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Sexual desire is one of the most motivational forces in humanity making pornography the biggest economic engine fueling the expansion of the Internet.


Sexual desire is one of the most motivational forces in humanity making pornography the biggest economic engine fueling the expansion of the Internet.

How does pornography change the brain?

Addiction is a disorder of the brain’s reward system that changes both brain structure and function. Most parents are not aware of this. 

The same brain pathway that is activated with drug and alcohol use is also activated by the use of pornography: the dopamine reward pathway. Novelty, shock, and surprise are powerful motivating factors for tweens and teens as pornography exposure elevates dopamine to unnatural levels and causes a high arousal state. Internet porn is very arousing to teens who are just discovering their sexuality. Here are some ways the brain changes with porn use:

  • Desensitization to what is normal. A numbed response to pleasure is created with addictions. Diminishing returns require greater amounts of dopamine and stimulation to achieve the same levels of pleasure. This is why a little use leads to greater use to get the same good feeling and the addiction cycle begins.
  • Inappropriate stress management. Minor life stresses can lead to frequent relapses. Homework frustrations, social disappointments, or just a bad mood can lead to a desire to “take the edge off” by using porn. If porn access is easy, chances are greater for use.
  • Creation of strong memories. An unconscious super-memory is created in the brain when activities cause pleasure. These pleasure memories trigger powerful cravings. Cues that trigger porn cravings can include turning on the computer, being alone, or just picking up the phone to start scrolling. Even the music of a particular video game can trigger the brain to crave porn by stimulating memories of pleasure.
  • Weakened willpower.  Porn use increases brain activity in the pleasure center and reduces brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, where executive function activities including impulse control, are practiced. The overstimulation of the pleasure center weakens a person’s ability to forecast consequences (think ahead). When the executive function area of the brain is weak, addiction pathways usually win. Your teen may know it is a bad idea to continue the activity, but he/she can’t stop.

What causes a porn addiction?

Access to any addictive substance or activity – drugs, alcohol, gambling – will increase the risk for inappropriate use and addiction. The same is true with internet pornography. Porn viewing is inevitable when kids have access to private, personal screens such as smartphones and tablets. These three factors increase the odds of addiction: 

High dopamine production. Porn addiction is caused by an increasing dependency on the high dopamine production that is triggered in the brain by viewing sexual content. Survival activities like eating (food), and procreation (sex) produce the highest dopamine responses. The brain creates memories or cravings for things that create excessive dopamine. “This feels good so let’s keep doing it!” When unnaturally high levels of dopamine are produced over an extended period of time, the system becomes desensitized and now more dopamine is needed to just feel okay. 

Endless novelty. Experiencing new things triggers dopamine, making us feel good. Porn provides a never-ending supply of novelty. Novelty is strongly associated with overconsumption—“extra excitement” activities strengthen brain circuits, urging repeated use. Over time, the brain learns that porn is a reliable way to encounter novel images and seek good feelings. Each new stimulus gives an incentive to explore more. This rush creates anticipation of a reward, and the addiction cycle is born.

Dr. Emrah Düzel, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL says: “When we see something new, we see it has a potential for rewarding us in some way. This potential that lies in new things motivates us to explore our environment for rewards. The brain learns that the stimulus, once familiar, has no reward associated with it and so it loses its potential. For this reason, only completely new objects activate the midbrain area and increase our levels of dopamine.” Pornography supplies endless novelty.

Easy access. A potential trigger for most addicts is easy access to the problematic substance or activity.  In the past, pornography was accessed via magazines that were generally limited and hard to get; maybe a single issue or even just a centerfold carefully hidden under a mattress. But now porn can be accessed on nearly every online platform and social media site. Smartphones are carried in pockets and purses and the small screen size makes viewing porn at school, on buses, and anywhere in public possible without getting caught.

What are the signs of teen porn addiction?

How do you know your teen is struggling with a porn habit? Pornography dependencies can be difficult to detect in tweens and teens due to the hidden nature of access. It may be easy to spot a drug or alcohol overuse problem, but there are no outward physical signs of porn use. General signs include:

  • Increased cravings and preoccupation with obtaining and engaging in sexual content. 
  • Loss of control, using pornography more frequently and in larger amounts to get the desired effect.
  • Continued use despite negative consequences. The time spent and negative feelings associated with porn use displace other healthy activities. A teen may have the desire to quit, but is unable to do so. . A porn habit causes negative physical, social, and emotional changes.
  • Lack of motivation and depression. Porn viewing correlates with social anxiety and stress, which leads to decreased risk-taking in social settings. A teen may experience a loss of desire to be with peers in person.
  • Low grades in school. Preoccupation with the world of pornography is exhausting and time-consuming. Regular use will reduce your teen’s ability to focus and concentrate on harder tasks like learning. Memory and retention issues are also created with continued use.
  • Disconnection from family. No child is proud of their porn habit. They begin to pull away from parents and friends as they naturally feel shame. They are worried their parents will discover their porn habit and be disappointed.

Where do kids and teens find porn?

Today, the climate is very different. Porn saturates the virtual world in ways unmatched by traditional print outlets. . Gone are the days of subtle, soft pornography. Now we face unimaginable, graphic porn online that leaves nothing to the imagination. . Tweens and teens have easy access to hardcore porn streamed directly to their devices, little of which resembles real-life sexual encounters. 

