Is pornography as destructive to adolescent development as drug abuse?

The abuse of drugs and alcohol during by teens has been an area of concern among parents, teachers and mental health experts for many years. Prevention and treatment efforts are found in virtually every community in the nation and most agree that teen drug abuse is a societal issue that needs continued focus due to its damaging effects.

In recent years, due to the ease of access to pornography and the increased sexualization of our culture, increasing numbers of teens are viewing pornography on a regular basis, and in many cases becoming addicted.  Unfortunately, the same level of concern that accompanies teen drug abuse seems to be lacking with the new phenomena of teens and porn.  There are a variety of explanations for why there is not more being done including the mistaken belief held by some that “boys will boys” while normalizing the behavior and accepting the idea that it is simply part of adolescent sexuality to be curious and to explore porn.  Another is the incorrect idea that it is a moral issue that should be left to parents and churches to deal with, rather than viewing it as a developmental issue that impacts a teen’s emotional, psychological, neurological and social development. 

According to sociologist Jill Manning, the research indicates pornography consumption is associated with the following six trends:

1. Increased marital distress, and risk of separation and divorce

2. Decreased marital intimacy and sexual satisfaction

3. Infidelity

4. Increased appetite for more graphic types of pornography and sexual activity

associated with abusive, illegal or unsafe practices

5. Devaluation of monogamy, marriage and child rearing

6. An increasing number of people struggling with compulsive and addictive sexual Behavior

Too often, we minimize potential problems with teen pornography use and simply hope they will somehow go away on their own.  As parents and professionals, we need to be more vigilant to assure that those teens who are struggling with pornography addiction are able to get help in breaking free from the addiction.  Failing to do so holds both short-term and long-term damaging ramifications for youth.  In most cases, individuals addicted to pornography are unable to break the addiction on their own and as outlined above, the potential trends lead to the destruction of future families and the decay of society.

Warning to parents: cyber-sex addiction is a teen issue

Cybersex addiction is the compulsive use of internet pornography, sexually-oriented chat rooms, sexual- fantasy role-play sites, use of social media, smart phones and other handheld devices for sexual pleasure which  in turn, negatively impact an individual’s functioning.  As much as we would like to conclude that these issues only impact adults in our society, we must begin to accept the fact that children and teens develop cybersex addition as well—and more often than many realize.  Unfortunately most don’t seek help until later in life after the addiction has resulted in significant disruption to their lives.

Experts are predicting that cybersex addiction is the next tsunami of mental health, and yes, this includes among teens.   The impact is far-reaching and its effects are yet to be fully realized as cyber-sexual activities is such a new issue and we have yet to see the outcomes on the current generation.  Consider just a few of the statistics regarding teens and porn:

93 % of boys and 62% of girls are exposed to internet pornography before the age of 18.

70% of boys have spent at least 30 consecutive minutes looking at on-line porn on at least one occasion.

35% of boys have done this on at least ten occasions.

83% of boys have seen group sex on the internet.

67% of children admit to clearing their internet history to hide their online activity.

0% of pornography users report being addicted.

The average age a child first sees internet pornography is 11.

70% of young men ages 18-24 visit pornographic websites on at least a monthly basis.

Internet porn and cyber-sexual activities supplies an immediate, private, and easily accessed "hit," thus changing the erotic template of the brain.  Its use has a drug-like effect on the body and mind.  It stimulates reward and pleasure centers of the brain instantly and dramatically, increasing the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with both sexual arousal and drug highs.  Pornography and cybersex can also lead to "process addiction" in which the person becomes addicted to a set of behaviors that in turn powerfully alter brain chemistry.   In time, the user can't control his or her use, is aroused only by images and interactions on the screen, and natural sexual responsiveness is reduced.  Cyber-sexual addiction has the potential of harming the emotional, psychological neurological sexual, and relational well-being of an entire generation of youth.

Additionally, chronic exposure to cyber-sexual activities has led many teens to believe that being sexually active is normal.  It is now common for oral sex to be seen as the new kissing and for girls to send nude/partially nude photos of themselves via smart phones to boys as a way to communicate their interest.  

