06/14/2013 02:21 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

Faith, Sex and Google: Cyberporn Takes Emotional, Spiritual Toll on Religious Americans

"When I was younger, porn cost money, and water was free. What happened?" -- Joke Blogger

Imagine a world where you are unable to walk down the street watching sexually explicit content through your glasses. Unthinkable, at least for the pornography industry.

Just as Google Glass banned pornography from its new device, so, too, are porn app developers already busy figuring out how to break into the latest technology.

In a nation where close to half of adults will tell you viewing pornography is always morally wrong, the increasing temptations to seek sexual satisfaction on the Internet pose moral dilemmas for many Americans. And the struggle between conflicting personal desires and beliefs can be particularly costly for religious Americans, new research suggests.

One recent national study indicated that men who attend church regularly and avoid X-rated content were significantly more likely to report high levels of happiness than frequent attenders who used pornography.

And research also shows that one group may be challenged by the ever easier access to sexually explicit material more than any other -- younger Americans.

In a survey of some 750 students at a conservative Christian university, respondents who reported viewing Internet porn listed perceived benefits that would be fairly typical across a more general population, with sexual arousal being at the top of the list.

The most frequently cited problem students reported, however, was a worsening relationship with God and Christ, with nearly half of male viewers lamenting this outcome. An increase in guilt and shame and a loss of interest in spiritual things also were identified as serious problems.

"Regular Internet pornography use does occur among Christian men and, to a lesser extent, among women, and does have significant spiritual and behavioral consequences," Andrews University researchers reported in the Journal of Psychology and Theology.

In general, more religious Americans are less likely to be pornography consumers, research suggests. However, the protective effects of religiosity on pornography use also have been found to be more modest than one might expect. A desire to provide a socially appropriate response may also lead religious individuals to underreport porn use.

Nearly a third of 125 male undergraduates surveyed at four Midwestern universities reported struggling with the urge to seek out online pornography while using the Internet. The research also indicated students demonstrating higher levels of religiosity experienced more problems with cyberporn.

"This problem demands more attention by the counseling community, as well as by the Church," researchers from Indiana Wesleyan University and Michigan State University said in the Journal of Psychology and Theology.

And there are signs traditional religious teachings may be losing influence in the face of a hypersexualized popular culture.

In a study analyzing data from the Portraits of American Life Study, young adult evangelicals were 70 percent more likely than older evangelicals to disagree with the statement that it is morally wrong to view pornography.

One possible reason: "The growth of pornographic culture in mainstream markets and mediums such as advertising, music, television shows, and popular movies socializes the younger, more media-savvy generations into this pornographic culture," researcher Justin Farrell of the University of Notre Dame said in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

The Happiness Gap

Religious groups are not alone in their apprehensions about pornography. Some public health advocates, for example, share concerns that porn use encourages risky sexual behavior.

It is difficult to show a direct, causal relationship between porn viewing and sex, but several recent studies "have established that sexual media consumption is a precursor of sexual beliefs and behaviors," researcher Paul Wright of Indiana University reported in the Journal of Sex Research.

In Wright's study analyzing General Social Survey data from 1973 to 2010, pornography consumption among men was associated with having more sexual partners and a greater likelihood of engaging in paid sexual behavior and extramarital sex.

The added burden for believers is the idea that porn use violates a transcendent ideal that sexuality is a gift reserved for marriage. And just as religious individuals receive social support from their religious communities, so, too, do many fear condemnation for violating religious norms.

Just how wide is the gap?

In a study on religion and pornography, 42 percent of men who reported attending church at least once a month and who had not seen an X-rated movie in the last year reported being very happy.

Happiness levels went down from there, with 31 percent of men who had watched an X-rated movie but attended services regularly and 29 percent of men who rarely attended services and didn't watch porn reporting being very happy. Just 24 percent of men who had viewed an X-rated movie and attended church less than monthly reported being very happy.

Broken down by religion, the reported happiness gap is largest for those groups that have the strongest attitudes against pornography, the study also found. Researchers Richard Patterson of Cornell University and Joseph Price of Brigham Young University reported the findings in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Religious groups have made their views on pornography fairly clear: 90 percent of respondents to the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey said their house of worship either forbids or strongly discourages pornography.

What the research suggests is that religious communities also may want to consider supportive outreach efforts to members who may be struggling with the issue in silence for fear of judgment and scorn.

That a large number of Americans appears to face particular anguish related to the proliferation of pornography merits dialogue and understanding, not ridicule.

There is one group that promises not to hide under the covers: Google Glass is still in its testing phase, but developers such as MiKandi, which debuted the first pornography app for the device, are working on new approaches. "We always try to be up to date on the latest technology," a company official told ABC News.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.