adapts to a changing environment.

Thus, if life is to survive, there must be a way to guarantee that, at any time, every region of the planet is inhabited by a large variety of life forms. In that way, when conditions change (as they inevitably must over millions of years), some plants and animals will be sure to survive. If this were not the case, a severe change in the climate, or the atmosphere or the ocean, might wipe out all the animals in an entire region. Indeed, a large enough change might destroy all life on the planet.

The reason this does not happen is that Nature provides enough variety for natural selection to function. Thus, no matter what changes occur, some life forms are able to survive and pass on their characteristics.

Every type of animal has specific characteristics that allow it to survive in the environment in which it lives. For example, fish have streamlined bodies, which make it easy for them to swim. They also have gills that allow them to breathe under water. Rabbits, on the other hand, have completely different bodies, not at all suitable for living in the water. They do, however, have lungs that make it possible to breathe air, paws that enable them to dig holes, and strong leg muscles that allow them to run away from predators.

A crucial part of the system is that each animal is able to pass on its characteristics to its offspring. This is why, for example, all baby fish are natural water animals, while all baby rabbits are natural land animals. A baby fish grows according to a fish blueprint inherited from its parents, while a baby rabbit grows according to a rabbit blueprint inherited from its parents.

So what is this blueprint? It is a set of instructions, encoded onto a long strand of a substance called deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. In fact, as unbelievable as it sounds, every cell in an animal's body contains a long strand of DNA that encodes the entire blueprint for making that particular animal. As the animal grows and changes, it is the DNA within the cells that controls the characteristics of the animal. In other words, the reason fish are different from rabbits is that fish DNA contains the blueprints for a fish, and rabbit DNA contains the blueprints for a rabbit.

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The Secret of Life

The role of DNA is crucial to evolution. We can understand why if we take a look at how primitive one-celled animals reproduce. These tiny animals, the smallest in the world, reproduce according to a relatively simple two-step process:

  1. A cell makes a copy of its DNA.
  1. The cell then splits in two, at which time each of the cells gets its own copy of the DNA.

In this way, a single one-celled animal can, under favorable conditions, reproduce over and over. Eventually, there might be billions of one-celled animals, all of which are descended, indirectly, from the original cell.

In principle, the DNA in these billion of cells should be identical. In practice, however, it is not, and herein lies the secret of life. (You didn't think you would get through this book without learning the secret of life, did you?)

Although most of the cells are identical, there are, from time to time, very small changes in the DNA of some of the cells. Since DNA contains the blueprint of the organism, any change in the DNA of a cell would make the cell just a tiny bit different from its neighbors, and this difference will be passed on every time the cell (and its descendants) reproduce. It is these changes — as small and as infrequent as they are — that, over a long period of time, give rise to enough variety to allow life to evolve.

These small changes — the aberrations on which all of life is based — are called MUTATIONS. Mutations are created whenever the DNA within a particular cell is changed, a spontaneous process that can occur in several different ways.

First, DNA can be damaged by cosmic rays, tiny bundles of energy that are emitted by the sun. Most cosmic rays are stopped by the atmosphere, but a small number of them get through to the surface of the planet and, when a cosmic ray hits a cell, the collision can cause the cell's DNA to be damaged.

Another way in which DNA can be modified is by extreme environmental conditions. For example, a cell that is floating around in the ocean might encounter a caustic chemical substance that damages the cell's DNA.

Finally, the process by which a cell makes a copy of its DNA (just before it splits into two) is not perfect. Each piece of DNA consists of a great many small components, all of which must be copied exactly. In the same way that you or I might make a mistake if we had to copy, say, a large list of numbers, the DNA replication mechanism also makes mistakes from time to time. When this happens, the DNA in one of the new cells is slightly different from the DNA in the original cell.

Since DNA is so important, mutations are serious. In fact, in most cases, a mutation will cause enough damage to kill the cell. However, in a small number of cases, the mutation is not fatal, and the cell will live. Once this happens, the cell's DNA is changed permanently and, the next time it reproduces, it will pass on the modified DNA to the new cells (which will then pass it on to their descendants).

Most of the time, one-celled animals will manage to reproduce exactly without a mutation. It is only in a very small percentage of cases that a cell will reproduce with a non-fatal mutation. However, because these tiny organisms are able to reproduce so quickly and in such large numbers, there are, overall, enough non-fatal mutations to support natural selection and, hence, evolution.

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Sexual and Asexual Reproduction

In the previous section, I said that evolution is driven by two forces: the need for life to survive and the development of complex life forms.

In our discussion of one-celled animals, we saw that enough spontaneous mutations occur to create the variety necessary to support natural selection: the system that allows animals to adapt to changing environmental conditions. However, the story is different when we consider more complex animals, which reproduce much more slowly.

Let us compare, for example, a one-celled animal to a cat or a human being. A cell can reproduce quickly, often within a matter of hours. (In fact, under optimal conditions, certain one-celled organisms can reproduce in as little as 15 minutes.) Once a cell reproduces, the new cells are themselves able to reproduce immediately. Thus, within a relatively short time (say, a month) a single cell is able to give rise to millions of new cells.

A newborn cat, on the other hand, will have to live at least 8 months before it can reproduce. When it does, the whole process takes 8-10 weeks (from conception to delivery) and will produce, on the average, only 4-6 kittens. These kittens will then have to wait at least 8 months before they can have babies of their own. Under optimal conditions, a healthy cat can have, at most, three litters (about 15 kittens) a year.

Human beings are even slower. On the average, a young woman is not able to reproduce until she is 12 or 13 years old and, once she becomes pregnant, it takes about 40 weeks for the baby to be born. Moreover, as far as total number of babies, even an exceptionally strong, healthy woman would be hard pressed to have more than 10 children in a lifetime.

