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I feel like there has been a lot of press about pornography lately. A certain politician is embroiled in a scandal with a porn star. The Florida House of Representatives declared pornography a public health issue (however, guns are not considered a public health issue, despite a recent school shooting in that state...that's a whole different blog topic). Time magazine made porn the cover story not too long ago. So what's the deal with pornography? Is it harmful or liberating? Good vs. evil? Both? Neither?
Consumption of pornography is quite prevalent. According to companies that track porn stats (what a job, eh?), there were more than 2 billion internet searches for porn in 2015. 20% of mobile-device searches are for porn. 90% of boys and 60% of girls are exposed to Internet porn by age 18; the average age at first exposure is 12 years old. Nearly 2/3 young adult men and 1/5 young adult women use porn at least once a week.
There is a growing body of research that says watching porn may lead to some not so desirable individual and social outcomes. A German study showed what the brain looks like on porn (flashback to the 1980's anti-drug commercial of "this is your brain on drugs") This study showed a negative association between pornography consumption and the brain's grey matter. In other words, the more porn one watched, the less brain volume seen on imaging. The study also showed that increasing porn viewing led to reduced responsiveness to erotic photos, meaning that the person can become numb to the images. It may take increasingly graphic content to get a porn connoisseur excited.
A lot of young men talk about how porn has given them an unrealistic view of what sex and intimacy are supposed to be, and how they then find it difficult to get interested in and aroused by a real-life partner (pornography-induced erectile dysfunction, or PIED). This was demonstrated in the movie Men, Women & Children, where one of the characters who frequented porn sites was unable to perform when faced with a real-life sexual encounter. Technological advances, like high-speed internet, have resulted in a steady increase in the percentage of individuals who consume pornography. There is an association between increasing prevalence of erectile dysfunction in men and increasing access to high-speed internet. Remember, associations are very different from cause-and-effect relationships, and more research is needed to determine if there is a closer link (but more research is coming).
Others studies have demonstrated that frequent porn users report less satisfaction in relationships. And I find it interesting that porn, which historically has been accused of objectifying women's bodies, may have negative effects on male's body image.
Research has also shown that porn can be as addictive as any drug. It has been speculated that pornography constitutes a prewired, naturally rewarding stimulus. Viewing pornography causes a flood of dopamine to the reward-center of the brain. And much like other drugs, high levels of exposure result in a downregulation of the neural response in the reward network. It will take more and more to get that high. Adolescent brains are at peak point of dopamine production and neuroplasticity (without that pesky prefrontal cortex to help consider consequences of risk-taking behaviors). This means teens are more susceptible to becoming addicted to the high of pornography.
Most of the research is surrounding the effects of pornography use on males. Porn-viewing may be less prevalent in women than in men, but can still be problematic. More research about women and porn is on the horizon.
I do not want to come across as a porn-hater. Pornography may have some positive effects too —including increasing ability to explore sexuality and communicate with partner about sexual desires.
So maybe Florida's House of Representatives aren't completely off-base by making pornography a public health issue (although, likely not as pressing as some other public health issues). I do believe the bill should be rephrased to make PROBLEMATIC porn-viewing a public health issue. More research needs to be done to determine who is more likely to become addicted and suffer negative consequences. More research needs to determine the best method of treating porn addiction. In the meantime, make sure to keep having conversations with your kids about healthy sexuality and be aware of what your teen is looking at online.
If you are concerned that you or someone you know is addicted to pornography, talk with your health care provider.