These new issues create some major challenges for parents which leads many to ask, “What can we do to protect our kids?”  We offer three important ideas for parents:

1. Supervise your kids when they're on the internet.  Use internet filters, but do not assume that filters will eliminate exposure to sexually explicit material.   Just as important--Be wise in the decisions you make about allowing your kids to have smart phones.  Be willing to take a strong stance if your child is not ready.  Some kids simply are not ready to have possession of a smartphone.  Allow them to have a phone, but do not provide a data package or internet access.  Your child must prove to you they are capable of using it responsibly.  When you do provide a child with a smart phone, you as the parent must retain ultimate control over the device which means you can take it and look through it at any time and without warning.  It also means if you suspect misuse in any way, that you have the ability to take away the privilege. 

2. Talk to your children about sexual issues—not just once or twice, but make it a regular on-going communication.  Too many parents “have the talk” once and then assume their child(ren) will be fine.  An open line of communication with parents about sexual issues throughout the adolescent years is vital to help teens navigate these challenges.

3. If one of your teen has become dependent on internet porn, get him or her professional help.  Most individuals who become addicted to pornography can’t break the addiction on their own.  Don’t trivialize or minimize the problems and somehow hope that the problem with go away on its own.  Helping your child to manage the addiction now, rather than later in life will save them having to deal with the negative consequences as an adult.

Treatment not just prevention efforts needed for teen pornography problem

Over the past year, we have had the good fortune of visiting with parents, teens and professionals from around the country regarding the topic of pornography use among youth.  We have been encouraged by the level of concern expressed by many of those with whom we have interacted.  While most are greatly concerned about the issue and agree that prevention efforts among our youth are vital, those young people who are struggling with addiction issues relating to pornography continue to remain in the shadows.  While research is limited regarding the number of teens addicted to pornography, it does seem apparent to us that very few struggling with compulsive use of pornography are actually getting help.  The fact that so few youth are accessing treatment for this issue is a big concern to us.  Certainly the shame and embarrassment that so often accompanies a pornography addiction is a factor that prevents more from seeking help.  Additionally, the use of pornography becoming more widely accepted in society and its use being considered “normal teen behavior” is likely a factor as well. 

Too often, we minimize potential problems and simply hope they will somehow go away on their own.  As parents and professionals, we need to be more vigilant to assure that those teens who are struggling with pornography addiction are able to get help in breaking free from the addiction.  Failing to do so holds both short-term and long-term damaging ramifications for youth.  In most cases, individuals addicted to pornography are unable to break the addiction on their own.

According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, prolonged exposure to pornography leads to:

–– An exaggerated perception of sexual activity in society

–– Diminished trust between intimate couples

–– The abandonment of the hope of sexual monogamy

–– Belief that promiscuity is the natural state

–– Belief that abstinence and sexual inactivity are unhealthy

–– Cynicism about love or the need for affection between sexual partners

–– Belief that marriage is sexually confining

–– Lack of attraction to family and child-raising

Too many youth do not deal with this issue during their teen years and move into adulthood with an addiction.  As evidenced by the above mentioned study, the consequences lead to the destruction of families and healthy relationships.  In addition to prevention efforts and education about the dangers of pornography, we need to assure that teens struggling with pornography addiction have the chance to get help to break free from the addiction while they are still young.

Why are today's teens so vulnerable to developing a pornography addiction?

 Mental health professionals are seeing a pattern of more and more teens and young adults seeking treatment for problems related to pornography addiction and its accompanying behaviors.   This pattern leads to the need for further analysis as to why this is occurring and what the long-term ramifications of this may be.

Studies already suggest that most adults struggling with sexual addiction first developed the addiction during adolescence.  Does this pattern predict an epidemic of future sexual addiction?