As I explained, one-celled animals survive because they are small enough and simple enough to reproduce in very large numbers. Although only a tiny percentage of these new organisms will produce useful mutations, their sheer numbers ensure that there will always be enough variety to guarantee survival.

With more complex animals, the story is different. To be sure, the same natural forces that cause mutations in one-celled animals affect the cells of a larger animal. However, because larger animals are not able to reproduce quickly, they cannot depend upon the size of their population to generate enough variety to meet the demands of natural selection. Another mechanism is needed.

As I explained earlier, one-celled animals use a relatively simple system to create DNA for a new cell: they simply make a copy of the old DNA. Larger animals use a different system, one in which two different strands of DNA are combined into one. Here is how the system works.

Two different animals, called PARENTS, each donate a single copy of their DNA. During the reproductive process, these two strands of DNA are combined and spliced in a way that an entirely new strand is created. Some of the DNA is taken from one parent, some is taken from the other parent, and all the extra is thrown away.

The brand new strand of DNA — which is different from the DNA of either parent — is then used as the blueprint of the new animal (that is, the CHILD). Because each child's DNA is significantly different from its parents, enough variety is created to support natural selection.

The process by which two strands of parental DNA are combined into a completely new strand of DNA is called SEXUAL REPRODUCTION. The simpler system, used by one-celled animals, in which a single strand of DNA is merely copied, is called ASEXUAL REPRODUCTION.

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Why We Need Relationships

Complex animals have a lot of advantages over one-celled animals. They have more control over their environment and, generally, have much richer life experiences. For example, very few amoebas get to vacation in the Bahamas or buy clothes at Victoria's Secret. However, these advantages come at a cost.

First, as we have seen, complex animals must use sexual reproduction instead of the much-simpler asexual reproduction. Second, complex animals take a long time to grow and mature, and during that time, they require a great deal of outside help.

For example, when a one-cell animal splits into two, each new cell is already fully mature and ready to survive on its own. A human being, on the other hand, must live within its mother's womb for 40 weeks before it can even be born. Moreover, after the birth, it takes years before a young human being is able to survive on its own.

The question arises, then, since baby humans need to be nurtured for an extended period of time, who should provide this service? Evolution has supplied the answer. Since human beings must use sexual reproduction, and each new child requires two parents to act as DNA donors, why not use one or both parents to take care of the baby after it is born?

Indeed, this is the case for all mammals. With the ones that develop quickly, such as cats, the babies are taken care of by a single parent (the mother). In such cases, because the children develop quickly, it is not a big deal that the other parent (the father) is not around to help with the babies. A kitten, for example, will start to crawl when it is only a week old and, by three weeks, it is walking like a pro. By eight weeks, the kitten will be weaned from its mother and ready to live on its own.

Human beings, of course, are a lot more complex than cats and, as a result, they develop much more slowly. For example, it takes a full year for a human baby to learn how to walk, and many more years until it is ready to survive on its own. As such, human babies, unlike cats and other mammals, need more than one parent to take care of them.

Although this sounds like a good system, it is not as straightforward as it seems. For one thing, after conception, the baby won't come along for 40 weeks. During that time, there is nothing for the father to do, so why should he bother to stick around? However, if the father doesn't stay with the mother, what will happen when the baby is born?

The mother, of course, will be there, but nurturing a baby is a full-time job; so who is going to gather the food, find shelter, and protect the children against predators? Clearly, if a human baby needs to survive, it needs the help of more than one adult.

The solution is to make sure that a strong emotional bond exists between the mother and the father. In this way, the father will want to stay with the mother long enough to help take care of the baby. Similarly, once the baby is born, it is important that there be strong bonds between the parents and the child in order to ensure that the family will stay intact until the child is old enough to survive on its own.

For this reason, evolution has provided human beings with the drive to form three very strong emotional bonds: with a mate, with our parents, and with our children. This is why we have (and need) relationships: it is the only way Nature can guarantee that a life form as complex as a baby human being will be able to survive long enough to take care of itself.

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Why We Need Friends and Family

So far, I have explained why we have a biological need to form three types of relationships: with a mate, with our parents, and with our children. These relationships create the strong emotional bonds necessary to keep the family intact long enough to care for the children.

But there is more. Although it is crucial that babies have parents, there is also a significant advantage in having more than two adults living together. When there are more people to share the work, it is easier to gather food, find shelter, and protect the children from predators. For this reason, human beings — like many other mammals — are born with an instinct to live in groups in which the members of the group help one another survive.

For this reason, we are all born with a biological need to form emotional bonds with other people. These bonds are not as strong as the ones between mates, or between parents and children, but they are important. In primitive cultures, the need for such bonding manifests itself in the form of extended families and tribes. In more modern cultures, this same need is the one that causes us to form friendships.

Thus, there are two conditions we must meet if we are to be happy. First, we must be able to sustain very strong relationships with a mate and with our children (at least while they are young). Second, we must maintain less strong, but significant, relationships with a group of friends.

At the beginning of the chapter, I put forth the idea that it is impossible to find real happiness unless we live according to our nature. As such, we will never be completely content if we cannot form the relationships we need to satisfy our inborn emotional needs.

Although it is possible to live without a mate, without strong bonds to our children, and without friends, it doesn't mean we should do so. To thrive as human beings, we need these relationships — not because they are good or desirable for some cosmic reason — but because we have evolved in such a way that these needs are part of our biology.

