Recent Internet Addiction Brain Studies Include Porn

Printer-friendly version

Brain research on Internet addiction points in only one direction 

Since we wrote Ominous News for Porn Users: Internet Addiction Atrophies Brains, which addressed recent online videogame addiction research, a tide of brand new research has been rolling in from around the world, revealing that a surprisingly large percentage of people in some age groups are addicted to Internet use itself.

The new research comprises two types of studies. One methodology uses brain scans of physical, addiction-related changes in addicts and control groups. The other uses surveys and addiction tests. (Sample test) Brain scientists also use such tests to divide subjects into test groups of addicts and control groups of non-addicts. (See the 90 Internet addiction brain studies. Read short summaries of Internet addiction studies, and ones that mention porn. Or see this collection of Internet and Videogame addiction studies).

In this post, we will be discussing research from both categories, but we're primarily interested in the hard-science brain scans because they are less easy to manipulate with bias. Here are some FAQs about the new research:

What's the percentage of Internet addicts according to the research?

Although the questionnaire studies use somewhat different terminology ("addiction" "problematic Internet use" "maladaptive Internet use"), rates range from 8 percent to as high as 21 percent in young people. Moreover, in a study that reported addiction rates by gender, a quarter of the male university students tested were diagnosed as addicts—as compared with less than ten percent of female students.

If there are no brain studies isolating Internet porn users, how can we know Internet porn addiction exists?

Internet addiction researchers measure all Internet use, so pornography and social media are lumped together. One of the most recent studies, for example, described the Internet use of Chinese addicts:

Subjects used the internet almost every day, and spend more than 8 hours ... every day in front of the monitor, mostly for chatting with cyber friends, playing online games, and watching online pornographies or adult movies. [Internet porn, by the way, is officially banned in China.]

Internet porn use has not been isolated in any of the new studies we have seen. (Who uses the Internet only for Internet porn?) But is it necessary to isolate Facebook addicts from Twitter addicts? Or World of Warcraft addicts from EverQuest addicts to determine that all such applications can become addictive for some users? No. Internet porn is simply one more, very popular, Internet pastime, and therefore potentially addictive.

Don't let the fact that many use the Internet as a masturbation aid confuse you. It is the characteristics that make Internet porn different from sex—but very similar to videogaming or slot-machine gambling—which account for its ability to hook some users. This 2013 study noted the similarities:

"It should be pointed out that, as two of the key uses of the internet for a sizable number of internet users are to gain access to pornography and gambling and these latter activities are clearly subject to potentially-addictive states, it may be that any results relating to ‘internet addiction’ are actually manifestations of other forms of addiction (i.e. to pornography or gambling)."

These characteristics include novelty-at-a-click, effortless access, and constant violation of expectations via startling stimuli. All of these release the neurotransmitter dopamine in the reward circuitry. Overconsumption can therefore dysregulate dopamine response in some brains, thus tampering with mood, confidence and ability to respond to pleasure.

Still convinced Internet erotica is a harmless exception to Internet addiction? Sorry, but it has already been determined to be more likely to lead to compulsion than any other Internet activity.

In any case, the fundamental brain changes for all addictions—both behavioral and chemical—are so similar that addiction specialists now consider all addiction to be one disease rather than many different diseases. Whether someone is diagnosed with gambling, videogaming or Internet addiction, it indicates that a specific collection of anatomical and physiological abnormalities has occurred (with minor variations).

Indeed, the same molecular switch triggers addiction-related brain changes in all addicts. The master switch that triggers these changes is the protein DeltaFosB. Both chronic, high level consumption of natural rewards (sex, sugar, high-fat) and chronic administration of virtually any drug of abuse cause DeltaFosB to accumulate in the reward circuit, thus triggering a cascade of further brain changes.

It would be interesting, but redundant, to isolate particular types of Internet addiction in order to establish the reality of any one of them, including porn addiction.

What brain changes have researchers observed in Internet addicts?

Thirty years and thousands of studies on animal and human subjects have revealed a specific constellation of addiction-related brain changes. This is why scientists are confident that these brain changes differ from the brain's normal daily activity.

For example, the Chinese study cited above, researchers concluded that,

IAD [Internet addiction] may cause serious damages to the brain, and the neuroimaging findings further illustrate IAD is associated with dysfunctions in the dopaminergic brain systems. Our findings also support the claim that IAD may share similar neurobiological abnormalities with other addictive disorders [such as substance abuse disorders and pathological gambling.]

Next we'll consider the changes so far observable in human scans, with representative studies in the links next to brain alteration. (Note, this review of Internet Addiction brain studies was published after this article: Internet and Gaming Addiction: A Systematic Literature Review of Neuroimaging Studies)

 1.      Desensitization. Refers to a general dialing down of one's responsiveness to all pleasure...a baseline change. Leaves the addict less sensitive to pleasure, and "hungry" for dopamine-raising activities/substances of all kinds. Representative Internet addiction studies: Study 1, study 2.

2.      Sensitization. Hyper-reactivity to addiction-related cues.  Leads to hard-to-ignore cravings for one's particular addiction. Study 1, study 2

3.      Hypofrontality. Frontal-lobe gray matter and functioning decrease. Reduces impulse control, decision-making, and the ability to foresee consequences. Study 1, study 2, study 3, study 4, study 5, study 6, study 7, study 8

4.      Abnormal White Matter. Gray matter is responsible processing information, whereas white matter comprises the communication pathways between different parts of the brain. Abnormalities of pathways between reward circuit structures and the frontal cortex are related to poor impulse control and reduced cognitive abilities. Study 1, study 2, study 3.

DeltaFosB is known to trigger most, if not all, of these addiction-related changes. They are not beneficial. (More on why in a future post.)

Are these the only brain changes?

No. Each of these broad-brush indicators reflect multiple subtler addiction-related cellular and chemical alterations—just as the scan of a cancer tumor wouldn't show associated subtler cellular/chemical changes.

Most of the subtler changes can't be assessed in human models due to the invasiveness of the technologies required. However, they have been identified in animal models. For example, to track desensitization, scans can measure D2 receptor changes in humans. Yet other key addiction markers, such as higher dynorphin and the accumulation of DeltaFosB, won't show up in scans.

The point is that where there are macro changes visible in brain scans, there are also subtler, micro changes. The macro changes are the final dominos common to all addictions, so they are also evidence of the micro changes.

How do we know these brain changes aren't due strictly to pre-existing pathologies?

Many experts have been taught that the only people who develop addiction are those with pre-existing disorders, such as OCD, depression, ADHD and so forth, so addiction is always a secondary disease, and presumably somewhat unavoidable. While brains do differ in their vulnerability to addiction (for example, adolescent brains are more vulnerable than adult brains), ASAM's addiction specialists now consider addiction a primary disease. That is, it can develop even without the presence of an underlying disorder. And it causes its own brain changes apart from any other disorders.

Moreover, one has only to consider the rates of food addiction in the United States (79% of adults overweight and almost half of those obese) to see that one doesn't need to be in a small, congenitally disordered minority to fall into addiction. This is especially true where extreme versions of natural rewards like food and sex are concerned. Junk food and Internet porn are both extreme versions of enticements that all of us evolved to pursue somewhat impulsively.

Moreover, two of the new studies (study 1, study 2) revealed that addiction-related brain changes were reversing themselves in former addicts. This wouldn't happen if the brain changes were the product of fixed, pre-existing conditions. Similarly, the longer addicts are hooked, the more severe their addiction-related brain alterations:

The gray matter atrophy and white matter FA changes of some brain regions were significantly correlated with the duration of internet addiction.

Indeed, experts recently concluded that they,

cannot find a solid pathological predictor for Internet addiction disorder. Internet addiction disorder may bring some pathological problems to the addicts [such as depression, anxiety, hostility, interpersonal sensitivity, and psychoticism].

On what do you base your information in this post?

In addition to the many recent Internet addiction studies cited here, support for this piece comes from the materials published by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), a group of eminent doctors and researchers who are addiction specialists. Here are some excerpts from the ASAM FAQs, which shed light on how experts in the field define addiction:

Qs: What's different about this new definition? [and] Does ASAM really believe that food and sex are addicting?

"This new definition makes clear that addiction is not about drugs, it's about brains. It is not the substances a person uses that make them an addict; it is not even the quantity or frequency of use. Addiction is about what happens in a person's brain when they are exposed to rewarding substances or rewarding behaviors, and it is more about reward circuitry in the brain and related brain structures than it is about the external chemicals or behavior that "turn on" that reward circuitry....Food and sexual behaviors and gambling behaviors can be associated with the "pathological pursuit of rewards" described in this new definition of addiction."

To summarize the current state of addiction neuroscience:

  • Addiction related behaviors and symptoms = a specific set of measurable brain alterations.
  • The brain changes found in all addictions include sensitization, desensitization, hypofrontality, and abnormal white matter. An Internet addiction is no exception, whether a user is viewing Internet porn, Facebook, www.reddit.com, or a combination Internet stimuli.
  • All addiction-related brain changes (both behavioral and chemical) are triggered by accumulation of DeltaFosB. There's one molecular switch, whether drug, gambling, food, or Internet porn addiction is at work.
  • All brain research on Internet addiction done so far (ten studies as of this post) point in only one direction.

If you are noticing these unpleasant symptoms, you may have Internet addiction, and your Internet porn use could be part of the problem.

