Equipping U: The Brain-Altering Power of Digital Pornography

An anatomical cutaway drawing of a person's head and brain.
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There was a time when the extent of a young person's experience with pornography was limited to a few stolen glances at magazines like Playboy or Hustler. While that kind of exposure was harmful enough, it still left most things about the sex act to the imagination.

But the stakes have been raised exponentially over the last several years through computers, smart- phones and tablets.

Now, with just a keyboard and a few search phrases, people have access to a world of digital pornography where seeing the naked body is just the tip of the iceberg. Unlike static images, digital pornography has been shown to create intensely addictive responses and can affect the brain in much the same way as drugs and alcohol. This kind of porn affects the brain in ways that the old static pornography did not.

During sexual encounters, the body releases hormones that alter the structure of the brain—creating emotional bonds, rewarding the behavior and encouraging repeated participation. In marriage, these hormonal changes result in bonding between man and wife and give greater pleasure in intimacy being near each other. However, when this rush of hormones is triggered by other stimuli such as drugs, alcohol or digital pornography, there is no limit to how often the pleasure centers can be excited, simply because there is no relationship: Pornography addicts don't have to concern themselves with a spouse's schedule or moods, or the idea of romance or feelings. The brain becomes trained to associate the pleasures of sex with a keyboard and mouse—and the sexual response becomes a purely selfish act to be indulged in at any time, rather than one of mutual giving and receiving.

But more stimulation leads to more tolerance. More tolerance leads to more demand. With drugs and alcohol, this demand means the body requires more of the substance over time to achieve the original "high." With digital pornography, it means average sexual behavior becomes boring and unstimulating. More aggressive, body-punishing, deviant pornography becomes necessary to kick-start the hormone surge. When boys build up a tolerance, their bodies can no longer be physically excited by ordinary means, and they may later find themselves facing erectile dysfunction or other intimacy issues when they're married.

Researchers studying the brain scans of young men who are addicted to pornography have noted not only that the same "reward pathways" of the brain as drugs are activated by pornography, but that their response to it is up to four times stronger than adults'. That means teenage boys and young men face the highest risks of becoming addicted to digital pornography.

Although girls don't respond to visual stimuli quite the same way boys do they also can become addicted to digital pornography. Sadly, increasing numbers of counselors report dealing with this problem in both boys and girls as young as 8.

For More Information

Focus on the Family offers a detailed online resource, "Digital Pornography Addiction."

Originally published in the May, 2016 issue of Citizen magazine.

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