Consider this analogy. When pilots first learn how to fly in a fog, they are taught to depend upon their instruments and not their senses. This is because human beings were not designed to fly and, under certain conditions, our senses can be fooled. At times, what a pilot thinks is real may not be real at all and, when you are flying in a fog, such mistakes can be deadly.

Similarly, when we use the Net, we expose ourselves to a great many social forces (and temptations) that our minds were just not designed to handle. In such situations, our emotions and our gut feelings can lead us astray.

(Such pitfalls are not confined to the Net. Be truthful now. How many times have you deluded yourself into believing that you absolutely must have something-or-other in order to be happy, only to find that, later, you didn't really need it at all?)

In this chapter, we are going to deal with the important social problems you and your family will encounter on the Net. As we discuss these issues, I have a goal. I want you to learn that, when you are looking for answers to difficult social questions, you must set aside your momentary feelings. Instead, slow down, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, "Which course of action will be of the most benefit to the relationships I have with my mate, my children and my friends?"

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What Really Happens When
You Talk on the Net

In Chapter 8, we discussed a biological urge that we all have, the need to communicate with other people. At the time, I explained why communication over the Internet is not as satisfying as talking to someone in person. Let's have a quick recap.

It took a long time (hundreds of thousands of years) for modern man to evolve from his ancestors. During that time, there was no such thing as communication at a distance. There were no telephones or telegraphs; no postal mail, no email, no chat rooms, and no instant messaging. If two people wanted to communicate, they had to do so in person. For this reason, our communication skills evolved to work in a physical, face-to-face environment. Without this environment, our brains have trouble processing information, and we make assumptions without realizing what is happening.

When you talk with someone in person, you notice a lot more than just his words. You hear the nuances of his voice, such as the tone, the volume and the rhythm. You also see his body language and his gestures. You might touch the other person and he might touch you. These cues create a great deal of context that is missing when you talk on the Internet. On the Net, all you have are the words you see on your screen.

Our minds are not capable of making adequate judgments about people unless we are able to interact with them in person.

Because of the environment in which we evolved, our minds are not capable of making adequate judgments about people unless we are able to interact with them in person. This is not to say that, one day, there might not be robots that are designed to have meaningful relationships over the Net. The point is that human beings are not designed that way, and the Net is never going to be able to satisfy our biological need to connect to other people. There is just too much missing.

There are many different ways you can talk to someone on the Net: chat rooms, instant messaging, IRC, email, discussion forums, Usenet groups, muds, and so on. You can even use voice (if you have a microphone) and video (if you have a webcam). However, no matter how you do it, talking over the Internet will never be a real face-to-face conversation. For this reason, you must remember that, when you talk on the Net, a lot of the context you need will be missing, and your mind will make up the missing details automatically. That is normal. This is how human minds work.

When you talk to a stranger in a chat room, for example, your subconscious mind is constantly analyzing the conversation, looking for nuances and patterns that might allow it to create a context that has meaning to you. However, because there is no physical context, as soon as your mind notices a pattern, you will unconsciously begin to make assumptions.

For instance, if, in some way, the stranger in a chat room were to remind you of your best friend in college, you would, unconsciously begin to think of that stranger as having your friend's characteristics. Similarly, if you are having a pleasant (or enticing!) online conversation with a stranger of the opposite sex, you will imagine that person as being attractive, even though you have no idea what he or she really looks like.

All of this happens unconsciously, which is normal. However, if you are going to keep yourself out of trouble, you need to be aware of what is going on.

What trouble might you get into talking to people on the Net? The biggest single problem caused by talking on the Net is hurt feelings caused by unrealistic expectations. When you talk with someone online, it is far too easy to become too intimate, too quickly. Jumping in too fast and too deeply on the Net is not just a romantic problem. It happens a great deal in many different situations, especially in online support groups.

Why? There are two reasons.

First, as we have discussed, when you talk on the Net, your unconscious mind creates an artificial context that makes you feel comfortable far sooner than you really should.

Second, on the Net, you are safely anonymous, which makes you feel far more secure than you would be in person. As a result, you find yourself feeling comfortable with strangers on the Net a lot faster than you do in person.

This is especially true when you are looking for a romantic relationship. Even though your feelings may seem as if they are real, your interpretation of what is happening is skewed. Chatting online promotes intimacy, and it is easy to find yourself becoming personal far too quickly. Indeed, it is common for people to suddenly find themselves in the middle of an online romantic relationship they had no intention of starting.

If this happens to you, force yourself to become aware of what you are really doing. Stop, take a deep breath, and tell yourself that you are not really opening your heart to the eternal soul mate with whom you are fated to find eternal bliss. You are sitting in front of a computer, typing messages to someone you don't know.

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The Nature of Friendship

As we discussed earlier in the chapter, human beings have an innate biological need to have a mate and to make friends. Because these needs are so important, you will find that many people on the Net are looking for companionship and for love. If you are tempted to do so yourself, please be careful. The Net creates the illusion of closeness to other people, but it is only an illusion.

To understand this better, let's take a moment to consider exactly what has to happen in order for you to make a friend. First, you must meet someone. Then, you and the other person must share thoughts, feelings and experiences. Normally, this happens when you spend time with the person, talking and participating in a variety of activities: watching TV, eating, exercising, going to a movie, telling jokes, shopping, giving someone a backrub, and so on.

Eventually, you come to enjoy the other person's company and you feel affection for him or her. However, this is not enough to make that person a friend. Before someone can become your friend — a real friend — he or she must know you for an extended period of time and must demonstrate loyalty toward you. In this sense, if you stop to think about it, you will realize that most of the people in your life do not qualify as real friends.

And what about romance? What has to happen before you are able to form an enduring and committed romantic relationship with another person?

