"Boys and Porn: A Moving Target" (Huffington Post)

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kid watching computerTherapists can be a little confusing when it comes to assessing porn's risks. Some would have us believe that only teens with inherent vulnerabilities become addicted, even though addiction research that shows that early exposure to supernormal stimulation, alone, increases the risk of addiction. In search of another point of view, I interviewed author Gary Wilson, who has a lot to say about the unique risks of today's Internet pornography in his new book, Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction.

Link to article on Huffington Post

What do you think of commentary such as "What Is Online Pornography Doing to Our Boys?" which concludes that boys' risk of Internet porn addiction is minimal?

I see several problems with it. First, such commentary erroneously implies that addiction is the only potential risk for today's porn users. In fact, many adolescents who report severe sexual dysfunctions are not addicts yet need many months to recover. Second, it erroneously implies that Internet porn use is comparable to alcohol or drug use, ignoring a primary function of adolescence. Third, rates of addiction to so-called supernormal versions of natural rewards (junk food, internet porn and even internet use in general) are turning out to be greater than for drugs. (More below)

Could you elaborate on why the problem goes beyond addiction?

It's a given that young males find images of people having sex captivating. But today, instead of masturbating to still photos, as their fathers may have done, boys can watch limitless streaming videos of real people having so-called real sex. Unlike stills, videos replace the imagination; the boys are strictly voyeurs.

By the time they find real partners, perhaps as much as a decade later, some guys discover they have trained intensely... for the wrong sport. For example, this young man and this one weren't addicts; they had simply conditioned their sexual response to screens, isolation, constant novelty, shock/surprise, fetish porn and watching other people have sex. Their erection problems with real partners resolved only months after they quit porn.

The tragedy is that, due to widespread misinformation, both at first feared they were broken for life. No young guy should ever have to cope with such fears without being warned, but it looks like many are. A 2014 study of Canadian teens found that 54 percent of sexually active male adolescents 16-21 reported sexual problems: erectile dysfunction (27 percent), low desire (24 percent) and problems with orgasm (11 percent).

The chief "unique vulnerability" behind these widespread problems is likely to be the adolescent brain colliding with today's super-potent sexual stimuli. In all mammals, adolescent brains are highly reactive to novelty, thrill-seeking and sexual cues. This trait increases the odds of reproducing successfully and decreases the chances of inbreeding. But this reactivity also enables adolescent brains to wire their owner's sexual arousal to his environment, particularly to a ubiquitous super-arousing stimulus that has been made more compelling than the real deal. His situation is even more precarious because, by adulthood, his brain will have pruned away billions of nerve connections based on the use-it-or-lose-it principle.

By adulthood, contact with real partners may even register as disappointing, and sensation-seeking, not pleasure, may dominate. Recently, researchers thought to ask 16- to 18-year-old teens about anal sex and were amazed to find that neither males nor females enjoyed it but both felt compelled to do it. Said the researchers, "The main reasons given for young people having anal sex were that men wanted to copy what they saw in pornography, and that 'it's tighter.'"

Such bothersome adolescent sexual conditioning can linger into adulthood. A 2014 study found that about a third of healthy men in the military (21-40) now report sexual dysfunction. And in a recent poll, 33 percent of voters under 40 felt porn was "ruining their sex lives," with another 10 percent "unsure" if it was ruining their sex lives.

You also said that there's growing evidence that the addiction risk is quite substantial. Why?

Streaming porn is a lot like today's junk food: abnormally enticing. When researchers give rats unlimited access to junk food nearly all of them eat to obesity. These rats have no "inherent vulnerabilities" that make them uniquely susceptible to addiction other than the same vulnerability all of us have: a primitive reward circuit in the brain that impulsively pursues high-calorie food and sexy mates.

More than a third of American adults are obese, according to the CDC, and most of those addicted to junk food. Rates of young Finns overusing the Internet "moderately or seriously" is 24.2 percent according to a 2014 study, with Japan and Turkey reporting similarly alarming rates this year.

Not surprisingly, given that Internet erotica is the most potentially addictive application of the Internet, we're also starting to see worrying rates of self-assessed Internet porn addiction in young males. For example, in a 2014 national poll 23 percent of males 18-30 thought they might be addicted to porn, with another 10 percent "unsure" if they were addicted.

Keep in mind that these rates of non-drug addictions are all substantially higher than substance addiction rates. For example, the U.S. government reported that, "In 2012, an estimated 23.1 million Americans (8.9 percent) needed treatment for a problem related to drugs or alcohol."

Rates of young men reporting they may be addicted to Internet porn are higher than in older users. Moreover, young men with porn-induced erectile dysfunction generally need far longer to recover sexual function than older men who didn't grow up watching streaming porn. These phenomena suggest there's little basis for Weiss's optimism that, "Today's boys are likely to simply roll with the punches, adapting to new technologies in healthy ways just as kids have always done."

In fact, it is naive to expect that the human brain will quickly adapt to a supernormal version of a natural reward like sex or food. Supernormal stimuli have a drug-like effect on some brains. Recent research on the brains of porn addicts shows that their brains light up for porn video clips much as cocaine users' brains light up for white powder. (Incidentally, more than half of the subjects, average age 25, reported difficulty becoming aroused with real partners but not with porn.)

Ominously, a recent study on non-addicts found that higher hours per week and more years of porn viewing correlated with a reduction in grey matter in the brain's reward circuitry. Lead author Simone Kühn said, "That could mean that regular consumption of pornography more or less wears out your reward system." This research also suggests that human brains, even the brains of non-addicts, are not adapting successfully to today's Internet porn.

To sum up, if you put Americans on a hunter-gatherer diet of stringy venison and boiled roots, how many of them would be obese? Probably none. By the same token, if you limited adolescent boys to 1960-style Playboys how many of them would be reporting difficulties with porn addiction, erections and arousal? Probably none.

What about Weiss's claim that your site www.yourbrainonporn.com reflects a self-selecting group of porn users?

First, Weiss himself sees only a self-selecting group of people struggling with porn and sex addiction. They are people willing to pay for sex-addiction treatment, and few are adolescents. Many are acting out sexually in addition to struggling with problematic porn use. And it's likely that many indeed have inherent vulnerabilities that make them prone to addiction and therefore willing to seek extended treatment.

In contrast, many of the men whose stories I gather are not only young but virgins. They grew up thinking porn and masturbation were synonymous. Many give no indication of struggling with childhood trauma or other issues and fire up impressively after giving up porn use.

To clarify, I don't run a forum. I track and analyze relevant research, especially on behavioral addiction and neuroplasticity. I also collect self-reports from various sites. All are by guys who have given up one variable: Internet porn use. I do not make claims about the percentage of guys affected. Interestingly, many of these guys are not addicted and yet report benefits from quitting.

My goals are merely to inform today's porn users of possible risks and to clarify cause and effect in order to encourage further study. To date only one study has asked porn users to give up porn -- for only three weeks. Even in that short time, researchers saw changes in ex-users enthusiasm for committed relationship (the only effect they measured).

Link to article on Huffington Post