Kids and Porn: The Discussion

by Marnia Robinson

Published on December 13, 2010


About five years ago, limitless quantities of free, shocking, explicit videos became widely available to savvy Internet users with high-speed connections. Alas, some of the planet’s most talented computer wizards are youngsters. Passing around outrageous pornographic video clips is now a popular social activity.

Such videos are often so extreme that they dumbfound even the most freethinking parents. According to psychiatrist Norman Doidge in The Brain That Changes Itself, porn grows more shocking because today’s porn users tend to habituate to material viewed. That is, today’s superstimulating porn, instead of satisfying more, numbs the brain’s pleasure response. Then the user needs something even more shocking to get aroused—which the porn industry continuously delivers. Who’s gonna get excited by “PacMan” when he has been playing “Grand Theft Auto” or “Halo 3”?

The more novel, startling, “sinful,” forbidden, or even disgusting, a video is, the cooler it is to pass around. Also, the more it excites a viewer’s brain (specifically, the reward circuitry). Climax then reinforces the “value” of the material that produces the climax. So, kids’ brains are now rewiring to value brain-jolting material for which nothing in their (or most anyone’s) experience has prepared them.  Norepinephine released in response to shocking images also appears to reinforce this learning.

While video games also flood the brain with dopamine, it’s evident that sexual content activates additional aspects of the brain’s reward circuitry. As kids mature, sexual reproduction signals trump video-game thrills.

The brain changes that follow repeated stimulation can have surprising effects. Young men report that their sexual tastes sometimes morph in unexpected directions, and that they become less responsive to normal flirting. Sure, part of their brain still wants a sweetheart with whom to do the usual, rewarding teenage things. Yet another part wants a porn star’s moans of artificial desire, which their brains associate with fleeting relief.

Since I began sharing the correlations men are discovering between heavy Internet porn use and symptoms like erectile dysfunction and social anxiety, I’ve been hearing from younger and younger guys struggling with such symptoms. (As an aside, users who manage to avoid extreme stimulation do not seem to report unusual erectile dysfunction problems.) Here’s a sample:

I’m hoping to recover and get aroused more around girls. I have been going insane thinking that my sex life is over. I am 15 years old and I’ve been masturbating since I was 12. It started out as just simple videos but now I have been getting into more extreme stuff. … Can you explain to me the basic steps I need to take to recover please? … I have to ask this so that my mind can rest and I can feel confident. Is there any permanent damage done to me? If I successfully quit porn will my limb stay up when I become sexually active in the future? Or will I have ED issues?

Science has not investigated or verified the answers to his questions. First, who can find porn virgins of a suitable age to test? Second, who deliberately wants to expose kids to superstimulating, aberrant erotic videos to see what happens in their brains, or how it alters their sexual response over time?

It has long been known that overstimulating the brain’s reward circuit with drugs can cause cravings for more and more. Now, research is revealing that non-drug, “natural” things, like junk food, can alter the neurochemical balance of this part of the brain like drugs—numbing response to normal stimuli. The symptoms heavy porn users report suggest that their brains are experiencing these very changes. (Slowly, both porn’s risks and the benefits from leaving it behind are becoming evident.)

If a guy has been viewing porn videos since puberty, or before, how would he know if his (lack of) response to potential sweethearts, his kinky tastes, or his masturbation cravings are normal for him? He has nothing with which to compare. Sexologist Jakob Pastötter gives an example of how porn shapes perception:

When Kinsey did his studies in the 40s, not even gay men practiced anal sex frequently. The first changes occurred during the 70s in the gay scene and then, especially under the influence of the so-called gonzo pornography, also in heterosexual circles. Suddenly, anal sex seems to have become quite a common practice. And accordingly, sex counsellors report that not too long ago the first boys enquired, “How can I persuade my girlfriend to have anal sex?” Then, a few years later, came the first girls, “How can I dissuade my boyfriend from anal sex?” Now, the girls come and ask the sex counsellors, “What pills can I take to prevent it hurting like hell?” All this in a period of only fifteen years, which began when anal sex was introduced in pornography as a common sex variant, in the mid-90s approximately.

Today, it is not unheard of for straight kids to become hooked on transsexual porn, autoerotic asphyxiation, bondage or violent rape porn. It can be very unnerving for them to be having erections/orgasms to material that conflicts with their self-image.

What’s a parent to do?

Would your child discuss his porn escalation or disturbing symptoms with you? And if he does, will you be able to explain why today’s porn is riskier than erotica of the past? Can you give practical advice about managing sexual desire and masturbation? Most parents cross their fingers, remind themselves that they survived encounters with Playboy, and hope their kids will figure things out for themselves.

Yet today’s porn is nothing like Playboy. It’s video, so the user can effortlessly imagine himself in a role. It’s always novel, and there’s no limit to how much can be viewed. Even after climax a user can keep going by clicking to something more shocking. The issue isn’t masturbation or whether content is “good” or “bad.” The issue is the effects of Internet porn’s extreme stimulation on the brain. 

Due to a search-engine fluke, my husband and I have been listening to the woes of recovering porn users for almost five years. More and more of them are in their twenties or even younger, and quite alarmed by the tenacity of their unwanted symptoms. They are grateful for clear explanations of how their brains have been affected and how to restore normal responsiveness. (For more, visit Your Brain On Porn.)

It’s difficult to know what to tell kids to help them steer for balance in today’s superstimulating environment. However, based on the stories we’ve been hearing, here are some suggestions. Whether or not you find them helpful, do find a way to discuss today’s porn with your child.

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Will Savage

Quantum Units Continuing Education provides online CEU training's to licensed professional mental health therapists, counselors, social workers and nurses. Our blog provides updates in the field of news and research related to mental health and substance abuse treatment.

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