Again, you must start by meeting the person. Then, over a period of time, the two of you must share thoughts, feelings and experiences, just as you do when you are getting to know a friend. However, for a romantic relationship, there must be more. You and the other person must take time to discover each other's values, goals and morals. You must also allow yourself to be influenced by the other person, in order to see if the two of you are able to bring out the best in one another. Finally, you must be physically attracted to the other person, and (if you are so inclined) you must find out whether or not you are sexually compatible.

Normally, these requirements are satisfied in two ways. First, you watch how the other person behaves over an extended period of time in a variety of situations. In particular, you notice how he or she interacts with other people, including your friends and family.

Second, you spend time together on dates. This gives you a chance to share experiences and to begin to influence one another.

(By the way, here is the official definition of a date: A DATE is a social occasion during which two romantic, or potentially romantic, people share entertainment, food and affection.)

As you can see, the steps you must go through in order to forge a real friendship or a romantic relationship are only possible in person. For this reason, the Net is not a good place to make friends or to choose a mate.

This is not to say that you won't meet people on the Net who you want to be your friends. If you talk to a lot of strangers, you are bound to meet people you like and who like you. Indeed, you may even find someone special with whom you want to have a romantic relationship. However, if you want to be real friends — or real lovers — you must spend time together in person and let the friendship or romance develop in the normal manner.

On the Net, where there is no physical presence, friendship is an illusion. Moreover, the lack of real interaction makes you feel less threatened by strangers and, unless you are careful, you will find yourself opening up to people a lot more quickly than you would in person. In such situations, you may feel that someone you don't really know all that well is a good friend, or even a lover. When this happens, come back to this book and reread the following:

What you are feeling is an artifact. It is caused by (1) your inborn need to connect to other people, and (2) the tendency of your mind to fill in the blanks when you try to communicate at a distance.

Trust me. Talking to someone on the Net is not enough to create a friendship, even if you talk for hours and hours, night after night. When you talk on the Net, all you really have are the words you see on your screen. The only way to create an enduring, committed relationship with someone — friendship or romance — is for the two of you to spend a great deal of time together in person.

You may think that you have friends online, but you don't. What you have are acquaintances, and the difference is enormous.

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A Modern-Day True Love Story

There was something missing from Barbara's life. She was in her early 40s and more or less satisfied, but she sometimes felt a nagging feeling of discontent that was difficult to put into words. Barbara did have her hobbies, though, and one of them was watching and discussing Woody Allen movies. Although she had a nice group of friends, she didn't know anyone who appreciated Allen's films as much as she did and, at times, she felt a bit lonely.

On the Net, however, it was different. Barbara found Web sites devoted to Woody Allen's work, and she loved to spend time visiting them.

One day, she discovered that one of the Web sites had a discussion forum and, without a second thought, she joined the group. Finally, Barbara had found people who liked her favorite films as much as she did, and she found herself spending more and more time online, talking to her new friends.

She especially enjoyed talking to Charles, one of the regulars. Although Barbara lived in the U.S. and Charles lived in Europe, they hit it off immediately. Charles shared Barbara's passion for films, and he seemed to have a lot of the same tastes and opinions. As Barbara explained to one of her friends, "Charles is really something special. It's amazing how we like the same things, how he seems to know exactly what I am thinking. I do have a lot of friends, but with Charles everything is different. We think so much alike that we can communicate really well without even trying."

As the weeks passed and Barbara spent more and more time chatting, her new friends — especially Charles — became more and more important to her life. Although Barbara and her Internet friends talked a lot, it was only over the Net and she hoped that, one day, they would all be able to meet in person.

Finally, she got her chance.

Woody Allen (who is an accomplished clarinet player) had just announced that he was planning a European concert tour with a jazz band. This was big news among Barbara's friends. Wouldn't it be great if they could all go to see Allen's concert together? It was expensive for Barbara to travel to Europe, but her friends had decided to meet in the country where Charles lived so, as a birthday present to herself, she decided to go.

It was Barbara's first trip to Europe and she had a wonderful time. Not only was she able to meet the people with whom she had spent so much time online, but she got to meet Charles in person, which was even better than she had expected. She felt such a strong connection with him, that she stayed for an extra night after the rest of the group had gone home. When it came time to leave, Barbara had to force herself to get on the plane. "Maybe it's better that I go home now," she told herself. "I need to find out if my feelings for Charles are real."

So, she went home and found, to her delight, that her feelings were real: she missed Charles enormously. Finally, she had found someone who understood her and could bring real meaning to her life. For the first time in her life, Barbara felt complete.

There were some challenges, of course. There always are. For one thing, Charles was 20 years younger than Barbara. Fortunately, the Net was able to help. Barbara found a support group for "age gap relationships". She spent hours talking to people in similar situations, where there was a significant age difference between the two partners, and she read wonderfully romantic stories in which everything worked out perfectly and the two people lived happily ever after. This, she knew, was exactly what was going to happen with her and Charles.

However, if Barbara and Charles were to live happily ever after, there was another obstacle to overcome: they lived in different countries. After a lot of talking and soul searching, they decided that Charles would leave Europe and immigrate to the United States. But that meant that the two of them had to navigate the U.S. immigration regulations.

Once again, the Net came to the rescue. By searching on the Web, Barbara was able to find another support group, one for people who needed help with immigration to the United States. Barbara found out that the best way for Charles to move to the U.S. was for him to apply for a fiancÚ visa. That suited her just fine. By now, Barbara knew that Charles was her soul mate, and the thought of spending the rest of her life with him made her giddy.

How did it all end? Less than a year from the time they met on the Net, Barbara and Charles were married and living together, and Barbara was happier than she had been in years. She had met her soul mate and, finally, her life was complete.

