When does talking dirty online go too far? By Pham Thu Ha. Photo by Fred Wissink.

In Hanoi, there is a hospital treating people for sleep disorders, depression, and even suicidal tendencies. What brought the patients to the hospital? In some cases: cybersex.

“Every night, I can’t leave the computer screen,” one anonymous man whom we’ll call Minh wrote to Vietnam Student Newspaper, explaining he was drawn to beautiful girls online. “I chat with them and tell them stories about sex, about making love. I couldn’t sleep for many nights. I felt so tired.”

For eight months, Minh couldn’t resist the brief moments of daily euphoria, even though they left him feeling deflated in the morning. “I don’t want to do anything, to eat anything. All excitement is lost. I lost 12 kilograms.”

The student publication solicited readers to share experiences like that of Minh, experiences that Dr Nguyen Khac Dung said are not so uncommon. He works for Mai Huong Daycare Psychiatric Hospital, which has seen its share of cybersex addicts.

Dr Dung recalled one patient whom a nurse had called into his office. His door opened while the doctor was writing at his table. But when he looked up, the patient was “wearing nothing”.

“Our hospital has some cases like this,” Dung said.

This young man’s family had taken him to Mai Huong hospital after he fell into depression following six months of sex chatting. He masturbated repeatedly throughout the day, everywhere in his home from the kitchen to the bathroom, Dung said. The sexual intensity wore off, rendering the patient mentally and physically exhausted.

The internet has taken off in Vietnam, which has some of the highest access rates in the developing world. By the end of 2012, 34 percent of the country was online, according to market research company We Are Social.

All that activity means it’s easier than ever for young people to get a connection to start chatting, as anyone who has walked by a public internet cafe can attest. It also means citizens have unprecedented exposure to sex-related material, whether it’s to learn about sexual health or look at porn.

These conditions may not cause cybersex addiction, but they certainly provide fertile ground for it to bud. And that affects more than just the chatters.

“Severe sex chat addicts have strong sexual desires, they want to hide their emotions and can’t control their behaviour,” Dung said. “This may lead them to commit crimes such as theft, or to assault other people if they get irritated.”

Of course the greatest consequences hurt the patients themselves. “After a long time spent sex chatting, patients have some symptoms such as: sleeping disorders, depression, and different types of physical and mental disorders,” Dung said. “There are about 10 percent of patients who have suicidal thoughts.”

In other serious cases, people have experienced some memory loss. Doctors will prescribe medication such as antidepressants, as well as apply certain therapies to improve, for instance, nutrition or the physiological issues that have an impact on sleep.

At Mai Huong hospital, cybersex addicts often do not arrive until their conditions are at their most severe. Citing hospital policy, Dung did not divulge the number of people admitted for symptoms related to sex chatting. But he did say 20 percent of patients were likely to relapse within six months of treatment, and 60 percent would within a year.

Dr Ngo Thanh Hoi, director of Mai Huong, helped conduct a survey showing that 20 percent of young people experience mental health issues, while 17 percent have behavioural disorders. In recent years there’s been more awareness that these lead to stress, anxiety, phobias, depression and suicidal thoughts.

The fact that sexually driven problems have turned clinical, and are derived from technological capabilities, marks a shift in the way Vietnam handles sex. Traditionally, it was never talked about, except perhaps between a couple once they had married and therefore had sexual licence. Now people have greater freedom to explore their sexual curiosity, which brings both good and bad with it.