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Posted on 2016-04-15
Writer Description: Evanvinh
This writer has written 733 articles.

Finding a needle in a haystack would be easier than finding an adolescent male who hasn’t seen online porn. Surveys indicate the average boy watches roughly two hours of porn every week with porn viewing becoming common by age 15.

The most popular porn site—PornHub—reported that the average Millennial porn session lasts 9 minutes, while the average age young people have sex for the first time is 17 years old. This means the average boy has had about 1,400 porn sessions prior to having real life sex. So why aren’t more people asking what kind of effects porn is having on these young viewers?

Almost all people can recall the first erotic image they saw; like a flashbulb memory it is forever emblazoned in our minds. There appears to be a special window of time when visual sexual interests form most readily: adolescence. When this critical period gets hijacked by watching copious amounts of online porn, it seems some men can suffer from what one Italian urology survey called “sexual anorexia,” or difficulty having sex with a real partner. Many of the young Italians in the 28,000-person survey started “excessive consumption” of porn sites as early as 14 years old and later, when in their mid-20s, they became inured to “even the most violent images.” Professor Carlo Foresta, head of the Italian Society of Andrology and Sexual Medicine (SIAMS), explained that the problem worsens when young men’s sexuality develops independently from real life sexual relationships. First, he said, viewers become less responsive to porn sites, then their libido drops, and finally it becomes difficult to get an erection.

In a 2014 study, Dr. Foresta found that 16 percent of high school seniors who used online porn more than once a week reported abnormally low sexual desire, while none of those who didn’t use it reported abnormally low sexual desire. Studies published in the last 6 years report erectile dysfunction rates ranging from 27 to 33 percent, while rates for low libido (hypo-sexuality) ranged from 16 to 37 percent. The lower ranges are taken from studies involving teens and men 25 and under, while the higher ranges are from studies involving men 40 and under (see 123,45). Traditionally, ED rates have been negligible in young men, usually around 2 to 3 percent.

In fact, in the first comprehensive study of male sexual behavior in the US, which was conducted by Alfred Kinsey in 1948 and published in the book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, just 1 percent of men under 30 years old and 3 percent of men between 30 and 45 years old, reported impotence. What variable has changed in this time that could possible explain a 1000 percent increase in youthful ED? Unlimited access to high speed, streaming Internet porn.

Not surprisingly, a number of recent studies have found relationships between online porn use in young men and ED, anorgamsia, low sexual desire, delayed ejaculation and lower brain activation to sexual images (see1234567). Many of the young men who participated in the 20,000-person survey conducted by myself (Phil) and my co-author Nikita Coulombe for our book, Man Interrupted, said that porn distorted their idea of a healthy sexual relationship, and that “the script” of porn was always playing in the back of their minds when they were with a real partner.

Other male survey participants claimed they were able to watch porn occasionally and not suffer significant side effects. But they were the minority. It was clear that plenty of young men out there, including teens and pre-teens with highly plastic brains, find they are compulsively using online porn with their porn tastes slipping out of sync with their real-life sexuality.

Porn on the brain

In Man Interrupted, we dub the need for novel online stimulation arousal addiction. Unlike alcohol or drug addiction, where someone wants more of the same alcohol or drug, a person who exhibits addictive behavior with arousing activities such as porn craves material that is constantly changing. Simply put, it is like saying, “give me the same but different.” I (Gary) ascribe this phenomenon in my book,Your Brain on Porn, to the human brain’s natural propensity to find novelty arousing, corresponding with spurts of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with activation of the brain’s reward system. Its presence helps initiate feelings of wanting, desire, even cravings. Experiences such as eating, taking drugs, and having sex release dopamine into two main brain regions: the striatum and the frontal cortex.

However, as a person slips into addiction, more lasting changes take place. This very specific constellation of brain changes manifests as the signs, symptoms and behaviors we recognize as addiction. Neutral stimuli and events that are associated with an addictive substance or its process, such as gambling or drug-taking sequences, can also become conditioned to generate further arousal and add to the body’s chemical response. This is known as sensitization, which is at the core of all addictions. For a recovered alcoholic a sensitized cue could be walking by his favorite bar, which elicits an overwhelming desire to drink. Cues for a porn addict might be turning on the computer, seeing a sexy pop-up, or simply being alone.

In porn addiction, these deeply etched Pavlovian memories cause events to become cues for diving back into a behavior. These cues trigger intense, hard to ignore cravings for porn use. In the last few years 15 studies have reported sensitization in porn users (see 1, 2, 3, 45, 6, 7, 8,9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15). Critics of porn addiction posit that excessive porn use simply reflects a high libido, often referencing a single 2013 EEG study. It actually reported greater cue-reactivity to porn correlating with less desire for sex with a partner. In short, those with more brain activation and cravings for porn would rather masturbate to porn than have sex with a real person. This is most assuredly not an indication of high sexual desire. Various recent studies refute the “sex/porn addiction = high libido” hypothesis (see 12345).

If an image or scene is no longer stimulating enough for today’s porn users they will look for variety, surprise factor in the content, more hard-core and stranger material, anything they haven’t seen in order to attain a sexual climax. One result is that some brains on porn are being “digitally rewired” in a totally new way to demand change, excitement, and constant stimulation. Each dose of dopamine is a brain-training experience. It communicates, “This experience is important to our survival, and should be remembered.”

Less stimulating pursuits, on the other hand, may be forgotten. The subtle and not so subtle effects of excessive online porn use can negatively impact any part of a person’s life that are analog, static, involve planning, delaying gratification, and long-term goal setting. With porn there is a “cognitive absorption” effect where the complete involvement in porn excites cognitive, sensory and imaginative curiosity to the point where a boy loses track of time and other demands on attention, such as homework and socializing, become inferior. Using the excitation transfer model and sexual behavior sequence of psychologists Dolf Zillmann and Donn Byrne, respectively, Belgian researchers have recently suggested that the high states of arousal achieved in porn stimulated impulsive and “restless” behavior that may impair actionsthat require long periods of constant focus.

Sensitization is also behind sexual conditioning

At the same time, everything associated with a young man’s porn/masturbation session is imprinted upon his neural circuits, such as a voyeur’s perspective, clicking from video to video, constant novelty, switching to new porn genres, and searching for the perfect scene to finish. Though the impact of chronic overstimulation on the brain and behavior varies from individual to individual, it is worth examining the potential physiological, mental, and emotional effects of watching too much of porn, because few people consider how it may be affecting their brains and their ability to become aroused in real-life sexual encounters.

Initially online porn had to be downloaded prior to watching. That took a long time and variety was limited. At the end of 2006, however, streaming porn that no longer had to be downloaded started showing up in every genre imaginable. Using these sites, users now effortlessly click from scene to scene and genre to genre to boost their arousal. Sites allow viewers to control their dopamine drip with a click of mouse. The change means the user can—and many do—condition their arousal patterns to on-going, escalating, and ever changing novelty. Today’s porn users can also learn to associate their sexual response with shock, surprise or anxiety—all of which increase dopamine and sexual arousal. Thus users are conditioning their sexual arousal template to everything associated with their porn use, not just “watching a lot.” Their brains then expect these things during sexual arousal. Yet none of these attributes of online porn match sex with a real person, who cannot compete with the buffet provided by porn no matter how attractive they are. When arousal expectations are unmet, dopamine drops, and so do erections and orgasms during intercourse.

In relationships, it’s not uncommon for young men to find themselves aroused at first because of a partner’s newness, yet after several months of being intimate with the same person, find that partner no longer turns them on. Not suspecting the true cause of their problems, many young men are baffled when they experience lack of desire for real partners, unreliable erections when using condoms, or difficulty climaxing or sustaining erections with partners. After all, they may have no problem climaxing while viewing porn. People we’ve spoken with who demonstrated signs of arousal addiction often feel very anxious in social situations in general, have less motivation to set and complete goals, feel out of control, and even discussed suicide.

Guys themselves are not only starting to talk about how porn has personally affected them, but, more importantly, about the benefits when they stop using it, such as clearer thinking and better memory, more motivation, increased charisma, deeper relationships, and better real life sex.

New brain research supports the porn addiction model

Researchers have finally begun to investigate the effects of online porn on heavy users’ brains in order to figure out what’s going on. A number of these studies have uncovered evidence of brain alterations and behaviors that are also seen in other kinds of addicts. In the first-ever brain-scanstudy of online porn users, conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, researchers found that the hours and years of porn use were correlated with decreased grey matter in regions of the brain associated with reward sensitivity, as well as reduced responsiveness to erotic still photos. Less grey matter in this region translates into a decline in dopamine signalling. The lead researcher, Simone Kühn, hypothesized that “regular consumption of pornography more or less wears out your reward system.” This can be thought of as desensitization or a numbed pleasure response.

This addiction-related brain change leaves the individual less sensitive to pleasure, and often manifests as the need for greater and greater stimulation to achieve the same buzz (tolerance). In the past year two more brain studies have reported desensitization in compulsive porn users (see 12). While sensitization makes your brain hyper-reactive to anything associated with your porn addiction, desensitization numbs you to everyday pleasures. Over time, this dual-edged mechanism can have your reward circuitry buzzing at the hint of porn use, but less than enthused when presented with the real deal. If these two neuroplastic changes could speak, desensitization would be saying, “I can’t get no satisfaction” (low dopamine signaling), while sensitization would be saying, “Hey buddy, I got just what you need,” which happens to be the very thing that caused the desensitization. A numbed pleasure response (desensitization), combined with a deep brain pathway leading to cravings and short-term relief (sensitization), is what powers most addictions.

Another German study showed users’ problems correlated most closely with the numbers of tabs open and degree of arousal. This helps explain why some users become dependent on new, surprising, or more extreme, porn. They need more and more stimulation to become aroused, get an erection and reach climax. In further support of the hypothesis that online porn’s novelty contributes to its risk, a 2015 brain-scan study led by researchers at the University of Cambridge found that men who demonstrate compulsive sexual behavior require more novel sexual images than their peers because they habituate to what they are seeing faster than their peers do. Study spokesperson Valerie Voon said that “Our findings are particularly relevant in the context of online pornography” and “It’s not clear what triggers sex addiction in the first place and it is likely that some people are more pre-disposed to the addiction than others, but the seemingly endless supply of novel sexual images available online helps feed their addiction, making it more and more difficult to escape.”

A 2014 brain-scan study from the University of Cambridge by Voon and colleagues found that young porn addicts exhibit brain responses that are comparable to drug addicts. Their cravings for porn are disproportionate to their liking for it, compared with non-addicted controls. In the past year three more brain scan studies have found that heavy porn users had greater reward system activation (sensitization) than men who used less porn (see 123). Voon also reported that over 50 percent of the subjects (average age 25) had difficulty achieving erections with real partners, yet could achieve erections with porn. This could be interpreted as an overt physical sign of brain desensitization. Finally, Voon found that younger subjects had enhanced reward circuit activity when exposed to porn cues. Higher dopamine spikes and greater reward sensitivity are major factors in adolescents being more vulnerable to addiction and sexual conditioning. It may be no coincidence, then, that solo male porn users report altered sexual tastesless satisfaction in their relationships and real-life intimacy and attachment problems.

Just prior to the arrival of porn sites, research published in 2005 indicated that young people who consume online porn were more likely to exhibit clinical symptoms of depression and lesser degrees of bonding with caregivers than those who consumed porn through other means, such as magazines. Online sexual activities were also already beginning to displace normal relationship development, learned courtship and romantic behaviors in college students. In the intervening decade, almost all porn users have shifted to online streaming porn. Understandably, researchers have focused increasingly on the effects of its use on aggression, risky sexual behavior, sexual attitudes, and so forth. This has left the adverse effects on users themselves under-researched.