By now, you probably have a warm spot in your heart for Barbara. If you are like me, you enjoy romantic stories, and you feel that it is wonderful when two people are able to find one another, overcome the obstacles that stand in their way, and live happily ever.

There's only one problem. Eleven months earlier, when Barbara had met Charles on the Net, she was married, living with her husband of 21 years and their 11-year-old daughter.

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Couples and the Net

Isn't it interesting how the story of Barbara and Charles sounds so different when you find out that Barbara was married and had a child? Just imagine you are reading the story again, but this time, leave out the last paragraph.

Clearly, how you interpret the story has a lot to do with the circumstances of the people involved. If Barbara were single, the story would be a wonderfully romantic example of how the Internet can help lonely people reach out into a cold, impersonal world and find someone to love. However, because Barbara was married (which was the case in real life), the story is a sad one, showing what happens to a family when one of the spouses takes the energy that might have revitalized a marriage and uses it, instead, to pursue an unhealthy fantasy.

So how do we make sense out of all of this?

One of the reasons we have such a problem with understanding relationships in our society is because the popular culture does not distinguish between infatuation and real love. Love stories — in books, in magazines, on TV, and in the movies — focus primarily on falling in love, not on the process of sustaining love. It's fun to watch a movie in which a couple ends up together, all ready to live happily ever after, but what happens next? How do you live happily ever after?

Thoughtful people know that a successful marriage requires a lot of effort. From time to time, every marriage goes through rough spots, and when this happens to you, the mature thing to do is to communicate with your spouse and work things out. It may not be easy, and it may not be fun, but you should do it anyway.

Unfortunately, too many people get in the habit of using the Net as an escape, especially after a few years of marriage, when the infatuation and novelty have worn off. In such cases, it is common for one of the partners to spend more and more time at the computer, wrapped up in his or her own world. Eventually, this behavior will cause a serious problem, because it takes energy away from the relationship.

This is the case even if the person is using the Net to do something that is basically wholesome, such as buying and selling old books or playing games. However, when one partner uses the Net to get involved with another person, the situation becomes devastating. Sometimes, it happens when a husband or wife deliberately looks for emotional companionship. Often, it happens unexpectedly, as with Barbara and Charles, when innocent chatting gets out of hand.

In both cases, what usually happens is that the magic in a marriage is chased away by the daily grind of life: working, paying the bills, taking care of the kids, cleaning the house, shopping for food, cooking the meals, taking out the garbage, and on and on. For many people, life is so demanding that there is no longer much time for romance and sex, and it gets more and more difficult to conjure up the feelings of mutual attraction that created the relationship in the first place. The husband and wife take one another for granted and, all too often, begin to get on each other's nerves. Once this happens, each partner will begin to feel that the other one is not "meeting my needs".

In a way, this is normal, and it is one of the responsibilities of marriage to work through such feelings, to learn how to build a partnership that can survive the pressures of living together and managing a household. Unfortunately, if, in such situations, one of the partners is tempted to stray, the Internet can make things a lot worse.

When a frustrated lonely person starts to chat on the Net, it is certain that the person will have no trouble at all finding people who seem to be more sympathetic and understanding than his or her spouse. There are several reasons for this.

First, as we have discussed, talking on the Net is a lot different from talking in person. When you talk on the Internet, your mind fills in the missing details automatically. As a result, it is common to misinterpret the meaning of online relationships, especially when they become intimate or romantic.

In other words, if you are married and you think you have met your soul mate online, chances are it is an illusion. People who chat online have no real responsibility towards one another. Unlike your spouse, your online friend does not live with you, and she doesn't share the day-to-day frustrations of work, bills, children, cleaning, shopping and cooking. Moreover, your Internet friend did not take a sacred vow to share your life for better or for worse. If she doesn't feel like chatting, she won't, so when she does choose to chat, chances are she will be in a good mood.

When you are married, you must live together and share responsibilities, day after day, even when you don't feel like it. Since you can't ignore your spouse every time one of you is in a bad mood, you will find that, unlike your experiences with your online friends, you will have to talk to your partner when you don't feel like it.

Of course, sometimes trouble at home is real, and the discontent you feel can be more than you want to bear. However, before you jump to conclusions — such as "my wife doesn't understand me", or "my husband doesn't care about my needs" — it is important that you understand the source of your discontent.

One major source of discontent is that we criticize most in others what we dislike about ourselves. This happens because of what is called PROJECTION. When we feel guilty or anxious about something, we will often, without thinking, project our own attitudes and feelings onto another person. For example, Rachel feels guilty about having sexual thoughts about her boss, so she becomes jealous of her husband and nags him about the way in which he interacts with other women. Brad worries a lot about money so, when his wife forgets to balance the checkbook, he gets angry at her and accuses her of being irresponsible.

The intermittent difficulties and frustrations that attend married life are normal.

It is important to remember that the intermittent difficulties and frustrations that attend married life are normal and, for this reason, it is normal to feel temptation from time to time. There is nothing wrong with this. After all, without temptation to put us to the test, commitment is just an idea.

However, just because we are tempted does not mean that we should act upon our feelings. Earlier in the chapter, I explained that it is part of our nature to need a strong emotional connection to a mate. Thus, before you engage in a questionable activity, take the time to ask yourself, "Will my action serve to help or to hinder the relationship I have with my mate?"

If you want to be happy, you must, in the long run, stay focused on your priorities, and not allow yourself to be driven by transient emotions and passions. This is especially important when you use the Internet because, as we have discussed, what you think is happening online is not as real as it seems.

One of the more interesting examples I know of is a young lady in California who fell in love with a wonderful man she met in a chat room. It was only after she made arrangements to travel to New York to meet her beau, that she discovered that the person she had spent so many hours talking to online was really another woman.

