Jake is a 20-year-old college student who is anxious and depressed having a hard time keeping up with his studies and having conflicts with his girlfriend. Upon the recommendation of his university counseling center after an episode of binge drinking and lewd behavior he seeks the services of a local psychologist. Within a few sessions it becomes clear that Jake also has a problem with online pornography. Although he didn’t think it was much of a problem he quickly comes to the conclusion that much of his troubles began when he was bored, in between relationships, and in need to reduce stress when he decided to surf the internet stumbling upon some pornography. One thing leads to another and he spent more and more time online watching porn.
Jake isn’t alone. My wife and I are both clinical psychologists living and working in the heart of Silicon Valley for the past 27 years. In most recent years we, as well as our colleagues in the area, have all independently noticed a disturbing trend among our patients: porn addiction that causes a great deal of distress and dysfunction. Could this be a quiet, insidious, and growing trend?
Available research seems to support this concern with 40 million Americans using online pornography regularly and 35% of all internet downloads being porn according to the North Carolina Family Policy Council and Webroot (http://www.ncfamily.org/ and http://www.webroot.com/us/en/home/resources/tips/digital-family-life/int...)
Many of these men (and sometimes women) don’t necessarily seek the services of a psychologist with porn addiction in mind. Rather, they may struggle with relationship satisfaction, work or school productivity, depression, or anxiety about other matters. Yet upon questioning their regular and often obsessive engagement with online pornography inevitably enters into the discussion and they then make the connection between their porn use and their presenting emotional, behavioral, work, and relational concerns.
Here in Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world, most people are very comfortable and facile with technology. Corporate headquarters for Facebook, Google, Apple, and so forth all are just a few miles away often just a bike ride from our office. And these tech savvy people often think that the more tech the better when it comes to doing everything in life. In fact, the local public middle school proudly gives every student an iPad and internet connection at school. Many, even youngsters, know how to access porn, get around porn filters on their devices, and keep their behaviors pretty well hidden from their family members, partners, co-workers, and bosses. They often start off with a quick look during a time of stress or boredom and then want more. Young teens curious about their budding sexuality can easily explore available pornography without consequence at home or school. After getting used to one level of pornography that might be fairly tame, they find that they need more and more intensity to get the desired effect of sexual excitement. They also develop tolerance in that it takes more and more hard core pornography to interest and engage them getting bored with the images they watched earlier.
If this sounds like addiction it is. Perhaps it is no different than other addictions that we so frequently diagnose and treat such as alcohol, cigarettes, unhealthy foods, heroin, and others addictive substances both legal and illegal.
Dysfunction unfolds when the addictive behaviors interfere with social, occupational, and relational functioning. Young people have a distorted sense of sexuality and sexual relationships with pornography being their primary teacher in these matters. Adults find that their sex lives with their partners or spouses become boring and unfulfilling since it just doesn’t compare to the excitement of the pornography that they watch. Or, they often want to engage in riskier and more exciting sexual behavior with their partners which may upset or frighten these loved ones. Or they find that they spend too much time with online pornography not getting to other important activities or responsibilities. Or they take a risk and watch at work only to have their bosses or the information technology departments discover their behavior. These are very frequent outcomes heard in psychotherapy and other offices in recent times.
Unlike, alcohol, cigarettes, illegal drugs, unhealthy foods, and other addictive substances, online pornography is especially challenging since it is often completely free and available around the clock accessible by only a few quick clicks of the computer mouse. Can you imagine the epidemic and proliferation of other addictions if alcohol, drugs, and so forth were free and available easily on your computer without detection by friends, family, or others?
Today, just about everyone has access to the internet and even as one of my college students recently told me, “even second graders have smart phones.” So, that means that anyone with access to the internet, even on private mobile devices, has a quick and easy access to porn…even the second graders with their smartphones.
While I’m trying not to be a prude and I don’t have an answer to how to solve or begin to solve this exploding problem of online pornography addiction, if we as a society can at least acknowledge online pornography as a highly concerning and emerging epidemic and perhaps treat the internet like any other possible addictive substance then we can be more thoughtful and intentional in being sure that online pornography doesn’t take hold of us and our youth.
So what do you think?
Copyright 2015 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP