There’s no shortage of things I’m not looking forward to talking to my children about. Among them, addiction, sex, credit scores and taxes. (Not necessarily in that order.) In fact, the longer the list gets, the weirder it becomes. According to a recent Irish Telegraph article, I can add pornography addiction to the trash heap of conversations that I’m dreading. While the Internet continues to be a virtual minefield, constantly threatening to cut short our kids’ innocence with the click of a button, it’s also proving to have a serious effect on the human brain. “Cyber-sex addiction is predicted to be the next tsunami in mental health,” the story warns, cautioning that our world is as addicted to instant gratification as it is ill-prepared to treat it.
“Very Much an Epidemic”
While most Americans’ Facebook news feeds are currently clogged with political rants and heated debates, it’s easy to forget that an even darker side to the Internet lurks just around the corner. “Pornography has become very much an epidemic,” therapist Nuala Deering told the Telegraph. While we can’t stop porn, Deering believes in educating and helping families to prepare their children to “deal with a world of unprecedented change.” Quite honestly, “unprecedented change” is probably selling the dangers of cyber porn short: many addiction experts argue that it’s no different than getting addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some believe it’s even more addictive.
“[Cyber porn] engages the most sensitive sense we have, our eyes; and it’s readily available in unlimited quantities,” one article observed. Since explicit, erotic images are essentially burned right into our brains once we see them, they cause the neural pathways in our brains to be entirely rewritten. That’s why pornographic images remain in our memory (ready to be quickly retrieved) long after experiencing them for the first time. What’s worse is that some studies prove that Internet porn is reducing the amount of grey matter in the brain, where the regions of hearing, emotions, memory and decision making live. In short: the ultimate power of porn might be that it can make everyone dumber.
“Isn’t Everyone Watching It?”
The Irish Examiner story notes that the days of Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler are long gone. The rows of plastic-covered nudie magazines—fixtures behind the counters of most gas stations and convenience stores—are quaint in comparison to what’s available online nowadays. For many young men in the 1990s (including this writer), a stolen Playboy from a friend’s dad’s bathroom was a sacred item. It was precious—a treasure that you kept safe at all costs. The advent of the Internet, however, hasn’t simply upended everything we know about erotica and stimulation. It has come with a steep, unusual price: record numbers of teens and men in their early 20s are now reporting erectile dysfunction. “These are physically healthy young men, with no medical issues, but their use of pornography, which sometimes becomes an addiction, is having a debilitating effect on their sexual relationships,” the Examiner article says.
The increase in men reporting problems getting and sustaining erections isn’t just alarming—it’s a clear sign that porn has successfully crossed over from the screen straight into bedrooms and doctor’s offices. It’s also doing more than just re-shaping the brain: it’s rewriting the nature of relationships. “Internet pornography use is becoming increasingly socially acceptable, so, maybe, this is one of the reasons why people are slow to connect their pornography viewing with their sexual difficulties,” one expert told the Examiner. “After all, ‘isn’t everyone watching it’?” Many psychologists solely blame cyber porn for ruining relationships, mainly because porn sets unrealistic expectations for young men. “Exposure to such material can grossly distort beliefs about human sexuality and ruin interpersonal relationships,” one Psychology Today story said. “Patients that progress in this fashion often report feeling unsatisfied with their sexual experiences and unsatisfied with their partners.” With no end in sight for Internet porn, it paints a pretty bleak portrait for the future of the real world.
“No Lectures, No Blame, No Shame”
All of the hand-wringing over Pornhub and Redtube aside, the Irish Examiner article does offer up some hope. Several experts, like psychosexual therapist Dr. June Clyne, contend we should start by studying the root causes: “We need to look at the reasons why people are viewing porn. Is it boredom, low confidence, easy availability/accessibility, suppressing emotions? Is it that we have become so used to connecting to screens, and so isolated, that we don’t know how, or where, to approach a ‘real’ person?” There’s also research that indicates that while cyber porn does affect the brain, it doesn’t cause long-term damage. The Examiner article cites studies that show dopamine levels can normalize in just three months—less than the typical time it takes for the brain to start recovering from drugs and alcohol.
Some ask whether online porn might have educational value. (Yes, you read that right.) Thankfully, many say no. “With young people, their script around sexuality, pleasure, and what a relationship is about is developed at an early age,” Nuala Deering countered. “This is difficult to change. Without appropriate and adequate public information for safe sexuality, young people can blindly stumble into sexual dysfunctions, relationship problems, and sex addiction.” When it comes to talking about the dangers of porn, child psychologist Catherine Hallissey advocates a “no lectures, no blame, no shame” approach to talking with kids. One of the most important things parents can do is have open and honest dialogues with their kids—and not as a “one-time talk” which can simply be overwhelming. She also suggests having conversations that aren’t focused on how terrible porn is and, instead, acknowledge that curiosity is natural. One way or another, porn isn’t going away. No amount of site-blocking or parental controls will ever stop it. Just as active addicts always find their way to a drink or a drug, so too will curious teenagers find porn on the Internet. Parents may never win that battle, but being more available than the nearest computer can save their kids from mouse-clicking themselves into feeling nothing at all.