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8 Signs That Your Spouse is Having
an Online Affair

Intimate relationships are very common on the Net, and they pose a big problem to many marriages. How can you tell if your spouse is having an online affair? Here are the warning signs to look for if you suspect that your husband or wife might be leading a secret life on the Net.

1. Time. Your spouse spends more and more time on the Net, even to the exclusion of other activities that he (or she) used to enjoy.

2. Need for privacy. Your spouse hides what he is doing. For example, when he is using the computer and you walk into the room, he quickly does something to the machine to switch away from what he is doing. When you try to see what is happening, he gets angry at you and complains about a lack of privacy.

3. Secret identities. Your spouse has email addresses or online screen names that he is keeping secret. When you question him about it, he makes up some excuse, but he won't let you see the mail or watch his conversations.

4. Denial. When you question your spouse about his Internet activities, he denies that he is doing anything wrong in a way that makes you suspicious.

5. Dishonesty. Your spouse lies about what he is doing online. When you catch him in a lie, he tells you one false story after another.

6. Addiction. You notice that your spouse develops a strong need to spend a lot of time online. For example, whenever he comes home, the first thing he does is rush to the computer to check his mail. He gets upset when you suggest that he turn off the computer.

7. Emotional withdrawal. Your spouse stops talking to you about personal matters. He becomes less and less interested in shared intimacy, including sex.

8. Rationalization. Your spouse admits to some online intimacy, but explains that it is okay because (a) it is not physical, or (b) they are only friends, or (c) it is important for him to be able to share his feelings with another person.

What should you do if you suspect that your spouse is misbehaving on the Net, but you can't prove it? If you aren't able to talk to him about the problem, you may want to track his activities to see exactly what is going on.

One obvious move is to check out your spouse's computer. Examine his email, his personal files, his downloaded files (look for pictures), the cache, the cookies folder, and the browser history. (See Chapters 3 and 4 for the details.)

You can also try entrapment. For example, if you know what chat rooms your spouse likes to visit, you can get a friend to engage him in conversation and see just how far he will go. This is easy if your spouse uses AOL. Have a friend add your spouse's screen name to her buddy list. Your friend will be able to see when your spouse is online. She can then "locate" him and join the same chat room. (Of course, your spouse may have a secret screen name you don't know about, and he may be chatting in private.)

Finally, you can use a type of program, referred to as SNOOPWARE, that will allow you to monitor all the activity that takes place on your spouse's computer: email, instant messaging, chatting, Web activity, and so on. Here are some resources to help you find such software. (Note: some of these programs cost money.)

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What to Do If Your Spouse is Having
an Online Affair

If your spouse is having an Internet affair, there is something drastically wrong with your relationship. Obviously, you don't know your husband or wife as well as you think you did. These types of problems can take a long time to resolve, and it can't be done by arguing or by pretending nothing is wrong.

It is important that you and your spouse make an effort to develop better communication. This will allow you to explore the reasons why your spouse turned away from you in the first place. For example, it is common for a spouse to turn to the Net in order to fulfill a need that is not being satisfied within the marriage.

Usually, this means nothing more than looking for the company of a friendly, easy-going companion. In some cases, however, the situation may be more sinister, if a spouse is interested in a particular sexual perversion or fetish. There is a lot of support for such activities on the Net, including Web sites, chat rooms, discussion forums and personal ads.

So, what do you do? You have two problems to solve. First, you need to convince your spouse that something is wrong. This may be more difficult than it sounds, because there is a good chance that your spouse is addicted, not only to the infatuation of an extramarital relationship, but to the stimulation of a large amount of Internet activity. If so, he may have no idea how much time he really spends online, and he will be oblivious to the fact that he is ignoring other members of the family.

Second, you need to work with your spouse to improve your relationship. Again, this can be especially difficult where the Net is involved, because your spouse will be fooled into thinking that the feelings he shares with his Internet friends are genuine and important. He may even be convinced that he has found his soul mate, the one person for whom he has been searching his entire life.

For many people, it is difficult to trade a rich fantasy life for the day-to-day routine of family responsibilities. For example, on the Net, a man may be a smooth-talking stud, and a woman may feel like a seductive temptress. If you ask your spouse to give up his Internet identity, you are asking him to forgo a big chunk of his life. He may not want to do so, and even if he does, it will be difficult. For this reason, it would probably help the two of you to go to a marriage counselor. If you do, here are three hints to help you.

First, go together. Couples who go to marriage counseling together have the best chance of success. If you go to a marital counselor by yourself, your spouse is not going to know what is going on. As a result, you will become frustrated and discouraged when he or she does not respond to your efforts to change the marriage. Indeed, among troubled marriages, the ultimate divorce rate is higher when one spouse goes to marital therapy alone than when the couple receives no counseling at all.

Second, realize that solving Internet-related problems requires special expertise. When you choose a counselor, look for one who has experience with such problems and who understands the technology. Such a counselor will be able to keep your spouse from misrepresenting what he is doing.

Third, look for a counselor who emphasizes the idea that couples should work to stay together. Avoid counselors who think that each person should be concerned only with his or her own personal fulfillment.

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Net Sex and Pornography

I don't have to tell you that sex is an important part of life. We live in a highly sexualized society, in which erotic images are used to sell just about everything that can be sold. There are several reasons for this.

First, sexual instincts are of vital importance to human beings. Our survival depends on our ability to reproduce, and the primary role of sexual desire is to make us want to engage in the sexual activity necessary to conceive children. As a matter of fact, the only reason you and I are here today is because a long line of people, stretching back thousands of years, felt this type of sexual desire and acted upon it.