You may also find our related post Politics, Porn and Addiction Neuroscience of interest.

"Infographic" on Internet addiction


For well written lay articles on Internet addiction see -

Comments

Points to the obvious - how do you separate Internet use from porn use?

Upping the ante: quitting my addiction to the internet entirely

This post is meant to be a public fleshing out of my thoughts, a public marking that tomorrow I start my hiatus from the internet entirely. I need some sort of ritual to signal to myself that I'm going to have a go at it.

A little miscellaneous info on me first. This is my 12th day of no PMO. I had just discovered this subreddit and the YBOP website prior to starting. I had previously tried to limit or quit porn in the past without being able to articulate quite why I wanted to. This lack of clarity ensured it didn't take. I know why I don't want it in my life now though, and plan on never viewing porn again.

I haven't experienced anything so grand just yet to be honest. I think my mind has been clearer, and I have more energy. That could be the placebo effect for all I know though. It feels like I'm in the beginning of a libido drop as some have described.

I really only think I had a somewhat minor addiction to porn. I certainly displayed some addiction traits of flying through image after image. I would have anywhere from 5-20 tabs up in firefox of incredibly hot babe pics. Sometimes I would binge and spend many many hours just downloading torrents of porn movies. A lot of them I wouldn't even watch a quarter of, it was more about the hunt and the collecting when it came to videos. Despite this and a few other signs of addiction, I'd still say I had a light addiction compared to a lot of guys here. My porn binges were irregular, not everyday by any means. I wasn't that intimidated by starting NoFap, in fact I'm fully confident I'll make it to 90 days my first go.

It was nevertheless a problem for me, a weakness, something that needed to be corrected. And I'm glad for having done this because, it helped me realize a much bigger problem/addiction. My addiction to porn may be relatively minor, but my addiction to the internet in general is pretty damn major. If I had not admitted to myself that I had a problem with porn, and embarked to ban myself from it, I might not have been able to realize and admit to myself that I am quite clearly addicted to the internet. I'm addicted to the endless novelty, to information, to quickly flowing content, to surfing.

For example, if I decide I need to buy a new vacuum cleaner, I'll fucking research everything there is to know about vacuum cleaners and the best models on the market. You can be sure I bought a damn fine vacuum cleaner, but I do this shit with everything. I read about the video game industry, watch video reviews, and listen to podcasts ten times more than I actually play games. I'll research upcoming games I really have no intention of buying. I'll waste time reading rumors of upcoming game consoles.

I'll follow politics, of all the useless things to do. I fucking hate politics and consider it a waste of my time, none the less it is 'interesting' in a morbid sort of way to vicariously watch the world burn. But not good for me.

Some new subject matter sparks my interest, I'll go read its Wikipedia page, then read the pages it links to. I'll gain some shallow knowledge that probably won't help me in life or stick in my memory long term.

If it occurs to me to read a book on a particular subject matter, I'll start reading all the reviews to many different books. When I finally decide on a book, I might not read or get through that book any time soon because of my addiction to internet novelty. Something else will hijack my interest.

And on, and on, and on. I spend the majority of my free time on the internet, bouncing around consuming bits of information. I rationalized this as being productive, of gaining knowledge. But it is very shallow knowledge, that I have really only been pursuing out of unconscious compulsion. It gets in the way of more meaningful and important goals. I've been doing this since the beginning of high school, I'm 23 now. Its difficult to admit this is a problem for me. I feel the urge to go info surfing even now, its consumed so much of my free time and life, I can't believe I am just now realizing that its a problem.

So I plan on "quitting" the internet starting tomorrow. Perhaps for ninety days, I haven't decided how long the hiatus should last. I may have to pay bills online, or check email, or check my work schedule over the internet.. But none of that was part of my addiction anyways, and I plan on using a watch to ensure I don't spend more than a few minutes to do these things. I'll have to at some point figure out how I want to reintegrate the internet back in to my life in a healthy and rational way once the hiatus is up.

So anyways, that is that. I started NoFap, which helped me realize I was addicted to the internet in general, now I'm starting No-Interweb tomorrow as well.

Wish me luck, although sorry I won't be coming back to read any comments on this because it might trigger another time wasting session. Fuck that, tired of doing that shit. 

Is it right that we vilify porn, yet have almost nothing to say about our addiction to the internet?

I understand that every once in a while someone posts here about internet addiction but I am beginning to wonder whether the vast majority of us fapstronauts don't also have a concurrent internet addiction to go along with our porn problem. Both work off the same premise: unlimited novelty leading to overproduction of dopamine which real life can't compare with. The reason I think PMO addiction is so much more accepted as a problem for us is because it has manifested itself with physical (sexual problems) as well as mental issues whereas internet addiction is all mental. I just feel like we are all doing ourselves a disservice by addressing one issue while ignoring(relatively speaking) the other even though the two go hand in hand and our probably both contributing considerably to what ails us.

