If you’d like a quick overview of the impact of pornography on the adolescent brain, our parents’ guide to internet pornography recommends you watch these first 2 videos for starters. It will only take 20 minutes of your time.
The first is a 4-minute TED talk by Stanford University Professor Philip Zimbardo called “The Demise of Guys”, and the second is Gary Wilson’s TEDx talk “The Great Porn Experiment” that answers Zimbardo’s challenge, (16 mins). Both focus on use by boys but girls are increasingly being targeted by the porn industry now to increase their market share.
When you have more time, this third TED video (14 mins) by Professor Sarah Jayne Blakemore called the mysterious workings of the adolescent brain explains the healthy adolescent brain. She does not mention pornography and its effects however, but it is a good overview.
This talk with slides by Dr Baler (50 mins) of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse is more helpful. It looks at how the adolescent brain can go awry as a result of toxic stimuli like pornography, gaming, drugs, alcohol etc. It explains that adolescents’ brains are particularly plastic and a double edge sword that can be shaped for good or ill. Bingeing on gaming, gambling and pornography over time are now recognised by experts as being able to change the brain in the same way as drugs and other substances of abuse. It sets out how we can help them build resilience to addiction.
- Whatever you do, don’t blame and shame a child for watching pornography. It is everywhere. Children are naturally curious about sex from a young age. Online porn seems like a cool way to learn how to be good at sex. Just forbidding your child to watch it only makes it more tempting, for as the old saying goes, ‘forbidden fruit tastes sweetest’.
- Helping your child to understand how porn use over time can affect their developing brain is key. This can help them become aware of their own use and take steps to find healthier ways to learn about sex or divert themselves from constantly thinking about it .
- Let your children know that porn is designed by multi-billion dollar tech companies to hook users without their awareness. Companies sell intimate information about their desires and habits to third parties and advertisers. It is addictive like online gaming, gambling and social media to keep users coming back as soon as they are bored or anxious.
- Delay giving your child a smartphone or tablet for as long as possible. Mobile phones mean you can stay in contact. Do children really need 24 hour-a-day access to the internet? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children 3-18 years should not use screen for more than 2 hours a day. Children 2 years and under should not use screens at all.
- Turn off the internet at night. Or, at the very least, remove all phones and tablets from your child’s bedroom. Lack of restorative sleep is increasing stress, depression and anxiety in many children today. They may protest at first, but many children have told us they would like their parents to impose curfews on them and give them clear boundaries. You are not doing your child any favours by leaving them ‘literally’ to their own devices.
Recent research suggests that filters alone will not protect your children from accessing online pornography. Keeping the lines of communication open is more important. Making porn harder to access however is always a good start especially with young children. It is worth putting filters on all internet devices and making sure on a regular basis that they are working. Here are some we have heard about. Please check with NSPCC or Childline or CEOP for the latest recommendations.
There are many other software and support options. Ikydz is an app to allow parents to monitor their kids’ use; Bark; NetNanny; Mobicip; Qustodio Parental Control; WebWatcher; Norton Family Premiere; OpenDNS Home VIP; PureSight Multi. Their appearance in this list does not constitute an endorsement by The Reward Foundation.
Moment is a free app that allows a person to monitor their use online, set limit and receive nudges when reaching those limits. Users have a tendency to underestimate their usage by a significant margin. This is similar but not free. It helps people reboot their brain with help along the way. It’s called Brainbuddy.
There are a variety of resources available to help parents deal with this tricky subject. The best book on the market, if you like reading, is by our honorary research officer Gary Wilson (we would say that but it happens to be true) and is called “Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction”. He is an excellent science teacher who explains the brain’s reward or motivation system in a very accessible way for non-scientists. The book is an update on his popular TEDx talk from 2012 (see above).
The impact of porn is made more real through the hundreds of heartening recovery stories by younger and older guys, and some women too. Many started watching internet porn at a young age. It has excellent tips about recovery set out by those who know best. Thousands of former users on porn recovery sites mention that it was Gary’s explanation of porn’s effects on the adolescent brain that helped them experiment with quitting porn.
The book is available in paperback, on Kindle or as an audiobook. It is in its second edition updated in October 2018 to take account of the World Health Organisation’s recognition of a new diagnostic category of “Compulsive Sexual Behaviour Disorder”. Translations are available in Dutch, Arabic and Hungarian so far with others in the pipeline.
Other recommended books
- Teacher and psychologist Collett Smart has brought out a new book “They’ll be ok.: 15 conversations to help your child through troubled times” It does what it says on the label.
- Child psychiatrist Dr Victoria Dunckley’s book “Reset your Child’s Brain” and her free blog explain the effects of too much screen time on the child’s brain. Importantly it sets out a plan for what parents can do to help their child get on track again.
She doesn’t isolate porn use but focuses on internet use in general. She says that about 80% of the children she sees do not have the mental health disorders they have been diagnosed with and medicated for, such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety etc. but rather have what she calls ‘electronic screen syndrome.’ This syndrome mimics the symptoms of many of these common mental health disorders. The mental health issues can often be cured/reduced by removing the electronic gadgets for a period of around 3 weeks in most cases.
Her book explains how parents can do this in a step-by-step guide in collaboration with the child’s school.
Books For Younger Children
“Pandora’s box is open. Now what do I do?” Gail Poyner is a psychologist and provides useful brain information and easy exercises to help children think through options.
“Good Pictures, Bad Pictures” by Kristen Jensen and Gail Poyner. Also a good book focusing on the child brain.
Not for Kids. Protecting Kids. By Liz Walker has written a simple book for very young children with colourful graphics.
Free resources for parents
- Former sociology professor and author, Dr Gail Dines, is founder of Culture Reframed. Her radical feminist focus is on how our pornified culture is grooming our children for sexual exploitation and robbing them of their chance of healthy and happy sexual development. She also provides help with those important conversations with children.
- Excellent free advice from anti-child abuse charity StopIt Now! Parents Protect
- Here is an important new report from Internet Matters on internet safety and digital piracy with tips on how to keep your child safe while surfing the net.
- Advice from the NSPCC about online porn.
Most of the main free recovery websites such as RebootNation.org; PornHelp; NoFap.com; Fightthenewdrug.org; Go for Greatness and Addicted to Internet Porn are secular but have religious members too. Useful for parents to look at to get an idea of what those in recovery have experienced and are now coping with as they adjust.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
If you have a child who has been assessed as being on the autism spectrum, you need to be aware that your child may be at a higher risk of becoming hooked on pornography than neurotypical children. If you suspect your child might be on the spectrum, it would be a good idea to have them assessed. Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological condition present from birth. It is not a mental disease. It affects about 1:100 people. While it is a much more common condition among males, females can have it too. For more information read these blogs on porn and autism; a mother’s story; and autism: real or fake?
The UK Government has introduced legislation to restrict access by under 18 year olds to internet pornography. See this blog about it for more details.
(Updated 18 February 2019)
More support from The Reward Foundation
Please contact us if there is any area you’d like us to cover on this subject. We will be developing more material on our website over the coming months. Sign up to our e-newsletter Rewarding News and follow us on Twitter (@brain_love_sex) for the latest developments.
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