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Adolescents and Pornography: A Generation of Disconnection and Addiction

Feature Articles

Any useful analysis of adolescents and pornography must first start with facts. The first and most important fact to understand is that kids engage with and through technology as much if not more than they engage face-to-face with actual, in-the-flesh people. Children born in the US and other first-world nations, and even many second and third-world nations, live in an Internet-enabled, deeply digital universe. They are “digital natives.” For them, texting, video chats, social media, online gaming, online learning, and digital entertainment are ubiquitous and natural.


Their parents and grandparents, sometimes referred to as “digital immigrants,” tend to feel differently. At best, digital immigrants can learn to use new technology in the same ways as young people, but they are almost never as at-ease or as fluent with that technology as digital natives. It is like learning a second language. Even if you learn it perfectly, you are likely to have at least a slight accent, and to more easily interact in your native tongue.


Consider the words of beloved science fiction author Douglas Adams: 


Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things (2002).


That is a pretty easy statement for just about anyone to identify with. If you are young, the fact that you spend, on average, 11.5 hours per day engaged with digital devices (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010) is normal and ordinary and a natural part of the way the world works. If you are a little older, the fact that young people are spending around 70 percent of their waking hours swiping, tapping, and staring at a video screen probably seems either potentially profitable or downright disturbing, depending on your point of view. 


Would it surprise you to learn that at least a few of those 11.5 digital hours are spent in sexual exploration? If so, it really should not. Kids generally become interested in sex from the first time they hear about it. They want to know, “What is it? How do I do it? When will I do it? Do I measure up?” And like it or not, the Internet provides answers. Sometimes those answers are purely and intentionally educational; most of the time, however, they are pornography. In fact, for many of today’s adolescents, porn is the primary source or sex education. Kids learn more—lots more—about sex from pornography than from sex education classes and “birds and bees” talks with their parents. 


And this really should not be surprising. After all, porn drives the Internet. More so every day. Consider the following: 


In 1991, the year the World Wide Web went online, there were fewer than ninety different adult magazines published in America, and you’d have been hard-pressed to find a newsstand that carried more than a dozen. Just six years later, in 1997, there were about nine hundred pornography sites on the Web. Today, the filtering software CYBERsitter blocks 2.5 million adult Web sites (Ogas & Gaddam, 2012).


Other research tells us that 12 percent of all websites are pornographic, 25 percent of all search engine requests are porn-related, and 35 percent of all downloads involve pornography (Damania, 2011). Shall I put these numbers in context for you? Netflix has 46 million monthly users. Amazon has 110 million monthly users. Twitter has 160 million monthly users. Porn sites have 450 million monthly users. That is more than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. And that does not include all the people who send and receive sexts, or the people who cruise hookup apps, dating sites, and social media looking for erotic content. 


If you want to find porn, it is out there. In abundance. And it is easily accessible to anyone who goes looking—including children—without cost or proof of age or any of the other barriers that separated kids from porn in the predigital era. Today, the “user-posted porn” model, pioneered in 2007 by a company called MindGeek, generates revenue via ads rather than memberships. Basically, users are encouraged to collectively create their own porn site by sharing videos they already have (or that they make themselves) so others can watch those vids without creating a membership or being charged. This means that most online porn is currently available for free, and can be easily and anonymously accessed by anyone who wants to see it. Including children. 


And yes, kids are very definitely looking at porn. Especially boys. One recent study found that 84 percent of adolescent males use porn at least weekly and often daily (Lim, Agius, Carrotte, Vella & Hellard, 2017). Another study tells us that “hardcore” is the most commonly viewed category (Donevan & Mattebo, 2017). And this hardcore porn use starts early, too. One study finds that the average age of first porn use for boys is thirteen (Sun, Bridges, Johnson & Ezzell, 2016). Other research suggests boys start using porn even earlier, at eleven (Wolak, Mitchell & Finkelhor, 2007). In today’s world, porn use among boys is so ubiquitous that when Canadian research Simon Lajeunesse wanted to study the effects of porn on adolescent males, he could not do so because he was unable to find any test subjects who had not already looked at porn. Without a control group there was no way for Lajeunesse to make comparisons, and he eventually abandoned the study (Liew, 2009). 


