How pornography can impact teenagers and their brains
November 27, 2017
EAGLE COUNTY — When addressing teens who have been viewing pornography, it's not "What were you thinking," but rather "How were you thinking," said Diane Andrews, program manager for Personal Responsibility Education Program in Glenwood Springs. Andrews spoke Wednesday, Oct. 11, at a brown bag lunch sponsored by the Eagle River Youth Coalition.
"We need to change the lens to 'how' and not 'what' as we are not here to shame kids or anybody for watching porn," Andrews said.
Andrews showed the all-female audience three TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks that related to adolescent brain development and pornography pausing to insert statements and facts.
Teens more excitable
In a 2013 TED talk "Insight into the teenage Brain," Adriana Galvan stated that the prefrontal cortex of the brain changes every day until a person is in their mid-20s. Everything that is viewed, everything that is experienced is taken into consideration and part of the makeup.
Teens and adults were part of a lab study in which they were fed sugar through a straw during an MRI. The teen brain, Galvan said, was much more excitable to sugar. A second test group of teens and adults was brought in and this group was shown images of money. Once again the teens were more excitable.
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"That tells us something about the teenage brain," Galvan said. "The teen brain is very responsive to environment.
"The teen brain gets really excited about rewards, emotions and new experiences. It is constantly changing right now and it gives teens permissions to be teens," Galvan added.
Andrews stopped the tape and told attendees that any time humor can be used to address a situation it can help diffuse tension and blame.
She then said what many parents already know: that children can stumble onto porn sites without ever having that intention.
"A child can easily be working on a school history project and go to whitehouse.com. That is a porn site. You often forget that it is .org and not .com when looking at government organizations," she said, laughing.
Andrews added the behavior path of addiction can begin with a child or teen accidentally finding porn and then seeking it on purpose. They think about how and when they are going to get it (access to porn) throughout the day. They can create a ritual or routine around using it and ignore consequences or negative impacts on viewing porn. The desire can eventually lead to a need.
When asked by a woman at the talk, "What defines porn," Andrews responded, "I would be willing to say if you are offended by it, it is probably under the umbrella of porn."
"Teenager brains are different than adults and are still forming," added counselor Nicole McGuffin. "Teen brains are tasked with neuronal wiring so they can reproduce in the future. Resting dopamine levels are lower than adults and as a teenager responds to a stimulus, the amount of dopamine released is considerably greater. Because of this, their brains are more at risk for pornography addiction. In addition, learning about sex based on pornography is unrealistic. Associating sexual arousal to screens on the computer and phone leads to not being able to be aroused by real people. Finally, what happens is that no human being can compete with the vast amount of images the brain has been exposed to resulting in losing the appetite for real world encounters."
Boys will be boys
A video "The Great Porn Experiment," by TED speaker Gary Wilson offered more insight into boys' brains.
"Most boys seek pornography by the age of 10. It is an unending novelty," he claimed.
"Unfortunately, adults don't take porn addiction as a real concern. We think this is something all teens go through," Andrews added after the video.
McGuffin explained why parents should be concerned. "The biggest sexual organ you have is actually your brain. Sexual stimulation releases the highest natural quantities of dopamine. Internet porn sites allow users to jump around, keeping dopamine elevated longer. When dopamine is elevated long term, it leads to brain changes that are associated with addiction such as hyperreactivity cues.
Think of a smoker seeing a cigarette commercial and wanting a cigarette," McGuffin added. "This results in an individual feeling a loss of self-control, a reduced ability to cope with stress, and a lowered response to everyday sources of pleasure."
Andrews cautioned parents to be aware of the warning signs of addiction: isolation, lying, being mentally foggy and distracted, grades dropping in school, emotional apathy, very low energy and memory loss.
The symptoms of "arousal addiction" mimic social anxiety, depression, performance anxiety, concentration problems and OCD.
There is hope
Still it is not all gloom and doom. According to Andrews there are strategies for intervention and support:
• Share online videos and research about porn and arousal addiction with teens to start a conversation.
• Update parental controls on computer.
• Educate yourself as parents on rebooting strategies and side effects.
• Create a technology agreement to limit access and keep an open mind and understand this an addiction with physiological impacts that will take time to reverse.
Andrews emphasized that for adult males whose ventures into pornography began with magazines that the reversal process is easier. For younger males who can "jump from image to image," the reversal process is longer.
Andrews has a family technology handout that parents can use with their teens which both teens and parents sign. It highlights time together, mutual support, respecting the rights of others, opportunities and limits to screen time as well as not purchasing anything with a credit card without prior permission.