Is Your Son Using Porn?
A few years ago, Canadian researcher Simon Lajeunesse wanted to study the effects of porn on adolescent boys. To do this, he needed to assemble two groups--young males who were porn users, and young males who were not porn users. His hope was to compare and contrast, looking for differences between the two cohorts. However, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't locate any adolescent males who'd never looked at porn. Eventually, with no control group, he had to abandon the study.
Thus, if you're the parent of a teenaged boy, he's probably looking at porn. He might also be sexting, messing around with hookup apps, and playing highly sexualized video games, as these activities have also become relatively normal forms of teenaged sexploration.
Should You Be Worried?
As with other potentially problematic forms of adolescent investigation (smoking, drinking, taking drugs, etc.), most porn-using boys are able to experiment without serious consequences (except, perhaps, the occasional reprimand from a parent or some other adult authority figure). However, as digital pornography becomes more and more accessible, a small but growing number of boys are running into problems. Consider these posts found on the popular website, YourBrainOnPorn.com:
- I started watching porn at 10 and fapping [masturbating] soon after, several times a day for the last four years until I decided to quit. I had many reasons for quitting: girls, anxiety, depression, and I couldn't figure out why I felt so dead inside.
- I had weird fetishes and could not stay hard during sex.
- What was worse than the PIED [porn-induced erectile dysfunction] was the desensitization to the world. I found it hard to enjoy anything at all.
NOTE: Young females also use and sometimes struggle with pornography. (We don't know how often this occurs because female sexuality is woefully under-researched.) Typically, girls are introduced to porn by a boyfriend, or they seek it out themselves because they are curious about sex and their body and want to compare and contrast. But then they get aroused, they become more involved, and over time they get hooked, experiencing consequences similar to those of boys. Plus, girls can suffer because they feel like they either can't or don't want to live up to the unreasonable standards of hardcore pornography. For instance, getting a "bukkake facial" does not appeal to most girls, but porn would suggest it's a common occurrence.
Is This Addiction?
Until recently, it was assumed that most adolescents who experienced negative consequences related to heavy porn use were, except for their age, traditional porn addicts, fully meeting the generally accepted criteria for sexual addiction:
- Preoccupation to the point of obsession
- Loss of control over use (typically evidenced by multiple failed attempts to quit or cut back)
- Directly related negative consequences, including problems at school, social isolation, erectile dysfunction, loss of interest in real world romance, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, etc.
Lately, however, treatment specialists have noticed that some heavy users of porn might not be fully addicted. This is most common with young males. These boys may be using porn just as often, with similar consequences, as the boys who are truly addicted. But they are able to walk away from porn relatively easily. Moreover, their porn-driven consequences (especially erectile dysfunction issues) tend to clear up within a month or two of quitting.
This suggests that some young males who use porn heavily are addicted, while others are merely "compulsive with" or "conditioned to" porn. The addicted group, usually boys with significant trauma histories (abuse, neglect, family dysfunction), tends to use porn as a way to escape emotional discomfort, the same way substance addicts use alcohol and drugs. The other group, usually boys with minimal early-life trauma, tends to use porn because they were exposed to it at an early age and became accustomed to its supernormal stimulus. They might also be using porn because it's easier than learning about and experiencing sexual activity in a real world setting.
Since I started noticing these similar but different populations, I've been calling one group addicted and the other group either conditioned or dependent. Others have called the two groups classic porn addicts and contemporary porn addicts. Whatever the terminology, it seems clear that unresolved early-life trauma drives one group, while early-life exposure to a supernormal stimulus drives the other.
Interestingly, both groups tend to struggle with real world romantic interactions. They are just plain unable to effectively navigate the oft-treacherous waters of real world dating and sexuality--likely because porn use has supplanted certain aspects of normal adolescent development. In other words, they've learned how to manage their online sexual world, but that is the extent of their skillset. Their face-to-face romantic abilities are nascent at best.
Both populations typically respond to the basics of sex/porn addiction treatment, especially behavioral and accountability tasks. With the newer/contemporary population, however, deeper aspects of addiction treatment, especially psychotherapeutic work focused on underlying trauma, may be overkill (and possibly even counterproductive). In these cases, treatments aimed at rectifying aspects of delayed development are proving to be more effective.
If you're a parent and your adolescent son is looking at porn, he is probably not addicted. Most likely, what he is doing is normal for a young male in the digital age. If he is looking at porn multiple hours nightly, however, and his grades are slipping, he seems socially isolated, and his sexual/romantic behaviors and attitudes seem "off" to you, he may have a problem with addiction. In such cases, your son may benefit from professional sex addiction treatment.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment. He is the author of several highly regarded books. For more information please visit his website at robertweissmsw.com or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.