So where do kids and teens find these porn videos? On smartphones and laptops. The smaller the screen, the greater the access. Your child does not have to look far to be exposed to pornography. This means that the porn industry, using new customer-seeking tactics, will find your kids. . An innocent-looking site can easily lead a child astray with a  link,  ad, or photo. An innocent app on your child’s phone also provides a  gateway to content you can’t control. 

Here are some unexpected places where your child may find  sexual content: 

TikTok: This popular app seems innocent enough on the surface. What could go wrong with funny dances? Turns out a lot can go wrong. Clicking on the “For you” menu and swiping through its suggested videos can take you to inappropriate content. Once this novel content is clicked, the algorithms work to keep feeding more of the same content. Before long, sexual content is being served up on a daily—even hourly—basis.

Pinterest, Instagram & Snapchat: Porn is taking over social media. Sites like Pinterest can be used to search words like “naked,” “bikini,” etc. to find images that bypass the site’s restrictions. Most porn stars and adult websites also have Pinterest boards where they upload images. Like Pinterest, you can search for nearly anything on Instagram, including porn. Porn stars also have accounts on Instagram where they post images. Snapchat lets users exchange pictures and videos (called snaps) that are meant to disappear after they’re viewed. This function makes sharing sexual images or content very popular. It is tempting to share compromising photos or engage in cyberbullying when photos disappear after being seen.

Video Games: Sexual content in video games—strip clubs, sexualized characters and themes— is nothing new, but there has been a shift to purposefully target video game distribution platforms and young players with pornographic content in order to find future customers. A google search for Minecraft or Fortnite sex leads to themed porn images and videos. Minecraft also has sexual content including sex hotels, and instructions to build a functional penis, vagina, etc. Your child can also learn about oral sex and countless other sexual acts through the use of Minecraft’s  Lego-style figures. 

Cartoons & Anime: Animated content isn’t always for kids. Just because sexual content is depicted via animation, doesn’t make it less damaging for the brain. Anime, cartoon porn, and regular porn are all the same to the human brain and cause permanent damage and scarring. Any cartoon character search can result in sexual content. If a child searches for “Disney sex,” for example, the content is cartoon porn. Anime is a form of adult-style cartoon and Hentai is a genre of Japanese manga and anime characterized by overtly sexualized characters and sexually explicit images and plots. Just searching for the definition online brings up horrendously graphic images. Hentai finds its way onto multiple platforms including TikTok and YouTube.

How to prevent a porn addiction

Hidden access makes it nearly impossible for parents to detect porn use. The search history on digital devices typically reveals the problem, but a savvy user will learn how to delete searches, use incognito tabs and secret apps to make discovery virtually impossible. Many parental control programs will alert parents only after the fact. Research says that boys and girls alike struggle with porn. 

Because we live in a screen-saturated world, you may think it is impossible to stay on top of it all, but there are many things that parents can do to reduce the risks. Prevention generally centers around removing access, creating accountability, and increasing education. 

Here are some tips that can help you prevent  early porn exposure: 

  • Remove access. Unlike print media from the past, internet porn can’t be discovered under your bed or in the fort in the backyard. This ease of access removes the likelihood of discovery and the natural built-in embarrassment that helps to deter use. It is a behavior that seems to come with no natural punishment, only reward. Remove access to the unsupervised use of:
    • Handheld screens. Generally, more porn is viewed on private, small screens than on public large screens.  Avoid handheld screens including kids’ tablets, iPads, and especially smartphones.
    • Phones. Children with smartphones will be exposed to inappropriate content. Allow only a talk/text phone—not a smartphone—through high school.
    • Laptops. Restricting laptop use to make it a tool and not a toy. This means allowing school work, but not endless private entertainment. Only allow laptop use in a public area of the house. Never allow screens in bedrooms. 
  • Accountability & parental controls. While it is important to have parental controls, like it is important to use seat belts when driving, these controls are far from sufficient. It is easy to google hacks to every parental control. Making it harder to access can be done by not allowing screens for entertainment, using a filter that only allows sites you are comfortable with, and physically putting away screens when they are not being used as a tool for productive activity.
  • Education. Begin conversations about porn early, but do not rely on these conversations 100% for prevention. Your teens are not proud of their porn habit and they will lie to you about it. Explain that you desire a porn-free home and explain what that means and why. Ask them frequently if they have seen anything that made them uncomfortable. Never expect conversations to protect your kids. What they will do is help your kids build trust in you as a source of information. 

Other porn prevention tips

For a complete list of porn prevention tips, check out our Kids’ Brains & Screens Course. Here are just a few:

  • Structure exercise every day
  • Do not allow video games to become the go-to downtime activity
  • Get outside often
  • Plan in-person social events at your home 
  • Invest in healthy hobbies and sports

What's Next?

When you know better, you do better. We have more research around digital addictions than we have ever had before. We know that all these digital addictions can be easily prevented. Research is conclusive: smartphones are too risky for teenagers. There are wonderful screen-alternatives that come with very little risk. ScreenStrong can give you the answers, community, and support you need to raise  happier, healthier kids. It’s time to stand up for your kids, stand out from the crowd, and be ScreenStrong.

Disclaimer: This information is not a replacement for the therapy or treatment center necessary to help an at-risk or addicted child. If you feel like your child will potentially do bodily harm to you, himself or herself, seek professional help.

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