How Pornography Affects a Teen Brain

By Danny Huerta
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Victoria Heath
Parents need to know how pornography affects teens.

Porn is alluring. We understand that. But why? Why is it so destructive, especially to teens? As parents, we need to know the answers.

Over and over, boys and girls fall prey to the immediate gratification of sexual fantasies and pornography.  I can’t tell you the number of times both boys and girls have said they see kids at school viewing pornography. 

I remember typing a research paper in the college library and noticed the guys next to me laughing.  I looked over surprised to see an extremely attractive naked woman on the screen. Immediately, it was as if an adrenaline bomb exploded in my head. My hands began to shake. I wanted to see more, but at the same time I didn’t want to see more. In a matter of seconds, I went from focusing on a research paper to managing an internal war.

I hadn’t gone to the library seeking pornography. And unfortunately, that’s the case with many first time porn users.

Several teen girls I’ve counseled were initially accidentally exposed to a naked male body through either sexting, sexual education class, a fantasy novel (word pictures) or sexual chats with boys and girls. Often this initial exposure leads to a desire for more, including sexual fantasies of all kinds. It becomes an internal battle between rational thinking and reward seeking.  

And we’re not just talking teens. Our sexual culture has effects even on young kids. Several years ago I worked with group of fifth grade boys with behavior issues. They had been hugging the young female teachers. To the teachers, it was “cute.” To the boys, it was known as the “boob club.” 

In that school, which I believe is representative of many schools; girls were sending messages that masculinity equals sexuality. They insinuated boys needed to be attractive sexually and able to perform. Both girls and boys talked pervasively about oral sex. 

Where did they get all this information?  Why weren’t they thinking about sports and music and grades? 

Here’s the problem. Exposure to a sexual culture causes boys and girls to become consumers of people. It puts them on a path toward distorted love and disrespect of others. Pornography, sexual fantasies and sexual talk becomes the norm.   

The brain helps us make sense of what we take in through our five senses. It responds to what we see, read or hear. When what the brain takes in is artificial, the idea of sex becomes about consumption rather than connection. 

Powerful and pervasive

Pornography is powerful and creates a desire for more. It’s far more pervasive than you would suspect. The rise of social media, sexting and technology in general has created an issue for both boys and girls to get hooked on pornographic content and experiences.  

Consider these statistics from statisticbrain.com:

  • Approximately 11,000 “adult films” are released annually
  • The porn industry makes $2.84 billion/yr. over the internet—the industry overall is estimated to make between $57-$100 billion/yr.
  • The most searched for term on the internet is “sex”
  • 87% of university students say they had sex over webcams or phones 

Why the porn industry wants young kids

The pornography industry is an enormous business, and as such, knows how to increase its market. They know the addictive nature of their product, especially for teens. So what might they know that parents don’t?

In adolescence, the brain is easily motivated by perceived rewards. The reward pathway in the brain—the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens and the pre-frontal cortex—is at its most sensitive state.

When stimulated, the brain releases dopamine into that pathway, creating a cascading effect of memory and motivation. The brain wants more and more.  It’s ripe for addiction, impulsivity and novelty. 

King David is a prime example. He was obsessed with getting what he wanted until Nathan reawakened his conscience. Eventually, he understood his sin and regained moral consciousness.

Dopamine itself is not bad. It can be a very good thing. In fact, it helps with motivation, enjoyment and managing moods. However, when dopamine is released as a result of interaction with pornography, it’s detrimental. It causes the brain to zero in on pornography above anything else. 

When an adolescent experiences a sexually-driven dopamine rush he or she:

  1. Focuses on the urge to repeat whatever triggered the rush
  2. Experiences a dopamine rush at the mere thought of getting to see porn or experience a sexual fantasy again
  3. Cares more about getting another rush than about the consequences of interacting with porn
  4. Develops a consumer mentality—other people become objects for consumption rather than individuals of worth
  5. Becomes unable to see the big picture – the immediate desire for pornography takes the place of investing in a loving relationship

The first time someone looks at pornography or experiences sexual fantasies, the brain stores that experience. Meanwhile, the dopamine shouts an irresistible message to the brain regions it hits: “Do it again!” With repeated access, the demand grows and it takes more and more to create the same affect.

To an enslaved brain, porn and sexual fantasies become as basic a need as food and water.  Many boys and girls say that they get hooked through all-to-common sexually charged ads, romantic movies (chic-flicks) and coarse sexual joking. Sexual content is available anywhere! 