In case you are wondering, it is not just boys who look at porn. Girls do too, though possibly not as many and not as often. For example, a study conducted in 2008, when MindGeek’s video sharing model of porn distribution was in its infancy, found that 92 percent of adolescent boys and 62 percent of adolescent girls had looked at online porn at least once (Sabina, Wolak & Finkelhor, 2008). 


Interestingly, parents and other adult caregivers rarely know about a child’s use of pornography. And why would they? Kids, especially adolescents, are notoriously secretive. They like to learn about life by pushing boundaries, and they want to do this without interference, so they lie, cover up, and keep all sorts of information to themselves (or share it only with their peers). One study found that 70 percent of teens hide some or even most of their online activity (Sutter, 2012). Common ways they do this include:


  • Clearing the browser history
  • Closing or minimizing the browser when an adult shows up
  • Hiding or deleting IMs, texts, videos, etc.
  • Lying about online activity
  • Using a digital device their parents do not check or do not know about
  • Using Internet-enabled mobile devices (which typically have no traceable browser history)
  • Using privacy settings that prevent their parents from fully accessing their webpages, profiles, and activities
  • Creating secret e-mails and social media accounts


Secretive or not, it is clear that adolescents, especially boys (but also many girls), are looking at porn. Moreover, they are starting at a very young age, and they are doing it a lot more often than their parents might feel comfortable with.
Problems Created by Adolescent Porn Use


Before proceeding with this section, I think it is important to state that we do not have a huge amount of credible research on the ways in which porn affects adolescents. For one thing, as discussed earlier, it is very difficult to create a like-for-like control group. Sure, we might be able compare a group of porn-using boys from a typical suburban neighborhood to a cohort of non-porn-using boys from an isolated, tech-averse religious community. But could we really draw useful conclusions from that? Probably not. Plus, we must accept that it would be highly illegal to intentionally subject minors to porn simply to watch the effects (or for any other reason), so at best we must rely on after-the-fact self-reports, usually from college-aged and older individuals reporting on behaviors that occurred many years earlier, with those reports filtered through their personal lens of experience. 


That said, we do have a small amount of useful research supported by a great deal of anecdotal evidence provided by both young people and the therapists who treat them. Taken together, this information suggests that some (but by no means all) adolescents are negatively affected by their use of pornography. Typically, this occurs in one of the following ways: their attitudes toward gender, relationships, and sexual behavior are influenced; they become compulsive with and/or addicted to the use of pornography; or they experience problems related to their use/abuse of pornography. For example, masturbation to the point of injury and porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED) are common. 


Attitudes and Behaviors about Gender, Relationships, and Sex


Let us talk first about the “pornification” of our culture. As stated earlier, porn has become the primary form of sex education for most adolescents, especially boys. And what they are learning has influenced their thoughts and feelings about gender, intimate connection, sexual and romantic relationships, and how they want to engage in sexual activity. 


One recent study of 330 men between the ages of seventeen and fifty-four found that the age these men first viewed pornography (which ranged from five to thirty-six) greatly impacted their thinking and behavior toward women. Those who started younger were far more likely to want sexual power over women (APA, 2017). So, as sex and intimacy therapist Robert Weiss (2015) writes, “If a twelve-year-old with no sexual or romantic experience is suddenly exposed to and becomes compulsive with hardcore pornography, that’s what his or her view of adult relationships is likely to become.” 


Other research confirms this. One study looking at 487 men aged eighteen to twenty-nine found that the more porn a test subject watched, the more likely he was to request porn-like sex acts from his partner (Sun et al., 2016). Another study, this one a meta-analysis of twenty-two existing studies from seven countries, found that the use of pornography is associated with sexual aggression in the United States and internationally, among both males and females, in both cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses, with stronger associations for verbal than for physical sexual aggression. Results also suggested that violent content in porn viewing is an exacerbating factor (Wright, Tokunaga, & Kraus, 2016).


