"What Happens When Children Watch Porn", by Addiction.com

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What Happens When Children Watch PornToday’s high-intensity, no-holds-barred Internet porn has sex addiction therapists scrambling to stay current, and some are noting a curious trend. In the past, individuals suffering from porn addiction nearly always reported a history of trauma. That is, the porn-addicted client stumbled onto porn at some point and found that it soothed anxiety and other emotional problems caused by early physical or emotional abuse. But some therapists working with today’s compulsive porn users believe they are seeing a new type of porn abuser:

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This person has no prior history of abuse or trauma. Instead, they describe an addictive process sparked by early, repetitive involvement with porn.

This apparent evolution in the way that people are becoming addicted to porn has implications for teens and their parents because a surprising number of kids are viewing porn online and the age of first exposure to porn is notching downward. In fact, researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the U.K. found that nearly one in five adolescents will encounter online sexual messaging or pornography at some point, and a 2013 study appearing in the journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity concludes that the average age of first exposure is 10 to 14 years old.

Early, Compulsive Porn Use

To be sure, the kids who are looking at porn are getting an eyeful. “In the old days, if a kid stumbled across porn, it would be a picture of a naked woman and that would be it,” says Stefanie Carnes, PhD, president of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals and clinical consultant for sexual addiction programs in Arizona and California. “Today, kids are seeing S&M and fisting and golden showers and trying to understand what that means about sexuality; their sex education by and large is happening online.” Exposure to hard-core porn is more problematic in kids, she says, because kids don’t have fully developed frontal lobes and lack what is known as executive function, which involves impulse control and basic judgment. “They honestly don’t fully understand that what they’re seeing isn’t typical and often doesn’t translate to real life,” she says.

Worse, they’re viewing porn at a time when critical parts of their brain are still developing. “Their brains are getting wired from the start to respond to a level of sexual intensity and novelty that cannot be matched in a healthy intimate relationship,” says Todd Love, PsyD, JD, LPC, an Athens, Georgia-based psychotherapist specializing in pornography addiction. “It’s altering their processing and perceptions of what a normal relationship is at a fundamental level,” he says.

Early Exposure to Porn Can Have a Lasting Impact

Concern that porn can influence young minds is not just theoretical. Research suggests that early exposure to porn can affect later relationships and behavior. In a 2011 study of 200 adolescent males, researchers in Sweden found that 18-year-olds who view porn daily tend to gravitate toward extreme and illegal types of porn and try to act out porn in their relationships. In addition, a 2014 study of 23 low-income minority youth found that the kids frequently watched pornography in school and attempted to re-enact the pornographic scenes in their dating relationships.

Porn exposure and use is not confined to boys. “Young girls are seeing it, too,” says Dr. Carnes, “and it’s very confusing for them.” Research supports this. In a 2014 study of 1,132 adolescents in the journal Pediatrics, Dutch researchers found that male and female adolescents who view online pornography are more likely to develop a negative body image and negative sexual self-perception. In addition, a 2007 study of 745 Dutch adolescents found that increased exposure to porn increased the likelihood that the user, whether male or female, would view women as sex objects. “Porn sends the message to young girls that they have to look perfect and be willing to do anything,” Carnes says. “It also sets unrealistic standards of size and performance for boys and men.”

Rob Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S, an international expert on sex and tech addiction and author of Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age, believes that age of exposure and the user’s level of emotional maturity can be key factors in limiting harm. “I don’t worry so much about the healthy, emotionally stable 15-year-old boy who is using online porn for masturbation on a regular basis, as long as that is consistent with his parents’ values and not carried out in secrecy,” he says. “It’s when he brings his 9-year-old brother over to take a look with him that I would begin to worry. The younger sibling will be more profoundly affected by the exposure to porn, which could impact the child’s ability to engage in a healthy adult sexual life down the road.”

Porn and Erectile Dysfunction

Some go so far as to say that early compulsive porn use can cause sexual problems as an adult. While the jury is still out on that, one man is a believer. Gabe Deem grew up in Texas as part of a loving family with no history of addiction or trauma. He recalls that he was a normal kid who loved music and sports. He first saw porn at age 8 and began masturbating to it shortly afterward. By 10, he was staying up until 3 or 4 a.m. watching soft-core porn on cable, and by age 12, when his family got high-speed Internet, he became consumed by hard-core porn.

When the kids in his high school were issued laptops, they quickly figured out how to watch porn in class. “The teacher would be in front of the class and I’d be in the back, watching porn with my friends,” he recalls. “I wish I could go back and slap myself.” He lost motivation to do sports and other things and quickly grew to view girls and women as sex objects.

By the time he was in his early 20s, Deem was unable to maintain an erection without the aid of porn. Suspecting that his compulsive porn use was the culprit, he spent a year “rebooting,” that is, going off all porn, and recovered. He has since become a man on a mission. He is a national speaker on porn use among kids and young adults, and in March 2014, the 27-year-old personal trainer and teen mentor launched RebootNation.org to help compulsive porn users and partners. The site started with five members and has since grown to more than 4,000 active members and countless “lurkers,” many of whom are teens and young adults who believe they have developed a porn addiction and are experiencing related sexual dysfunction. Deem states, “I’ve seen a growing number of members in the teen section who are complaining of porn-induced ED [erectile dysfunction].”

How to Talk to Your Kids about Porn

In 2015, parents no longer really have a choice about whether or not to discuss sex and intimacy with their children. Like it or not, kids are getting their sexual education online via porn, Weiss says. “Parents today must educate their children, not only about how our physical parts work, about pregnancy, disease and abuse, but also about porn. It is from parents that kids will learn that what they see online is not day-to-day life and is not the stuff of love, intimacy and connection,” says Weiss. “They need to hear from their parents, not in school and not on the street, so to speak, that porn is not geared toward them as it is adult entertainment.”

The most important thing to convey, says Weiss, is that being curious about sex and interested in it is entirely normal and nothing to be ashamed about. “If you send the message that looking at porn is somehow shameful, that message can get internalized,” he says. “It’s far better to remind your child that porn is not real life and that one day they’ll learn that adult love, intimacy and meaningful connection with another person is a lot more rewarding than anything they might see in the virtual world.” He also has a tip for parents who see their kids looking at porn. “Your message will get lost if you overreact,” he says. “Take time to reflect, get feedback and then talk to your kids from a calm and non-reactive place.”

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