If the pandemic wasn't a surreal enough experience, a recent study suggests that lockdown has amplified a disturbing trend.
Research by sex toy company WeVibe revealed that 14 per cent of men admit to being aroused by their smart-speaker Alexa, which confirms my view that we have been sleepwalking into a different kind of epidemic – one of loneliness and fear of intimacy.
I've been a practising psychotherapist for 20 years, and never have I worked with so many men and women who are unhappy and scared because their deepest attachments and primary source of arousal are through interacting with their tech. I call these people "technosexuals".
Technosexuals are joined – as though surgically – to their favourite gadgets. Whether it's the "ping" of a message, swiping right, or the seductive, authoritative tones of a cloud-based voice service, their tech fulfils them by mobilising the reward system in the brain and releasing dopamine – the "happiness hormone".
The instant activity of using their tech – likes and comments – is like a sexual turn on. This "dopamine hit" happens in all of us but, in technosexuals, something else is at play.
For them, the modern digital world influences all their libidinous activity. It dictates who they fancy, and how they present and value themselves.
You could be dating a techosexual without even realising it. They are great at screen chat, yet not so great at the face-to-face authenticity required to begin or sustain a relationship. The tech they carry around has become such a handy dopamine stimulator, it's like having a sex toy in their pocket – human intercourse no longer cuts it.
The reason why some of us can sustain a healthy relationship with tech, while others can't, comes down to a deep-seated fear of intimacy – the main trait of the technosexual, which being at home, often alone, has only intensified.
Take Jess*, 36. She runs her own recruitment agency, has a wide circle of friends and appears to enjoy life. Yet behind the image of a contented, successful woman lies someone totally disconnected from her sexual desires. Before the pandemic, Jess would rarely see the same person twice and hadn't had sex in three years. Instead, the activities that arouse her include maintaining her social media feeds, chatting online, and scrolling Instagram for date outfits or locations – activities that have ramped up during lockdown.
In all my years of practising, technosexuals are perhaps the most troubling cohort of mental health sufferers I have seen, because the source of their distress appears, on the face of it, to be so innocuous. Where most of us just use tech when we need it – and, as Zoom-fatigue has shown, can get quickly turned off by it – the technosexual is hit by the double whammy of intensified use, which arises from (and is subsequently inflamed by) an existing fear of closeness to other human beings.
Graham*, 42, is an accountant and has been married for two years. His interest in porn has become an obsession. Every night, he gets lost in online webcam activity on his office laptop, unaware who may be tracking him, and opening himself up to blackmail. Working from home and with no commute, he now has even more time to get sucked into virtual "relationships" at the expense of the real one with his wife.
Recent research by the University of Pennsylvania has shown that people who curbed their social media exposure felt less depressed and lonely than those who had no limits.
This study highlights the vital importance of weaning technosexuals off their tech adoration. They say, "I've had this many likes/hits/DMs, I am worth this much".
And while many of us enjoy this external validation, in technosexuals it triggers their emotional downfall.
Kamal* is 22, and studying economics at what he described before lockdown as a "very social college". Yet his fear of sex and intimacy runs deep. Kamal has never had a girlfriend, not least because girls in real life do not measure up to the ones he sees online.
Sex education in schools is failing to prepare our children for having healthy sex lives, focusing primarily on preventing pregnancy and often ignoring the digital landscape in which young people now live. As a result, they have access to tech without having the skills to stop it getting in the way of real human interaction. Without proper education, we run the risk of raising an entire generation who are brilliant at using filters on selfies, but who lack the crucial social skills required to form healthy, loving, fulfilling relationships in adulthood.
Dr Mike McPhillips, consultant psychiatrist and the leading UK authority on the treatment of psychiatric and addictive disorders, agrees. "Our children are getting sexualised at younger ages than ever before. Graphic porn available on tech, and video games, damages the body images of children and the expectations of young people." It also sets up a disconnect between intimacy with tech and human-to-human contact. The irony that our current clinical consultations are being conducted online is not lost on those of us in the business.
Technosexuals fall into the trap of mistaking connections via tech with actual intimacy. Single technosexuals write witty messages ahead of dates which often never take place, or get set up and then cancelled at the last minute – and not just through fears of coronavirus. Covid is giving air-cover to their fears. And because tech can provide the illusion of intimacy, many technosexuals convince themselves their intimate life is functioning - when it really isn't.
On face-to-face dates – even socially-distanced ones – technosexuals can become overly-anxious. The phone in the pocket or bag becomes like a child's "security blanket", something to be touched or looked at regularly to provide comfort. Technosexuals will go so far as to crow-bar their tech into actual dates as much as possible, using phones to Google trivia, display photos, showcase apps, or tot up the bill. "I appear really outgoing and engaged on dates," admits Jess*, 39, "but really it's my smartphone performing, not me."
And if a relationship appears to be progressing, the avoidant side of a technosexual will kick-in.
Once again, tech can save the day, by offering an emotionless route to end things. Technosexuals think nothing of closing romantic prospects down either by impersonal text, or ghosting.
Ghosting, in particular, is classic technosexual behaviour since they are unable to relate to the other person (date or spouse) as a human being, but rather as an object. Meanwhile, for the partner of a technosexual, it's as if "there are three of us in this marriage". Many partners suffer in silence, ashamed to admit to friends or counsellors that their love-rival – the object that soaks up all their partner's focus – is a piece of tech.
Dr McPhillips is, like me, now treating an increasing number of married or partnered technosexuals who have lost themselves in webcam activity, replacing normal sexual interests with something much darker. "The advent of online sex opens up opportunities for mutually consenting exploration, but in countless cases under my care, I have seen one partner take it far too far – and the relationship is then irretrievably damaged," he says.
Let's be clear. It's not that technology is causing this fear of intimacy, but it is making it easier to give in to. And like other forms of self-destructive, reality-avoidant behaviour, it can be hard to stop.
As Graham says, "My wife can't understand why I resist being intimate with her, but I can't admit that I'm terrified of getting close." As with much emotionally dysfunctional behaviour, secrecy is a key feature, this is why diagnosis, and getting help can be difficult.
The good news is that help is available. Technosexuals can embark on one-to-one therapy. Or if you suspect your partner or date prefers their tech to you, speaking up for yourself is important, to clarify what is and isn't acceptable to you. Or sufferers can take up a daily meditation practice to develop an enhanced awareness of their own body and emotions.
If we're not careful, mindful even, tech has the power to tempt all of us to invest too much time in a "virtual" life at the expense of our real one.
Only by living in the present is a person free to let go of unhealthy technosexual behaviour – and to continue using tech healthily, instead of it dominating and warping their lives.