So, it does appear that watching pornography at an early age shapes the attitudes, desires, and actions that comprise an individual’s sexual arousal template. In the words of psychologist Norman Doidge (2014), “We are in the midst of a revolution in sexual and romantic tastes, unlike any other in history, a social experiment being performed on children and teenagers.” Unfortunately, as of now, we really do not know what the long-term results of this experiment will be. We do, however, know that porn is significantly affecting the romantic and sexual thinking and behaviors of at least a few young people. 


Compulsivity and Addiction


Adolescents are every bit as susceptible to addictions as adults. They may be even more susceptible, because research tells us that adolescent brains are more malleable—and therefore more easily influenced by potentially addictive stimuli—than adult brains (Casey & Jones, 2010). This might be even truer with sex, because adolescents are, by evolutionary design, highly receptive to sexual cues and stimuli, especially intense and constantly changing stimuli such as we see with internet porn (Voon et al., 2014). 


With this in mind, it should hardly be a surprise that adolescents who look at porn might find it addictive. Consider a Swedish study of sixteen-year-old boys. This study found that 96 percent of test subjects were actively using porn, with 10 percent using porn daily. Daily users reported higher levels of risky sexual activity, troubled relationships, smoking, drinking, and drug use, suggesting that their brains were either already wired or became wired, thanks to porn, in ways that left them seeking constant intensity and novelty—not just with sex, but in all facets of life. Most importantly, around one-third of the daily users said they typically watched more porn than they intended or desired (Mattebo, Tydén, Haggström-Nordin, Nilsson, & Larsson, 2013). 


Does it not sound as if some of these boys are addicted to porn? The identifying characteristics of porn addiction are preoccupation, loss of control over use, and directly related negative consequences, and these boys are watching porn every day, they cannot control how much they watch, and they are having issues with sexual activity, relationships, and other aspects of life. At the very least, they are at risk for porn addiction. 


Common consequences experienced by adolescent porn addicts include depression, low self-esteem, isolation and loneliness, anxiety, inability to form or maintain romantic relationships, trouble in school or at work, stressful relationships at home, concurrent abuse of alcohol and/or drugs, physical harm to genitals from excessive masturbation, and PIED.


The last of these issues, PIED, may be a surprise to many. However, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence (best seen on NoFap.com) and actual research (Sun et al., 2016; Pizzol, Bertoldo, & Foresta, 2016; Zimbardo, Wilson, & Coulombe, 2016) linking heavy porn use to erectile dysfunction in adolescents and adults—especially when it comes to sex with real-world partners. Basically, to achieve and maintain an erection during sex with a real-world partner, adolescent porn addicts must replay porn imagery in their heads, or even have actual porn playing in the background. Sometimes adolescent porn abusers say they would rather masturbate to online porn than engage in actual in-the-flesh sex. 


Identifying Porn-Related Problems in Adolescents


Adolescents are, by nature, at least a little bit obsessed with sex, which makes it difficult to differentiate between normal adolescent development and sex/porn addiction, especially if they are keeping most or even all of their porn use hidden. Even when adolescents are being honest, it can be difficult to identify problem porn use versus normal sexual exploration. Usually, the most obvious indicators of addiction are changes in their lives. So, one boy might masturbate to porn several nights per week (or every night) while maintaining his grades, his social life, his normal activities, and his relationships at home. Another boy might also be online looking at porn most (or all) nights, with his grades slipping, social isolation, and a loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities. The first boy is probably not porn addicted, while the second very well could be. 


Common warning signs that an adolescent may be addicted to porn (Weiss, 2015) include:


  • Viewing and/or masturbating to pornography for multiple hours per day/night
  • Decreased interest in and/or declining performance in school and extracurricular activities
  • Diminished interest in and/or ability to socialize with peers
  • Excessive interest (or a total lack of interest) in typical adolescent dating activities
  • Secretiveness around computer and smartphone usage—wiping browser histories, clearing texts and phone logs, password protecting devices, owning and using devices in secret, etc.
  • Lying to parents or others about the nature or the amount of porn use
  • Sexual aggression, incest, age-inappropriate relationships, etc.
  • Secrecy in general, such as spending large amounts of time alone in a room with the door locked


That said, therapists must be very careful when identifying porn addiction in adolescents, keeping in mind the idea that adolescents are supposed to be interested in and curious about sex, and in today’s world most of their sexual exploration occurs online. The fact that we did not explore sexuality in this way when we were kids does not mean it is wrong or pathological or abnormal for today’s kids. 