Because sexual desire is such a powerful force, most cultures keep it under wraps. Although this allows a society to rechannel excess sexual drive into more productive areas of life, it also serves to make sexual images highly effective when it comes to stimulating thinking about what is, after all, a mostly forbidden activity.

This is especially true for men, who are easily aroused by visual stimulation, which is why you can use an image of a beautiful young woman to help sell virtually any type of consumer product, from toothpaste to beer. It is this forbidden aspect of sex — the idea that we must keep the details out of public discourse — that serves to make sex the center of so many controversial issues. This is particularly true in the United States and Canada, which are especially prudish countries (compared, for example, to much of Europe and Latin America).

One of the most controversial issues is the role that the Internet plays in sex-related activities. I have already mentioned two such aspects: that the Net affords many people the opportunity to meet and form romantic liaisons, and that the Net supports a wide variety of sexual fetishes and deviant behavior. In this section, I'd like to discuss two pastimes that we might characterize as more "hands on" experiences, net sex and pornography.

NET SEX is an interactive activity in which two people type erotic messages back and forth, usually accompanied by masturbation. Net sex is also referred to as CYBER SEX, and, in this sense, the word CYBER is often used as a verb. For example, "Cynthia had not been in the chat room more than five minutes before three different men asked her if she wanted to cyber."

The goal of net sex is to achieve a state of arousal followed by physical resolution. To do so, two people share their intimate feelings and fantasies — usually by typing, but sometimes with a webcam and a microphone — while gratifying themselves at the same time.

In many ways, net sex is like phone sex. The biggest differences are:

  • Net sex is readily available for free, with no long distance charges.
  • Net sex is usually carried out by people who have never met one another in person.
  • Net sex requires significantly more physical dexterity.

PORNOGRAPHY is the depiction of sexually explicit ideas with pictures or writing. Although there is a lot of disagreement about the importance of pornography as a moral issue, there is no doubt whatsoever that the pornography business is thriving on the Internet.

Pornography is, by far, the largest and most successful business on the Net, in fact, the only one that is virtually recession-proof. Unlike most online consumer services, pornography Web sites sell a product that many people are more than willing to pay for. As such, online pornography businesses do not have to depend on selling advertising in order to make a profit.

There is a huge variety of pornography on the Net, representing every normal and abnormal sexual proclivity known to mankind. Much of it is available for free. However, if you are willing to pay, you can buy yourself access to all the convenience, variety and quality you desire, courtesy of the modern-day "adult entertainment" industry (the same people and companies who bring you all those charming videos and magazines).

The human mind and body were designed to have sex in person, not at a distance

The main point I want to make here is that the human mind and body were designed to have sex in person, not at a distance. Although activities such as net sex and pornography might bring you some short-term satisfaction, they cannot, in the long run, make you happy.

One might argue that for some people, such pastimes are harmless diversions that hurt no one. However, by their very nature, these activities titillate without offering real satisfaction, a characteristic that can cause a great deal of trouble for human beings. As a result, for many people, both net sex and online pornography foster serious addiction problems, with the concomitant collateral damage to their relationships and marriages.

Perhaps even more common is the problem that, if you engage in such activities over a long period of time, you are likely to develop a pattern of isolation and desensitization that will significantly interfere with your ability to form and sustain healthy relationships.

In principle, it is not necessarily bad to share an erotic experience with another person or, within reason, to stimulate yourself artificially. However, the Internet is a high-capacity information system that, by its nature, provides too much stimulation, too quickly, and it does so in a form that is not good for people.

To be brutally practical, if you are already in a relationship, using the Net for erotic activities is likely to come between you and your partner. If you are alone, the habit of finding solace on the Net will likely change you in a way that will make it more difficult to find a real-life relationship that will satisfy your long-term needs. As such, net sex and online pornography, as attractive as they might seem at times, are two activities that are best avoided.

If you think that you may be having a problem in this area, my advice is to err on the side of caution, and take a few moments to decide whether or not you need to make some changes in your life. Here are some resources that can help you:

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Children and the Net

Children are tricky. One day they're smiling up at you with big blue eyes, perfect in every way, wrapping a tiny doll-like hand around your finger as they gurgle and laugh with the delight of just being alive. The next moment, they're talking to you in a voice that drips with barely disguised condescension, "Fine. I won't get my tongue pierced. That's just great. Now I can be the first person in the history of the school to graduate without ever going on a date."

Somewhere in between these two events, you need to decide how and when to introduce your kids to the Net.

Young children go through a great deal of neurological development and, at various times, their minds need different types of stimulation. For this reason, children naturally reach out into the world, not only to look for new experiences, but to enjoy familiar sensations over and over. So, don't worry about when to introduce your children to computers. They will watch you use the computer and, when the time comes, they will naturally want to try it for themselves.

The same goes for the Net. Children who grow up with the Internet don't feel that there is a big difference between running a program on their own computer and doing something on the Net. Using the Net is just part of the experience of using a computer.

Still, as we have discussed throughout the chapter, the Internet is a completely artificial environment, one that will give all of us trouble if we aren't careful. The best plan with children is to watch what they do and see how it goes. Every child is different, even within the same family. One child may sit quietly playing an Internet game for a long period of time. Another child might zip around the Web, looking for all sorts of new things. A third child might love to visit chat rooms and talk to strangers. Each of these children will require a different type of supervision.

Some children are good at following rules and will never have a problem, so you can let them do whatever they want (within reason). Other kids are more adventurous and will need more supervision to keep them out of trouble.

