By Emaley McCulloch, M.Ed, BCBA
bSci21 Contributing Writer
We can all remember the exact moment we were first exposed to pornography. If you are older than 30, your first experience was most likely from a magazine or printed material. When we were young (pre-internet) these materials were not readily available to young eyes. Now, with the explosion of porn on the internet, the average age of first porn exposure is 11 and the accessibility of these images are at our children’s fingertips. What impact is this having on our youth?
News Flash: Porn is Addictive
There’s been little research on the effects of pornography until the last decade. The statistics can tell us one thing, there is no shortage of people viewing pornography online. 25% of all browser searches are related to porn (Webroot, n.d.). Just over a decade ago, scientists traditionally confined addictions to substances taken into the body but now scientists are finding that certain behaviors can produce the same effect as drugs and become “behavioral” addictions (Holden, 2001; Hilton, 2013). Did you know our brains are programmed to incentivize us to engage in behaviors that contribute to survival? Evidence is now strong that natural reinforcers such as sex affect the reward systems in the same way drugs do, creating a new type of addiction that scientists are calling “natural addictions” (Hilton, 2013). When someone views pornographic images the brain releases a “rewarding chemical” called dopamine that makes people feel pleasure (Hilton, 2011). Behavioral scientists would also identify classical conditioning at work here. The pairing of pleasure with the act of watching porn is just like Pavlov’s dogs salivating when they hear a bell. The problem is that over time, as with other addictions, the same type of images stop producing the same pleasure and the user has to watch more for longer periods of time to get the same effect as they did before. This can lead to seeking more hardcore material that can cause other harmful effects such as teaching deviant ideas about sex and relationships, especially at an early age. Just as with any addiction, the user becomes more and more reckless and pornography starts to affect their daily lives by interrupting extracurricular activities, career, relationships and family lives. Children and teens who have not developed social maturity will be even more susceptible to these effects.
Harmful Effects of Porn on Children and Teens
Does this mean that all children and teens who view porn will become porn addicts? No, but scientists have found that porn changes the brain by numbing dopamine receptors, and over time, especially with early exposure and ease of accessibility, there is an increased chance of addiction. There is little data on the social effects of pornography on children and teens but we may be able to apply what we know from the research on the effects of porn on adults. Adults with pornography addiction have distorted attitudes and perceptions of relationships, body image and sexuality. These perceptions and behaviors can lead to unhealthy relationships, job loss and increased likelihood of relationship problems.
So, what can we do as parents to prevent pornography abuse in children and teens? They are eventually going to see it and they are most likely going to be curious and seek it out. It is up to us to prepare them for what they see and arm them with knowledge so they can make decisions on what they decide to take into their brain. Behavioral scientists often use a three-step behavior model to decrease and/or prevent behavioral issues that could also be applied to pornography viewing. The model is called, Prevent – Teach – Reinforce (Dunlap et. al., 2010; Dunlap et. al., 2010; Sears, 2010).
Set up the child’s environment to decrease the likelihood that they will encounter pornography. We don’t have much control over what happens outside the home, but the home can be a safe haven from harmful media content. Here are a few strategies to prevent porn exposure in the home:
- Make finding pornographic material more effortful by setting up filters and parental controls on browsers’ search engines and YouTube on all devices. There is also a new Google-like kid-friendly search engine called Kiddle that you can make your default browser. You can even limit explicit content from your router.
- Arrange the environment where media access (computer, tablet, smart phone) can only be viewed in open areas. Prevent curious searching by not allowing computers and devices in bedrooms. You can limit internet access at certain times of day (during the night) and limit internet access in certain rooms by making changes on the router.
- If your child/teen has a smart phone or tablet, make sure you set up browsers and YouTube to screen explicit content. Some parents can set up a behavioral contract of appropriate phone or tablet behavior that they must sign in order to have the privilege of using a phone or tablet.
Teach your children about the harmful effects of viewing pornography and how the images are a distorted view of sexuality and relationships. Teach them that the images produce pleasure and curiosity and these things are not bad. What is dangerous is that the images are not a representation of real love or relationships, watching them can lead to addiction, and it is supporting an industry that endorses sexual violence and human trafficking. This knowledge may give them something to stand for and increase the likelihood they will turn off that screen when they see pornographic content.
- Teach through example- One of the most consistent findings in research is that adolescents whose family have positive attitudes of addictions, who verbally endorse pornography and model those behaviors, will also engage in those behaviors.
- When you see it, label it- Start the conversation early (some are staring the conversations around the age of 8-9) and if it ever does come up when you are with your child, take that opportunity to label it as pornography and why it is harmful for them to view.
We can’t avoid all situations from happening. Peers are going to show them things, they are going to be curious and the porn industry on the internet is not going away anytime soon. But, we can fill their time with other activities that will keep them on-task and distracted to allow other forms of recreation to become more valuable to them than viewing porn.
- Keep them busy – Have you ever heard the saying, “An idle hand is the devil’s workshop”? When they have downtime, they are going to seek out recreation, so keep them engaged. Encourage after-school activities, sports, and arts.
- Have other entertaining activities to do on media devices. Media entertainment is a big part of childrens’ and teens’ lives today. To avoid internet browsing, have uplifting entertainment available. There are recreational games on phones and computers that will distract them from internet searching.
Let us know your experiences treating, or overcoming, addictions in the comments below and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!
Dunlap, G., Iovannone, R., Wilson, K., Christiansen, K., Strain, P., & English, C. (2010). Prevent-Teach-Reinforce: The School Based Model of Individualized Positive Behavior Support. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.
Sears, K. M. (2010). Using the Prevent-Teach-Reinforce Model with Families of Children with Autism. Graduate Thesis and Dissertations. http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/etd/3593
Dunlap, G., Iovannone, R., Wilson, K. J., Kincaid, D. K., Strain, P. (2010). Prevent-Teach-Reinforce: A Standardized Model of School-Based Behavioral Interventions. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 12 (1), 9-22.
Holden, C. (2001). Behavioral Addictions: Do They exist? Science, 294 (5544), 980.
Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography Addiction—A Supranormal Stimulus Considered in the Context of Neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 3:20767.
Hilton, D. L., and Watts, C. (2011). Pornography Addiction: A Neuroscience Perspective. Surgical Neurology International, 2: 19; (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3050060/)
Webroot (n.d.) Internet pornography by the numbers; a significant threat to society. Retrieved March 2, 2016, from http://www.webroot.com/us/en/home/resources/tips/digital-family-life/internet-pornography-by-the-numbers
Emaley McCulloch, M.Ed, BCBA co-founded Autism Training Solutions, LLC in 2008, and is currently the Vice President of Relias Institute at Relias Learning. Relias Learning is the premier provider of online health care training for Health and Human Services, Senior Care and Public Safety. Emaley is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and holds an MA in Special Education. She has served in the field of ABA for over 18 years and has provided and overseen services to individuals between the ages of 18 months to 24 years in homes, schools and clinical settings. For eight years she served as a consultant and supervisor at agencies based in Hawaii and Japan where she trained groups of professionals and parents. Emaley’s passion is elearning, staff training, dissemination of evidenced-based interventions, research, film and videography and using technology in the field of behavior analysis and special education. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.