Still, it is clear that some young people are struggling with porn addiction. For evidence, look no further than the discussion forums on NoFap.com. There, adolescent users post comments like:


  • “The first time I was introduced to porn I was ten years old. I am now seventeen and have been consumed by this for nearly half of my life. I hardly remember my life before porn. I have tried to quit many times, but I keep going back. I don’t know how I can stop, but I do know that I need help and I don’t want to keep on living this way.”
  • “Do I have to quit porn completely for my ED to go away? I am eighteen and feel like I should not be having this problem. I think I’m only having it because of porn.”
  • “I am fifteen and I started fapping [masturbating] at thirteen, and since then I’ve had problems in every other area of my life. I couldn’t be in a relationship because I wasn't able to approach girls, so I gave up and fell into depressions, drug use, and even attempted suicide.”


Before continuing, I do need to state that porn use is not a problem for most young people. Mostly it is the kids who are susceptible to life issues already, based on genetics and/or a dysfunctional home life, who are vulnerable to porn addiction, the same as they are vulnerable to alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, and similar issues (Anda et al., 2006). 


Addressing Porn-Related Problems in Adolescents


For therapists worried about adolescent porn usage, the basic road to wellness is the same as with adults. The first thing to do is to help clients understand the connection between their porn use and current life problems, such as declining grades, social and emotional isolation, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, inability to connect romantically, etc. Once you have broken through clients’ denial about porn use and its effects, a porn sobriety plan can be implemented. Generally, these are three-zone, red/yellow/green plans defining which behaviors are problematic and need to stop, which behaviors are slippery, and which behaviors are healthy. 


  • Red Zone: These are bottom line behaviors that are causing problems in clients’ lives. For instance, porn addicts would need to stay away from all forms of pornography, both online and off. 
  • Yellow Zone: This is the slippery slope that leads to the red zone. For some individuals this might include R-rated movies, fashion/clothing magazines and catalogs, and certain real-world venues like strip clubs, for example. 
  • Green Zone: This is a listing of healthy behaviors individuals might turn to instead of pornography, including Twelve Step meetings, meditation, exercise, hanging out with friends, etc. 


Once porn abusers are separated from pornography, underlying issues and various consequences can be dealt with. Generally, this starts with a brain “reboot.” Usually, it takes three months to a year for the pleasure response in a porn-addicted brain to normalize. Once that occurs, issues like PIED and addiction-driven depression will usually either disappear or greatly diminish. 


Installing an Internet filtering or blocking software is also highly recommended. These products need to be installed on all clients’ devices—tablets, phones, laptops. Typically, protective software products offer a variety of preset filtering levels, ranging from settings appropriate for young children to settings appropriate for adolescents and adults struggling with porn and other online activities. The better products also offer monitoring and reporting features, meaning clients’ therapists or other accountability partners are notified when they use a digital device in a prohibited way. 


Beyond that, porn abusers need to learn how to connect with others in emotionally intimate ways. This is the opposite of what they are used to with porn, so this process can take a bit of time and a lot of effort. However, it is more than worthwhile. There is a reason that addiction professionals often say things like, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection.” Only when people connect with others and feel a sense of belonging can their emotional needs be fully met. Until then, they will continually search for a quick and easy way to temporarily fill the proverbial “hole in the soul,” and the surest way to do that, for many adolescents, is through porn or some other addiction. 


For this reason, Twelve Step groups and group therapy are incredibly important when treating adolescent porn addicts. In these venues, they can connect with others who are dealing with the same basic problems and consequences. Unfortunately, these treatment and recovery options are not always available for adolescents, especially younger adolescents, which is why newer options, in particular apps and websites geared toward recovery from porn addiction and sexual compulsivity can help. These include rTribe.org, NoFap.com, YourBrainOnPorn.com, and YourBrainRebalanced.com, to name but a few. 






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