In today's world, many users of porn are adolescent and sometimes even prepubescent boys, and lots of folks are worried about how this may be affecting their development. The three primary questions they're asking read as follows:
1. How many boys are looking at online porn?
2. How much time are these boys spending with porn?
3. How is porn affecting the boys who use it?
The first question, about the number of boys using porn, is relatively easy to answer. All of them! Consider that when Canadian scholar Simon Lajeunesse attempted to perform research on the effects of porn use on young males, he was stymied in his efforts because he couldn't find any potential test subjects who weren't already porn users. (Without a control group, there was no way for him to make comparisons.) Admittedly, Lajeunesse was looking for college kids who hadn't used porn, and maybe a few younger boys have not yet typed "naked" into an Internet search engine. Nonetheless, it's clear that boys are almost universally interested in and experimenting with porn.
The second and third questions, about the amount and effects of porn use, are more difficult to answer, as there is no validated research on this topic. Gary Wilson, creator and moderator of the popular YourBrainOnPorn.com website, explains this dearth of research: "First, who can find porn virgins of a suitable age [to use as a control group]? Second, who deliberately wants to expose kids to super-stimulating ... erotic videos to see what happens in their brains, or how it alters their sexual response over time?"
This means the only research we can realistically hope for is after-the-fact surveys asking adult males about boyhood porn use and its effects. And even that research is "down the road," because the Internet porn explosion is such a new phenomenon, having taken off in earnest around 2008.
The Sky Is Falling (Maybe)
The lack of scientific research has not stopped widespread social commentary on the matter, most of it conjecture by childcare professionals worried that what kids are doing with pornography today will cause them problems in the future. In his book, The Demise of Guys, Philip Zimbardo writes, "From the earliest ages, guys are seduced into excessive and mostly isolated viewing and involvement with ... pornography." The primary fear expressed by Zimbardo is that boys' brains are being rewired to demand unrealistic levels of novelty, stimulation and excitement, and as a result they are becoming out of sync with real-world relationships.
Wilson also asserts that young male porn users may experience negative consequences, and his fears are backed up with first-person accounts on the YBOP website. Young males struggling with porn abuse routinely post statements like:
• I started watching porn at 10 and fapping [masturbating] soon after, several times a day for the last four years until I decided to quit. I had many reasons for starting nofap [abstinence from masturbation]: girls, anxiety, depression, and I couldn't figure out why I felt so dead inside.
• I had weird fetishes and could not stay hard during sex.
• What was worse than the PIED [Porn-Induced Erectile Dysfunction] was the desensitization to the world. I found it hard to enjoy anything at all.
Clearly, the young males posting on YBOP have experienced negative consequences related to porn use. It is important to keep in mind, however, that YBOP represents a limited population sample, with opinions skewed by the experience of boys drawn to the website. In other words, boys who aren't struggling with porn use don't search for a website discussing problematic porn use, while boys who are struggling do. Either way, the concerns expressed on YBOP are clear evidence that porn use can indeed become a current and perhaps long-term issue for some boys.
Porn use is without doubt a concern for some young males, but probably not for most. In other words, the majority of boys who view porn will do so without serious later-life problems, just as most teens who try alcohol and recreational drugs will do so without ever becoming alcoholics or addicts. On the other hand, boys who are vulnerable to addiction and other emotional and psychological challenges (thanks to genetics and/or troubling family histories) are absolutely at risk for porn addiction, just as they are at risk for alcoholism and drug addiction if they experiment with those potentially addictive substances.
Even boys without genetic predispositions or family-of-origin issues can be at risk, especially if they start in with a pleasure-inducing substance or behavior early in life (as boys typically do with pornography). Research proves this rather conclusively with alcoholism and drug addiction, showing that the earlier the age of first exposure to addictive substances, the higher the likelihood of addiction later in life. It seems reasonable to assume that the same is probably true with pornography, although, as mentioned earlier, there is not currently any research backing this up.
At the end of the day, we need to understand that most boys who view online porn look at it occasionally and move on to live relational experiences when they are ready, but a few boys get hooked. For the most part, boys who struggle with porn use (and the resultant intimacy issues that inevitably follow) are kids who were destined to struggle anyway, one way or another, with or without Internet assistance. The rest of today's boys are likely to simply roll with the punches, adapting to new technologies in healthy ways just as kids have always done.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.