“Learning to control the urge for instant gratification is key to success. This is especially the case with adolescents” says Mary Sharpe, Chief Executive Officer of The Reward Foundation – Our Brain on Love and Sex. “The free and easy access to all kinds of violent and abusive pornography via smartphones is very alluring to teenagers. Their brains are primed for excitement and learning about sex as soon as puberty develops. Sadly over time as their brains become conditioned to extreme artificial stimulation and constant novelty, they are not satisfied with the level of stimulation available in real relationships. Their ability to learn and be creative are stunted as addiction to electronic stimulation commands their full attention. Escalation to child abuse imagery is common and possession of it is contributing to the highest levels of sexual offending ever. Depression too is the number one mental health problem today. It is one of the most common symptoms experienced by porn addicts. Society as a whole is gradually losing out unless we take action now to teach our young citizens how to avoid addiction, especially to pornography, and build resilience instead.”
The journey to create The Reward Foundation first crystallised when Mary presented a paper on “Sex and Addiction” at the Third International Positive Psychology conference in Braga, Portugal 2006. After years of developing her knowledge of this worldwide phenomenon, Mary set up The Reward Foundation on 23rd June 2014. She has received a number of awards since then. It started with a year of training at the Scottish Government-supported Social Innovation Incubator Award run by The Melting Pot. Upon graduating, Mary was then invited onto the Accelerator programme. She has also received two awards from UnLtd and one from the Educational Trust to develop the work of the foundation.
To keep apace of the research developments, Mary spent a year as a Visiting Scholar at St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge in 2015-16. During this time she spoke at a dozen national and international conferences. She published an article on “Strategies to Prevent Internet Pornography Addiction” available here (pages 105-116) and co-authored a chapter in Working with Sex Offenders – a Guide for Practitioners published by Routledge.
Mary was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health in the USA in 2016 and is chair of the Press Release and Advocacy Committee. She is also active in the National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers and is a member of their sub-committee on Prevention of Harmful Sexual Behaviour.
Mary studied psychology as part of her Master of Arts degree at the University of Glasgow before turning to law. She practiced as a solicitor and advocate in Scotland and later at the European Commission in Brussels.
After 10 years of international relations in Brussels, Mary went to the University of Cambridge to do post-graduate work on the cultural influence on sexual relationships. Thereafter, for eight years she carried out research for the Science for Peace and Security programme of NATO and the European Science Foundation. She produced three books including: Géré, F. and Sharpe, M. (Eds) 2011 Global Security – a Vision for the Future. Addressing the Challenges and Opportunities for Research in the Information Age. IOS Press Netherlands, NATO, Science for Peace and Security series.
While in Cambridge Mary also worked for the Cambridge-MIT Institute as a mentor on enterprise with students. In addition, she trained as a facilitator in personal leadership using applied neuroscience and psychology. Her focus was on helping leaders sustain peak performance and develop resilience to stress.
One of the unique programmes that Mary has developed at The Reward Foundation is the 24-hour screen fast. This was piloted at George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh and is being developed further for state schools. The exercise gives young people practical experience of taming the mind and body when urges strike. It is part of the brain training programme The Reward Foundation encourages to develop mental and physical resilience. As we have seen with talks on alcohol abuse, a one-off talk during 12 years at school does not work. Likewise giving talks on porn harms and consent is unlikely to change teenage behaviour. Experiential learning is much more effective. The 24-hour screen fast can be adapted as well to help resist the urge to take other ‘rewards’ such as drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.
Mary Sharpe can be contacted by email at email@example.com.