Friday, May 27, 2016

Online Porn May Damage Teenage Brains

by Peter R. Coleman, MD

The internet is a marvelous thing. It can bring us information at lightning speed and help us learn things, get places, and entertain ourselves. Some of us older folks can remember life before the internet, but it is hard for anyone to imagine life now without the internet. But new inventions can have unintended consequences.

There have always been some people who enjoy sexual arousal and new inventions have often been used to feed that appetite. Soon after photographs were invented, some enterprising fellows began to make pornographic pictures. When moving pictures were invented around 1900, it was not long after that there were pornographic movies being made and watched. And, so it is with the internet. From the earliest days of the world-wide web enterprising people started to make money by providing pornography online.

There has been, and always will be, a ready market for pornography – it excites the Dopamine part of our brain that is biologically wired for sex and survival. We are born with a natural strong desire for sex, and anything that excites that part of our brain has a strong influence on us. Did you ever notice that beer and car TV commercials almost always involve seductively clad women?  Online pornography has taken this to a new level. The numbers are staggering. In the US alone, there are over 100 million visitors to adult sites every month. It has been calculated, just in 2015, there were more hours spent on one particular pornography website than the number of hours that Homo Sapiens have been in existence!

The problem is all of this online pornography is not so good for us. The worlds of pornography and addiction actually intersect. The common denominator with these things is that, just like addictive drugs, online pornography hyper-stimulates the pleasure centers in the brain – it stimulates those parts of our brains more strongly than the brain was ever meant to be stimulated. We all know that the reason that drugs like oxycodone and heroin are so addictive and so damaging, is because they hyper-stimulate the pleasure center of the brain. Addictive drugs release so much Dopamine that people experience such a pleasurable effect, they continue to come back for more, even when there are serious negative consequences. High image visual pornography does the same thing. It presents images in such a powerful way that the pleasure center gets hyper-stimulated. And, this high image pornography is very available. Many, perhaps the majority of teenagers, have figured out how to get an unlimited supply before they are 14 years old. It is so readily available that even when “tolerance” inevitably sets in (getting bored with the current images), it is very easy to switch and watch something new.
There are three problems with overstimulating the pleasure center with drugs or pornography. The first problem is the hyper-stimulation releases all of the Dopamine available, so that afterwards, there is none left. When there is no Dopamine left, regular things don’t seem as pleasurable any more.
The second problem is over-stimulation of the pleasure center resets our expectations about what is pleasurable. Online pornography can actually ruin some truly pleasurable things in life. Drugs and online pornography hyper-stimulate our brains so much that regular life starts to seem “not enough”. We see people in early recovery from drug addictions, find themselves feeling depressed and bored with life. Normal pleasures like spending time with family, watching movies, eating a good meal, being in nature, and participating in sports, have all lost their relevance. Online pornography does the same thing. Many young men are reporting that normal healthy relationships don’t get them very excited. There has now been identified a new condition called PIED – Pornography Induced Erectile Dysfunction. There are reportedly many people affected and there are whole organizations set up to help people who have this condition. The concept is once your brain has become used to the unrealistic, graphic and never ending images of online pornography, regular sexual relationships are not sufficiently stimulating. And, some men are reporting long lasting erectile dysfunction. They say they would like to be sexual with their partners, but they find themselves not very interested. This leaves many women feeling confused and feeling inadequate. Online pornography is poisoning a lot of relationships.

The third problem is even worse. Teenagers have developing brains, and when these brains are exposed to this hyper-stimulation from on-line pornography it has the potential to cause long lasting or even permanent developmental problems. During childhood, adolescence and even early adulthood, our brains are developing. Young adults are creating new brain cells and new pathways. The pathways that get used a lot are deemed to be more relevant and these pathways become stronger. If the pleasure center is overstimulated, it can fail to develop its full size, and actually end up smaller.  There is some evidence this is happening in some teenage brains exposed to online pornography.  The damage may even be permanent – we just don’t know yet.

One question which is being asked is whether online pornography is any more dangerous than print magazines. The answer lies in the difference between cocaine powder and crack cocaine. They both have the same basic ingredient, but crack cocaine gets into the brain much faster and more powerfully, and it releases much more dopamine. Crack’s effects on the brain are much more severe.

The internet, with highly graphic, instantly available videos, has created an ongoing experiment with our teenagers. The results are not yet fully known, but ultimately, could have significant and devastating consequences.