7 ways that watching porn pummels your brain

By September 22, 2021 C2P Blog

It’s common knowledge that drugs and alcohol can wreak havoc on the human brain. But what about porn?

Since the dawn of the internet, problematic sexual behaviours have been on the rise. There is evidence to suggest a correlation between rape culture and early childhood exposure to online pornography. The incel movement, pickup artists and other noxious subcultures have exploded in popularity in recent years — further normalizing sexual exploitation and violence.

But the members of these subcultures were kids, once. Their youthful curiosity likely led them to stumble upon internet porn before they were emotionally mature enough to process what they saw.

While technology has expanded our opportunities for connection and learning, it has also provided children with direct, unfettered access to pornographic content. Viewing violent pornography can traumatize a child’s developing brain by invariably altering their neuropathways.

Below are seven ways that watching porn can negatively impact a child’s brain development and subsequent behaviour:

1. They are more likely to engage in sexting and self-produced sexual images.

According to one Canadian study, one in five high school students have received “sexy, nude or partially nude photos” of someone that was forwarded to them by someone else — a practice that, even as a minor, could result in child pornography charges.

2. They become more vulnerable to online predators.

Excessive consumption of violent and/or sexually explicit media can, in the malleable mind of a child, normalize and even encourage sexual violence. This can increase high-risk behaviors such as sending explicit material to strangers or meeting strangers from online in person.

3. They develop body image issues.

This study showed that watching porn was associated with increased body dissatisfaction — gay men, in particular, experienced more anxiety about their physical appearance and increased rates of eating disorders.

4. They are more likely to experience mental health challenges.

This Swedish study found that online pornography viewers are twice as likely to have depression. Recovery Village also suggests that a lack of healthy coping skills could lead a depressed person to watch more porn to manage their depressive symptoms.

5. They develop ideals reinforced by the sexist and racist themes commonly found in porn.

Overtly racist themes are rampant in porn — for example, Black male porn actors are told to act more “thug”. This can lead porn viewers to increasingly fetishize racialized people instead of seeing them as fellow human beings. Increased porn consumption is also associated with negative attitudes towards women (specifically in men who have low agreeableness), according to researchers from the University of Copenhagen and University of California in Los Angeles in this study of 200 adults.

6. They are more likely to engage in escalating risky and/or compulsive sexual behaviour.

One 2014 study found that watching porn can physically shrink a part of the brain associated with pleasure, leading viewers to require increasingly graphic material in order to become aroused. Another study of 265 gay men found that those who watched more condom-less porn were less likely to use protection themselves. The same study found that those who watched porn featuring condoms (a relatively rare find) were more likely to use them, too. 

7. They are more likely to be a perpetrator of domestic and/or sexual violence in adulthood.

A study of 300 men by Neil Malamuth at the University of California, Los Angeles  concluded that men who are already sexually aggressive and consume large amounts of sexually aggressive pornography are more likely to commit a sexually aggressive act. Malamuth argues that porn, like alcohol, isn’t inherently dangerous, but can be for those who have other risk factors.

Connecting to Protect (C2P) is a global coalition of mental health, medical neuroscience, education, legal, technology and policy experts addressing the harms associated with early childhood access to harmful pornographic content online. C2P is hosting a world-first virtual summit Oct. 13-15, 2021, to strategize and coordinate a public health response to find new ways to safeguard the wellbeing of our children and communities globally. Register today!

About the Authors:

Dr. Jocelyn Monsma, Chair of Connecting to Protect, is a clinical therapist with over 40 years of experience and director of a private Addiction Continuing Care Program for Adults specializing in chemical, gambling and sex addiction. Megan Eichhorn is a writer and content creator with a focus on trauma-informed communication, social justice and social responsibility.