The Youth Pornography Addiction Center was founded in 2010 and has been studying this trend and providing treatment to teens and young adults in this area since that time.  Based on its experience, listed below are three reasons why this trend is occurring:

  1. Access—Pornography has always been available, but until the age of the internet, had to be accessed in magazines, video tapes and often required entry into adult books stores and was difficult for teens to obtain.  Never before has sexually explicit material been so readily available and easily accessed.   A majority of teens and young adults have laptops, smart phones, I-pads and are constantly connected to the internet.  In a matter of seconds and virtually anywhere, pornography can viewed.  Internet porn is the medium by which most youth view pornography and most of it free of charge and without accountability for age of the viewer.
  2. Potency of today’s Porn—There is a drastic difference between today’s online porn and the porn of just a few decades ago. Now, youth can go to countless websites and find more free porn than they could ever find the time to watch….all in high definition video. They can even pick their favorite template, hair color, sexual activity, and just watch video after video of it. It’s all free, easy to access, available within seconds, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and can be viewed on phones at any age.  Addicted teens find themselves driven to view more and more pornography and becoming more and more secretive and deceitful in their efforts to do so.  It is true that erotic photos and videos have been around a long time, but the dopamine arousal from turning the pages of a Playboy magazine can’t hold a candle to the steady stream of ever changing erotic stimulation that is so easily obtained from searching for and viewing online porn. This is why online erotica can create such powerful addictions in teens.  Today’s porn doesn’t satisfy teens’ needs; it distorts them. Teens are particularly vulnerable as the strength of the dopamine high is likely the strongest, most euphoric sensation they have ever experienced in their young lives. Skeptics need to understand this “high” rivals anything that could be achieved with drugs.
  3. Diminished authentic relationships—The rising generation has been using technology on a daily basis for their entire lives and it is interfering with their ability to connect with others in a face to face and intimate manner.   Many teens text far more than they talk.  Some send more than 1000 texts a day.  Many teens spend hours and hours playing video games and interacting with “virtual friends” on Facebook while sitting at home alone and isolated from “real friends”.   Intimacy and connectedness can not occur in virtually or in cyberspace.  The National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health, which surveyed more than 12,000 high school students throughout the country, has noted that feelings of “connectedness” (feeling close to people at school, fairly treated by teachers, and loved and wanted at home) helped significantly to lower an individual’s likelihood of emotional distress, early sexual activity, substance abuse, violence, and suicide.  Another recent study found in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine has suggested that the more screen (computer, video game, cell phone) exposure teenagers get, the more detached they are from those around them.  There appears to be a relationship between adolescent screen time and the diminished social involvement with parents and peers.  Sexual addiction experts suggest that among the core issues driving the addiction is the lack of intimacy and fear of connectedness.

Three reasons to not ignore teen pornography use


Three reasons to not ignore teen pornography use

In our technology-driven modern culture where pornographic media is increasingly common place, it can be easy to downplay the use of pornography among today’s teens as “normal curiosity”, “just a phase” or “part of exploring one’s sexuality”.  Additionally, given the deterioration of morality in society, the use of pornography is not even viewed as a problem by some and the idea of its use being pathological is mocked and ridiculed. 

Because porn is so abundant, easy to access and regularly viewed, increasing numbers of teens do not hold the belief that viewing pornography is harmful, but rather believe that “everyone is doing it” and view the behavior as normal and acceptable.

Don’t fool yourself and keep your head buried in the sand about this growing problem in our society.  Pornography use among teens can have devastating consequences.

1.       Pornography is addictive.  Neuroscience findings show that pornography addiction impacts the brain the same way that drug and alcohol addiction does.  Teen brains are particularly susceptible to pornography addiction as the neurochemicals released while viewing pornography create a euphoria not previously experienced and quickly train the brain to crave the “high” that accompanies viewing.   Easier to access and conceal than drugs or alcohol and with a virtually endless supply of free material, pornography can rapidly become an addiction and nobody but the young addict is even aware.  Breaking the addiction can be incredibly difficult.  Individuals addicted to both drugs and porn share that breaking a porn addiction can be more difficult.