Porn and sexual fantasy diminishes the ability for healthy relationships

Another part of the brain is affected by pornography as well—mirror neurons that facilitate necessary emotions for healthy relationships, for example, empathy. 

One of my then-12-year-old son’s classmates saw an R-rated movie full of nudity and violent sexual content. Most adults aren’t equipped to handle that kind of stimulation, let alone an adolescent’s developing brain.

Many girls and boys have watched this particular movie, including a teen boy I met in my counseling practice. He referred to it as a great action movie and claimed the “sex” did not affect him. 

That’s crazy! Our minds are wired to respond to sex. Like many, the boy was trying to convince himself that sexual content in media is no big deal. 

Girls will respond to that same movie a little differently. They might convince themselves that being pursued with sexual passion is the ideal. 

Here’s why sexually charged media content is so dangerous. The neurons don’t distinguish between live interactions or media. In the time it takes to watch a movie or play a video game, teens inwardly experience, rehearse and imitate the disturbing behaviors on screen. The result can take two extremes—either the desire to act out what’s seen on screen or desensitization, leaving an individual unable to feel anything. Obviously, both are detrimental to real-life relationships.

What research says about the impact of consistent porn use by teens

The research states that when teens view pornography they can develop:

  • Unrealistic sexual beliefs and values
  • An over-focus or obsession on sex
  • Sexually aggressive behaviors
  • Sexually permissive behaviors
  • An earlier interest in having sex
  • Promiscuity
  • Questions about their own body
  • Questions about their sexual performance
  • Behavior problems
  • Depressive feelings
  • Bonding issues with others, including their parents

Boys and girls tend to see the same content through a different lens.

  • Girls tend to be uniquely drawn to the underlying explicit fantasy behind the sexual images. The fantasy overshadows the relationship.
  • Girls look for perfectly chiseled bodies that match what they see on screen.
  • Boys tend to be drawn to the pictures, excitement, novelty and video content and want a girl to be like, dress like and act like the characters they see on screen.

Silence is not an option

Unfortunately, this is a topic we parents need to address with our kids. But rather than just saying no to porn and sexual fantasy, let’s help our kids understand why it’s so dangerous:

  • Pornography and sexual fantasy is progressive.
    For most, it begins accidentally but progresses to intentional because it creates a perpetual dissatisfaction that craves more.
    The internal battle rages until the individual succumbs to the temptation and rationalizes that pornography and sexual fantasies are normal. Unfortunately it’s common—not healthy, but common.
  • Pornography and sexual fantasy is addictive but unfulfilling. It’s like lawn fertilizer, which makes the soil dependent upon it. After time, the lawn won’t grow without it. 
  • Pornography and sexual fantasy turns users into consumers of people.
    Rather than genuinely caring about others, a consumer views people like disposable objects; when he gets bored with an individual, he finds a new one.
  • Healthy relationships become impossible as long as pornography and sexual fantasies are present. Because it rewires your brain, pornography makes it hard to have a healthy, long-term relationship with the opposite sex. Love becomes conditional—about “me” instead of “us.” It makes attachment very difficult.
    Oxytocin, the bonding hormone, is released in response to relationship and when a person is having a sexual experience. When teens view pornography they bond with an illusion, not a person.
  • Depression is almost inevitable for porn users. Research confirms that people who view pornography are more likely to struggle with depression. We were created by God to relate with Him, each other and His creation. When we walk outside His plan, depression follows. 
  • Pornography and sexual fantasy stunts brain growth. We naturally tend toward whatever gives us immediate pleasure and pornography trains the brain to pursue explicit content at any cost. Both Scripture and science confirm that an essential ingredient of wisdom is self-control. True freedom is found in self-control, not self-indulgence.  

There’s a flip side to this

On the flip side, when we protect it, all the physiological brain development in adolescents and teens is part of God’s beautiful design. It’s what allows us to see a spouse of 30 years just as attractive as the day we were married. It’s what helps us connect with and genuinely love others. It’s most definitely worth protecting.

© 2018 by Focus on the Family

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About the Author

Danny Huerta Media Profile
Danny Huerta

As vice president of the Parenting and Youth department, Danny oversees Focus’ initiatives that equip parents to disciple and mentor the next generation, so that they can thrive in Christ.

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