What do you guys think? Should we be promoting a more balanced approach here in terms quitting porn use AND drastically cutting down on our time online?

GUY 2)

Great point! Porn addiction and Internet addiction DEFINITELY go hand in hand. They are very very related for me at least. Both are a huge time drain.

Rocky92 makes another dead on observation that society (western 1st world society) has an info/entertainment/stimulation addiction. No one can seem to go 5 minutes without checking their phone/Facebook/email.

What will it take for people to just spend time with themselves or eachother?

It all makes me sad.

GUY 3)

The ability to access everything in the universe instantly definitely has an effect on our brains. There is so much instant gratification available to us in the form of information, or of course porn, that there's no question that there is a negative effect.

Granted, unless you're wired to have propensity for an addiction to information and overstimulation, the dopamine that we get from googling something or imdb'ing an actor we saw in a show is quite low. It's still there, and it still will have an effect on our brains.

Maybe cutting down the 75% of the internet that is pornography is a good stepping stone to cutting down (or out) our use of the internet, but for most of us "the issues are in the tissues."

It's an important question that each of us should think about, though.

GUY 4)

I beleive our entire society has an addiction to entertainment/information/distraction. Especially that of the electronic kind. The internet, television, gaming, smartphones, etc. We have so many ways to escape boredom. Its crazy how much information the average individual is being bombarded with at all times. I find that personally, I get cravings for the internet. Yes, I crave it. Recently ive been trying to distance myself from all of this diatraction as much as possible. Trying to get into a more natural way of being. But nature amd natural ways are too BORING and slow!! My mind craves that period of zoning out over a screen, and always having new info and interesting things to dwell on. I tried replacing my habits. Ill take up lifting and going to the gym instead. But when I get back...fuck. When im with friends, or doing something exciting with my day I do not crave these electronic diatractions, but every single time I get home I feel an urge to look shit up or flip on the tv. It, for me anyway, IS an addiction. And I always feel like shit after I spend an hour or more on the internet. I would have felt SO much better to have done something, anything else. Or god forbid...just sit there and relax. But nowadays it seems like the only way people can relax is to flip on their screen of choice. Come home from work, on goes the tv, off goes the brain. Aaaaaah....

I think this way of life is beginning to affect the modern mans mind. For many, it seems hard for them to just sit in nature anymore. Natures pace is EXCEEDINGLY slow. Kinda will make you go crazy after awhile. But I think thats what many of us need. It seems were all desperately chasing an endless line of distractions. These distractions, which set off slight amounts of dopamine, are leading us farther away from nature, from our own nature. Like a drug, we crave dopamine. Are we all chasing the dragon, in the many different forms it takes? Great post OP. Sorry for ranting for so long.

TL;DR: electronics are crazy. Theyre making your mind so distractable that you cant even read a big block of text anymore.

GUY 5)

you nailed it dude. I really think that all this technology is changing our minds for the worse. We are training ourselves to focus on things for seconds at a time before moving on to the next piece of information. I have been trying to cut back on my internet usage for a while now but like you said years of overstimulation has made the real world seem boring and I always find myself coming back for that dopamine rush. Oh well, nothing to do but keep trying.

Ever since I took a tech abstinence for the last 51 days (including no PMO) my anxiety, and OCD, and ADD like symptoms have vanished. Each week passing there have been ups and downs(depression and boredom) but overall it just gets BETTER

I'm getting the grasp of becoming a man spending less time behind the screen, hitting the gym, talking to everyone I see. I can do this and I EXUDE masculine energy.

Accelerate your rewiring...

Before I discovered YBOP, there were only a handful of times in my life I had good sex without ED. The amazing thing is that all of these times came during or right after I had gone on camping trips. There's something very very powerful about being away from tech and in a natural environment that accelerates rewiring in my experience.  I'd estimate that 1 day in the wilderness without PMO and no technology equals ~3 normal no PMO days, at least for me.

Anyone else found the same thing?

GUY 2)

Yes, the more time you spend in the wilderness, the more you detach yourself form the fake virtual world. You brain starts to rewire the its "natural" state. Lets not forget the fact we are animals. Yes, we are, we are no differernt from lions or hyenas, or chimps. The only difference we have is a complex brain, but we still do the same things as we had been doing if we were still living in caves.

So, when you are in the nature, you heal faster bc your brain gets rewired faster like the evolutionary way and you see things differently. The "main" reason, why most guys here are having a hard time rebooting or keep on relapsing is bc they sit in front of the computer 24/7 and watch sexy music videos, or social network too much. They need to go out and have fun either by themselves or with someone.