As is usually the case with all addictions, no one really starts with a plan to get addicted. It could be a case of curiosity, peer pressure, or stumbling upon something by accident.
We tend to associate addictions with the consumption of chemical substances, such as alcohol and narcotics, perhaps because the law draws clear and strict boundaries on their abuse. But studies are showing a new type of narcotics that is equally, if not more, potent: Pornography. According to a neuroscience study published by Dr Valerie Voon from the University of Cambridge, a brain imaging scan of a porn addict is strikingly similar to that of a drug addict’s. This should raise alarm bells for us parents.
There is no denying the powerful lure of and appetite for pornography, across all demographics. The explosive growth in revenue of the porn industry in the last decade testifies to this. So it begets the question, why is pornography so addictive? To understand this for the sake of our children, we need to get to the bottom of push and pull factors.
To understand how pervasive porn is, we need to first know what it looks and sounds like. The common definition of porn, according to Merriam Webster dictionary, is: A depiction that is intended to cause sexual arousal or excitement. While it is subjective what exactly causes sexual arousal or excitement, we don’t have to look very hard to see that we are, in fact, surrounded by images, sounds, and messages that are consistent with the aims of porn:
If your child is plugged into the Internet, this prevalence becomes more pronounced. There are countless websites streaming pornographic content that are free for any user to access anonymously, without age restrictions.
Even if you have set up powerful filters on your child’s device, your child may know someone whose parents have not done the same and may be looking to share their unfiltered access with others. Regardless of one’s circumstances, the sheer prevalence of porn makes it challenging for anyone, not just our children, to resist the urge to indulge in it.
Do you know why it’s so hard to resist porn once you begin consuming it? This is due to dopamine, a neurochemical released in the brain that feeds our brain’s reward circuit and forms an addiction pathway that reinforces the behaviour over time.
“Think of the brain as a forest where trails are worn down by hikers who walk along the same path over and over again, day after day. The exposure to pornographic images creates similar neural pathways that, over time, become more and more “well-paved” as they are repeatedly traveled with each exposure to pornography.”
– Morgan Bennett, author of The New Narcotic.
An experiment carried out on a rat shows that when the brain’s reward circuit is hijacked by unusually elevated levels of dopamine, it will keep seeking the desired behavior (in this case, pressing the lever) at the expense of other needs such as food and mating.
Granted, humans are not entirely like rats. However, in both scenarios, the brain is wired to reinforce rewarding behaviors (such as eating and drinking) so that there is a higher chance of survival. This very same system unfortunately also works against us (in the form of addiction) if we subject it to an overstimulation of dopamine, which porn is very capable of doing.
Addiction usually masks underlying issues that are unresolved, such as childhood trauma, low self-esteem, loneliness, rejection and so on. We know that our children face multiple stresses in life, such as: difficulty making friends at school, being bullied, and struggling with learning.
These stressors can cause them to crave an escape, or a quick-fix to the negative emotions they are feeling, especially if they have not yet learnt healthy coping mechanisms.
Teenagers may experience this even more because of the life stage they are in – still figuring out their identity, dealing with hormonal changes in their body causing mood swings, and so on.
As dysfunctional as porn is as a coping mechanism, the instant rush of dopamine that comes with the activity is so rewarding that it keeps them coming back for more.
The sense of shame that comes with porn use often keeps our children from talking to us about it. Yet, the more they choose to navigate this alone, the more likely they are to sink deeper into porn addiction.
On their own, they are simply no match for the brain’s hardwiring for dopamine. Without accountability and our loving support, they are more likely to relapse at some point, even if they were trying to put a stop to their porn use.
Add to this the permanence of pornographic images in our brain’s memory – unlike chemical substances, they cannot be metabolized out of the body’s system. These lingering images can continue to fuel the addictive cycle.
Let’s remind our children that we have their best interests at heart, and that they can come to us for help regardless of how big or complex their problems are.
Now that we have a better understanding of why pornography is so addictive, we can better position ourselves to defend their minds against it – by being a powerfully loving and supportive presence in their lives.
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