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Youth and Pornography Addiction

Letting teens get their quick fix of sex on the net could cause long-term physiological and psychological damage.

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By Sarah Peters

12/18/13

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Men younger than ever are reporting difficulty achieving intimacy in relationships and are struggling well into adulthood to regain normal sexual function, according to sex addiction experts.

High-speed Internet pornography, more specifically the addiction to seeking novel and increasingly shocking images, is to blame for these sexual problems, according to therapists who counsel men and boys as young as preteens.  “There seems to be a classic pattern that is emerging which is that the addiction to pornography develops in the adolescent years, stays hidden for a time, and not until the teen grows into adulthood and experiences serious marital conflict [does he] seek treatment,” said psychotherapist Matt Bulkley, counselor at the Youth Pornography Addiction Center in St. George, Utah. 

For the young men we've treated, they literally have to go on a porn diet for three to five months to get an erection again.

Young viewers of Internet pornography are more likely to suffer long term physiological and psychological damage lasting into adulthood because the exposure happened during a time when their brains were not yet finished developing, Bulkley explained. “In some cases, erectile dysfunction is the result of the brain being trained to be aroused by pornography,” he said.

The problems arise when a younger viewer who has not yet had any real life romantic or sexual experience learns the “birds and the bees” from watching pornography. Teens may immediately experience feelings of confusion, isolation and shame when they view pornographic content. When that teen moves into adulthood seeking a relationship, he may have problems with sexual interest, arousal and monogamy. “When it comes to understanding intimacy, porn is masterful at distorting what it is that is involved in a real relationship,” Bulkley said. 

How is Internet Pornography Addictive?

Scientists are just beginning to link heavy pornography viewing with the same pleasure-reward responses that occur in drug addiction. When viewing pornography, the brain releases large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine, the same chemical that drives reward-seeking behavior in substance addictions, according to Psychology Today contributor Gary Wilson.

Wilson is co-author of the book, Cupid's Arrow, and the mastermind behind YourBrainOnPorn.com, a website that explores topics relating to neuroscience, behavioral addiction and sexual conditioning. In his article, “Why Shouldn't Johnny Watch Porn if He Likes?” Wilson shows how younger brains are particularly susceptible to the thrill-seeking effect of dopamine as compared to adult viewers. Teen brains are the most sensitive to dopamine at around age 15 and react up to four times more strongly to images perceived as exciting. On top of the increased thrill-seeking, teens have a higher capacity to log long hours in front of a computer screen without experiencing burnout. Additionally, teens act based on emotional impulses rather than logical planning. These traits combined make the adolescent brain especially vulnerable to addiction.  Pornography addiction during adolescence is particularly troubling because of the way neuron pathways in the brain form during this period. The circuitry in the brain undergoes an explosion of growth followed by a rapid pruning of neuron pathways between ages 10 and 13. Wilson describes this as the “use it or lose it” period of a teen's development. 

“We restrict our options—without realizing how critical our choices were during our final, pubescent, neuronal growth spurt,” Wilson wrote. “...This is one reason why polls asking teens how Internet porn use is affecting them are unlikely to reveal the extent of porn's effects. Kids who have never masturbated without porn have no idea how it is affecting them.”

Teens are left without an understanding of normal sexual behavior because they have been repeatedly exposed to the superstimuli of constant novelty and constant searching provided by Internet pornography. 

Lasting Effects of Internet Pornography Addiction at an Early Age

The very components that define Internet pornography—isolation, voyeurism, multiplicity, variety—also explain why online porn is more addictive and damaging than the pornography of yesterday. “There was a time when people looked at pornography in print magazines and some [viewers] were specifically drawn to it more than others,” psychotherapist Alexandra Katehakis told The Fix. “Then, over time, there was video pornography and that grabbed the brain differently than print did. Now, internet pornography is so powerful that it is literally rewiring the brains of men.” 

Young viewers are unintentionally training their bodies to become aroused by the unique conditions provided by internet pornography, explained Katehakis, who is also a certified sex addiction therapist and clinical director of the Center for Healthy Sex in Los Angeles. “What happens is when these neuronal networks start to fire together, they become wired together,” she said. “With internet porn, the images are so incredibly powerful and visceral that it is shocking to the system and a person gets a massive dose of dopamine...over time, they need more and more [dopamine]."

While most of those who identify as having a pornography addiction are male, females are also susceptible and can experience lasting damage as well, Katehakis said. 

The same principles apply—sexual response is wired to what was learned by watching porn. For females, this can distort perceptions of validation, pleasure and their role in sex. “Parents need to have conversations with their kids,” Katehakis added. “They need to talk about what is the purpose of sex, what is the meaning of sex and why people have sex.” Without those conversations, teens move into adulthood without real knowledge of healthy relationships. “Later in life there may be intimacy problems, the inability to connect with another human being and the inability to maintain a long-term monogamous relationship,” she said.

Seeking Help for Pornography Addiction

The stigma surrounding pornography addiction—many treatment centers do not yet recognize it—leads many of the afflicted to feel isolated and depressed which can heighten the need for the feel-good response triggered by the addiction itself. 

The simplest treatment may also be the hardest. “The most important thing to do is to stop looking at it,” Katehakis said. “For the young men we've treated, they literally have to go on a porn diet for three to five months to get an erection again.”

“Also, stopping looking at images isn't enough,” she continued. “Often a person can find himself still looking at images in his head. Some people can look at [pornography] like some people can have a glass of wine and not have another, while other people can really never look at it again.”

Centers which treat sex addiction will often also treat pornography addiction, although the two are very different: pornography involves pixels and not another human being.

“The main thing that the general population needs to understand is that [pornography] can really become a bon-a-fide addiction and to not underestimate the potential impact of this on a teen's life,” Bulkley said. Teens who are addicted to online pornography may show symptoms such as increased time spent in isolation, increased time spent viewing technological devices, changes in attitude or behavior such as hypersexual language or dress and decreased focus in school and other activities. 

Counselors at the Youth Pornography Addiction Center in Utah help teens reset their thinking by uncovering the underlying issues that existed before or were aggravated by the addiction. "An addiction is a coping mechanism,” Bulkley explained. “Rather than solving the problem, they turn to this temporary escape.” Helping teens create an action plan to identify problems and how to overcome urges is one formula used for outpatient counseling at Bulkley's center.

For more intensive treatment, the center also has a wilderness program where teens “detox” from not only technology and internet pornography, but also from the highly sexualized images that are prevalent everywhere from bus bench advertisements to cosmetic product packaging. 

However, as with many things, problems can be averted early on by having conversations with your family, Bulkley said. “Parents need to understand, like it or not, kids are going to be exposed to pornography...You can do everything you can to protect them, but with the sexualization of our culture and the ease of access, it's not if, it's when.”

“It's about having an ongoing conversation with your kids,” Bulkley continued, “and it really has to be an early discussion and ongoing dialogue that continues through their growing-up years.”

Sarah Peters has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Daily Pilot and the California Health Report. This is her first story for The Fix. 

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