Porn’s Impact on Adolescents

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In a post last week, we discussed adult-life exposure to porn and how it can reawaken the sexual wiring installed in childhood. But what about childhood exposure to porn? Can this actually create someone’s sexual wiring?

The answer to that question is that it can, depending to a large extent on the individual and his or her genetics, environmental circumstances, and degree of exposure. Admittedly, there is not a lot of scientific evidence to directly support this claim, but anecdotal evidence suggests it’s more than just a theory.

What we know for certain is that adolescent brains are much more malleable (susceptible to rewiring) than adult brains. And there is reason to believe this is even more true related to sexual stimuli, considering that a primary evolutionary task of adolescence is learning about sex.

So what happens when we add the intensity and endless variety of online pornography to the adolescent development mix? Frankly, it is possible and probably likely that adolescents’ brains will rewire to incorporate many of the sexual cues they find online.

And let me assure you, they’re finding them all. In today’s world, sexual content of every ilk imaginable can easily and instantly be accessed by anyone who’s interested, regardless of age. In fact, current estimates place the average age of first porn use at 11. Because of this, as psychiatrist Norman Doidge states, “We are in the midst of a revolution in sexual and romantic tastes unlike any other in history, a social experiment being performed on children and teenagers.”

As of now, we don’t really know what the long-term outcome of this “social experiment” is going to be. That said, the few credible studies we have indicate rather strongly that porn can indeed rewire kids’ brains – much as it awakens old wiring in adults’ brains.

One study of 16-year-old boys found that 96% were using online porn, with 10% stating they were daily users. And the boys who used porn daily self-reported higher levels of risky sexual behaviors, relationship problems, truancy, smoking, drinking, and illicit drug use – all of which suggest that the brains of some adolescent porn users have been rewired to expect novelty, intensity, and constant stimulation, not just in the sexual arena but elsewhere. Another study shows that adolescent brains are more strongly affected than adult brains by highly arousing, constantly changing sexual stimuli (i.e., Internet porn), perhaps indicating the significant extent of the rewiring that is taking place.

It is important to state that as of now we have only a small amount of research, and that much more information is needed before we leap to alarming conclusions. Furthermore, the percentage of young people whose brains will rewire in problematic ways thanks to porn is likely to be relatively small – perhaps mirroring the percentage of young people whose brains rewire in problematic ways after early-life exposure to alcohol and/or illicit drugs. (For the most part, these are the kids who have always been vulnerable to various life problems – addictions, psychological disorders, and the like – thanks to a combination of genetics and unresolved childhood traumas.)

The rest of the youth population – the significant majority – is likely to simply roll with the punches, letting their brains evolve with the times, incorporating and enjoying technology (including digital sexuality) in healthy and productive ways, just as predecessor generations incorporated things like rock music and TV without widespread repercussions.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with compulsive or addictive use of pornography, plenty of help is available. Residential treatment and online workgroups can be found at Seeking Integrity: Los Angeles. Free online podcasts, articles, webinars, drop-in discussion groups, and daily inspirations, are available through SexandRelationshipHealing.com.