No matter how well behaved a child may be, he or she will need some guidance in using the Net. Children have limited life experience, and they often don't have the context in which to make proper judgments. Here are some guidelines to help you make a plan that works for your family.

1. Put all the computers in a common area.

You can avoid a lot of problems by keeping the family computers in the living room or family room. Although your children may complain, especially as they get older, letting them use the Internet for hours on end behind closed bedroom doors is tempting fate.

When you keep the computers out in the open, it makes it more likely that your kids will avoid behaving in a way they know is wrong. It also allows you to glance unobtrusively at the computer each time you walk by, just to check up on what is happening.

2. Set rules and stick to them.

As soon as your children begin to use the Net, you can teach them how to avoid trouble. Here are some rules you can tell the kids:

Personal information: Do not give out any personal information about you or your family. This includes your name, email address, postal address, phone number or the name of your school. You may not give out this type of information to a person, and you may not type it into a form on a Web site.

Chatting: Do not use your real name. If someone in a chat room starts to act strangely, call over a parent and ask for help. Never arrange to meet anyone in person. If someone starts to bother you, stop talking to him immediately. (Most kids know to do this without being told, so don't worry too much.)

Safety: Never accept files, pictures, email or Web addresses from strangers. Never send a picture to a stranger. Never give out your password, even to a friend.

Using the Web: You are not allowed to use the Web to look at certain types of information or pictures. For example, you are not allowed to look at sites that are meant for adults. (This is a good place to be specific.)

Downloading: Do not download programs of any type, including games or screensavers, without permission. (The idea here is to protect your computer as well as your children.)

3. Don't allow too much privacy.

Make sure your kids know that you have the right — and you will use it — to check up on what they are doing. This means that, from time to time, you may watch them use the computer, even if they are instant messaging to their very best friend. Your kids should know that you may read their email, look at their Favorites (Bookmarks) list, and check out their browser history. (For instruction on how to do this, see Chapters 3 and 4.)

As your children get older, you can explain that, the more responsible they are, the more freedom they will get. However, as long as they are living with you, they will never get the absolute freedom to do whatever they want behind closed doors.

If you think you have reason to worry about what your children are doing on the Net, you can use one of the Snoopware programs I mentioned earlier in the chapter. This will allow you to keep track of your kids' activities.

If you decide to get such a program, I suggest that you use it proactively. Let your children know that they are being monitored and that, if necessary, you can check up on what they have been doing. The idea is to avoid problems, not to find them. (This is what companies do when they monitor their employees' Internet usage.)

4. Watch for warning signs that your child might be having a problem.

How do you know if your child is spending too much time using the computer or the Internet? Think about what you would like to see as your children grow. You want them to:

  • Develop socially.
  • Do well in school.
  • Maintain a variety of interests.
  • Get exercise.

As long as your children are progressing normally in these areas, they are probably okay. The time to start worrying is when a child is doing something that crowds out the important activities in his or her life. The warning signs are:

  • Stops playing with friends.
  • School work slips (stops doing assignments, grades begin to fall, and so on).
  • Loses interest in hobbies and other activities.
  • Stops exercising.

You should also be on the lookout for unusual personality changes for no apparent reason, for example, if your child becomes sullen, irritable, lethargic or secretive for an extended period of time. In general, this is how people act when they are frustrated because they have important needs that are not being met. (It is also how they act when they are using drugs.)

If one of your children is having a problem, the goal is to help him bring his life back into balance. In some cases, you'll only need to talk to him. ("I'd like to remind you of the rules for using the computer.") In other situations, you may have to take definite action, such as restricting the amount of time your child is allowed to use the computer. Remember, when all else fails, you can always pull the plug.

If it becomes necessary, there are tools you can use to control your children's use of the Internet. For example, AOL has what are called "Parental Controls" that allow you to restrict how your children use AOL.

There are also a number of programs that can control what Web sites your children are allowed to visit. These tools are known by a number of different names: FILTERING SOFTWARE, parental control software, content filters, or (depending on your point of view) censorware. Basically, they work in one of two ways.

Some programs use a BLACKLIST of forbidden Web sites. In this case, the job of the filtering software is to make sure that your child is unable to access any of the sites on the blacklist. Other programs use a list of approved sites called a WHITELIST. In this case, your children are allowed to visit only these Web sites that are on the list.

If you decide to use one of these programs, don't depend on it too much. A smart kid will find a way to get around any type of restriction. Overall, the best plan is to watch what your children do on the Net and help them understand the rules that you set. To help you, here are some resources:

One last suggestion. I'd like to recommend my book Harley Hahn's Internet Yellow Pages (published by Osborne McGraw-Hill). You'll find a lot of information, fun and resources. In particular, I have created a special section of the book — I call it "The Little Nipper's Internet Clubhouse" — just for parents, families and young children, so you can spend time using the Net with your kids. (The Little Nipper is my cat.) For older kids, there is another section just for teenagers.

One of my main goals throughout this book has been to help you understand the basic principles behind the Internet and how we use it, both as a society and as individuals. As such, I have steered you away from the unfounded fears that hinder so many people and, instead, helped you understand what is really happening in the world, on and off the Net, so you can make the choices that are best for you and your family.

You will notice that, in this section, I have stayed clear of the scare stories about children who are seduced, exploited or corrupted on the Net. From time to time, such things happen, but they are rare, so don't worry. True, as your children use the Net over the years, various unpleasant things are bound to happen, but this is also the case in school, on the playground, or at summer camp.

Children do not need us to make every moment of their lives simple and trouble-free. What they do need from us is the wisdom to know when and when not to interfere in their activities, encouragement to explore and discover, and the security that comes from knowing that their parents, who love them more than anyone else in the world, are watching them carefully (even if it is from the next room).

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