Levels of narcissism are higher in online porn users, while excessive porn users also have reduced ability to monitor their own consumption. A longitudinal study showed that academic performance declines with porn use. Men who cut out porn often report improvements in mental clarity and ability to focus. Is this because online porn interferes with working memory during and after its use? In undergraduate college males, depression, anxiety, stress, and social functioning were significantly related to online porn use, and more viewing was related to greater problems. Also, the more young men use online porn and masturbate, the more shyness they reported. They were also more dissatisfied with their sexual performance and body image. Many users then do not engage in real life sexual activity, perhaps due to severe social anxiety.

In case you’re wondering which way causation runs, there is evidencethat social anxiety, depression and compulsivity are related to how intensely arousing users find the material, rather than personality traits. In fact, some of the most common improvements mentioned by recovering users in the online forums are reduced social anxiety, improved concentration and memory and increased motivation and charisma after quitting online porn use. This highlights a significant deficiency with nearly every study trying to assess porn’s effect on the user: researchers don’t ask study participants to abstain from porn use. While recovery forums contain thousands of stories involving remission or improvement of myriad conditions and symptoms, only two studies had participants attempt to eliminate porn use. It was for only three weeks, yet both studies reported significant differences between abstainers and controls. In a 2015 study where participants reduced or eliminated porn use for three weeks, researchers found that reducing porn viewing significantly improved participants ability to delay gratification in pursuit of more valuable future rewards. The second study, employing a similar three-week procedure, found that subjects who continued using pornography reported lower levels of relationship commitment. In a third “case study” a compulsive porn user, whose tastes had escalated to extreme hardcore pornography, sought help for low sexual desire during sex. Eight months after stopping all pornography the patient reported experiencing successful orgasm and ejaculation and finally enjoying good sexual relations.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Ultimately, more research needs to be conducted in order to provide clarity on both the causes of porn addiction and the stages of recovery. To porn users, we’re not saying there’s something wrong with wanting to look at images of naked hotties. And static photos pose less risk than videos. High-speed, streaming Internet porn is simply more than some brains can handle. Healthy young men should not have any trouble getting or maintaining a full erection and then masturbating to orgasm regardless of whether they are watching porn or not. (Just a note, if you have a strong erection and can orgasm while masturbating without porn, but have trouble with a real-life partner, your sexual dysfunctions could be anxiety-related.) Viagra or Cialis may, or may not, help, but they won’t solve the underlying problem in instances of porn-induced sexual dysfunctions. Such drugs only dilate the blood vessels to sustain an erection. You still need genuine desire to initiate one. Without arousal, nothing can happen.

So, if you watch porn, ask yourself how much of what you’re attracted to has been influenced by porn. Young men today are forming their sexual attitudes and arousal templates around having access to dozens of sexual partners in a single masturbatory session—in other words, having more partners in less than 10 minutes than our ancestors would have had in an entire lifetime. Watching porn that is out of sync with your sexuality doesn’t necessarily mean your sexuality is changing; it may mean your response to pleasure has become numbed. Sometimes you just have to hit the “reset” button and stop using porn completely for a few months. In fact, even if you’re not struggling, you might experiment with a break from porn, just to see if there are any hidden powers you never knew you had. END

About the authors

Philip Zimbardo is internationally recognized as the “voice and face of contemporary psychology” through his widely viewed PBS-TV series, Discovering Psychology, and his classic research, The Stanford Prison Experiment. Noted for his personal and professional efforts to actually “give psychology away to the public,” Zimbardo has also been a social-political activist, challenging the Government’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq, as well as the American Correctional System. Zimbardo has been President of the American Psychological Association (2002), President of the Western Psychological Association (twice), Chair of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP), and now Chair of the Western Psychological Foundation.

Gary Wilson is the author of Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction, presenter of the popular TEDx talk “The Great Porn Experiment” and host of the website “Your Brain On Porn,” which was created for those seeking to understand and reverse compulsive porn. He taught anatomy and physiology for years and has long been interested in the neurochemistry of addiction, mating and bonding.



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