2.       Pornography distorts a teen’s view of sexuality.   Unfortunately, increasing numbers of children gain their knowledge about sexuality from pornography and the internet, rather than from their parents. More cases are being seen in juvenile courts involving young children and teens exposed to pornography “acting out” activities they have viewed in pornographic media leading to problems such as sexual abuse and reckless sexual behavior.  Additionally, regular porn use leads to the “objectification of people for their bodies” rather than viewing them as individuals such as somebody’s sister or somebody’s daughter.  Young men who regularly view pornography become trained to view women as mere sex objects and young women come to believe that they must strive to have the body of a porn star to be valued by society.  Ultimately the act of sex becomes so devalued and distorted that it serves no purpose beyond a tool for selfish pleasure, rather than the cherished and respected act that is the ultimate form of expression of love and bonding between a couple and the source of creating new life.

3.       Pornography destroys relationships.  Marriage counselors have seen a dramatic rise in the number of couples experiencing marital problems as a result of pornography.  Though hard for youth to comprehend, teens addicted to pornography have trained their brains to arouse to porn, which can interfere with their ability to effectively engage in a healthy marital relationship later in life.  A recent phenomena noted by therapists and physicians is erectile dysfunction in young men who can arouse to pornography, but not to regular healthy sex with their partner.   Additionally, most spouses do not approve of their partner viewing porn.  This leads the addict to keeping the addiction secret which creates trust issues and conflict in a young marriage.  Lastly, teens that develop an addiction to pornography often do so at the expense of participation in socialization and relationships with peers.  The formation of addiction and the inability to quit viewing creates unwanted emotions of shame, guilt, embarrassment, increased secrecy, depression and self-loathing which make it more difficult in young adulthood to work toward intimacy with a partner.

Is technology changing the profile of teen sexual offenders?

Is the typical profile of a juvenile sexual offender changing as a result of exposure to the ease of access to sexually explicit material? While research in this area is lacking, some researchers are suggesting it may play a role. Among those is Dr. Michael Seto, whose results from a 2011 study suggest that more consideration needs to be given to the variables of exposure to sexual violence, exposure to sex or pornography in teen sexual offending behaviors.

Juvenile sexual offenders have often been stereotyped as socially incompetent, lacking social skills and unable to read non-verbal cues from their peers.  While social ineptness may very well be a characteristic of some teens committing sexual offenses, there is increasing reason to consider how the onslaught of sexually explicit media contributes to sexual offending among youth.

 In today’s technology and internet driven society, opportunities for children and teens to access explicit sexual material and even sexual encounters is more plentiful than at any other time in history. As a result there been an increase in wreckless and illegal sexual behavior.  Behaviors such as frequent use of pornography,  involvement in explicit sexual chats, sexting through new apps such as Vine and Snapchat, and solicitation of sex through social media are becoming increasingly common.  Obviously, the internet makes these activities easy to engage in.  Other variables also play into the increase in these behaviors among teens including the perception that “everyone is doing it”, the belief that they are acting under the cover of anonymity, and lack of immediate consequences for these actions.

Some teens who commit sex offenses are otherwise law-abiding citizens, who don’t display anti-social or pedophilic tendencies and who do not display any significant social skill deficit.  Many of these teens may not have ever crossed the line to commit illegal sexual acts were it not for exposure to sexually explicit content via the internet.

Of course, none of this makes it okay or excusable to commit a sexual offense.  A sex offense is a serious crime because there is a potential victim involved - and the possibility that someone is harmed.  That being said, for teens who commit a sexual offense, more than ever before, the variable of internet driven sexual content as a primary factor for the sex offense should be considered.   In cases where it is a factor, the standard treatment models for sex offending may not be a complete model. 

While the hard research is still lacking in this area, teen sexual offending and the use of sexually explicit internet content appears to be a growing and dangerous relationship.  Unfortunately, many juvenile sex offender treatment assessments and programs lack any significant attention to pornography and sexual addiction issues.  Programs and clinicians working with juvenile sexual offenders should give increased attention to the role that pornography and cybersex plays in teen sexual acting out.  Treatment models need to be augmented to provide specific intervention for pornography and cybersexual addiction.