When Sexting Becomes an Addiction

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For some people, sexting or sending sexually explicit material via digital devices can turn into an addiction. While sexting addiction is not a diagnosable mental health condition, many experts say it can be part of sexual addiction and have a significant impact on daily functioning.

What Is Sexting?

Sexting refers to the act of sending sexually explicit messages, photos, images or videos via cell phone, computer, or any digital device. Sexting can include photos and videos containing nudity or showing simulated sex acts, but can also include text messages, private messages, or emails that discuss or propose sex acts.

Not all sexting is harmful or addictive. Couples may exchange sexts as part of their romantic or sexual activity.

Sexting is typically carried out deliberately, with people sending sexts about themselves. But sometimes, sext messages that contain sexually explicit material about someone else can be sent, in some cases when the subject of the sexts has not given consent. Sexts can also be sent to someone who does not wish to receive sexually explicit material.

Because sexting is a recent phenomenon, it has not yet been adequately researched, and healthy limits to sexting have not yet been worked out. However, many people have found themselves in trouble over sexually explicit sexts. One of the worst-case scenarios is when teenagers sext sexually explicit pictures of themselves and are subsequently accused of distribution of child pornography.

Sexting and Sex Addiction

With mobile devices making sexting constantly available, sexting addiction has become more widespread. In fact, some estimates suggest that online porn addiction and sexting comprise the most common subtype of internet addiction.

Sexting can be a symptom or manifestation of sexual addiction, which is an illness like other addictions and causes destructive consequences. For some, sexting is the primary behavior involved in sexual addiction. For others, an all-consuming interest in pornography, sexual encounters with sex workers, pathological infidelity, or cybersex relationships can be the main focus of the addiction. 

Sexual addiction is related to obsessive and compulsive thoughts and actions, and the inability to control behavior, even when the addiction is destroying finances, self-esteem, a career, and even family relationships.

Similar to other addictions, sexual addiction is progressive in nature. This means that the person who suffers from sexual addiction will spend more and more time and energy engaging in the specific behaviors related to their addiction. In addition, sex addicts often seek more intense experiences as the addiction progresses in order to achieve the same "high" they once got from more benign activities.

Signs of Sexting Addiction

Certain people are more likely than others to develop a problem with sexting, including those with:

  • Another type of sexual addiction
  • Distorted body image
  • Low self-esteem
  • Untreated sexual dysfunction

So how can you tell if sexting is becoming an addiction for you or someone you care about? As with all addictions, sexting becomes a problem if it’s interfering with your daily activities and having a negative impact on your personal or professional life.

For example, it's a problem if your sexting prevents you from completing work or school responsibilities, or you’d rather spend hours sexting than attending social or family functions. Yet another sign of addiction would be sexting with another person behind your partner’s back or sexting with multiple partners just to get a “fix,” without knowing who they are or having any intent to form personal relationships.

Treatment

Treating a sexting addiction often requires support from professionals, and can be particularly complicated because refraining from the use of a mobile phone is not practical in today's environment. With that temptation always in hand, sext addicts must be vigilant about relapsing.

Working with a psychologist who can provide the most effective treatment methods, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), will be essential in helping you or someone you care about develop effective relapse prevention skills as you address sexting addiction. Your relationships may have suffered as a result of your sexting, so family therapy may also be part of your recovery. While there are no established medications used to treat sex addiction, medications may be prescribed if you have cooccurring anxiety or mood disorder.

Because sexting and pornography addiction are becoming more common, many new inpatient and outpatient centers focusing on treating these disorders have become available in all parts of the world. In addition, a self-help support group program such as Sex Addicts Anonymous can be helpful in achieving and maintaining recovery.

If you or a loved one are struggling with sexting or a sex addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.


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