Learning the risks of porn

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:
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And yet every time I comment on one of these articles that parents should STOP giving their under ...

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Teenagers are increasingly getting addicted to internet pornography, with dire effects in and out of the classroom. An Edinburgh-based charity is tackling the issue with pilot lessons in four secondaries. Sam Phipps explains

Opponents of pornography have tended to been seen as socially or morally conservative, perhaps plain prudish. They have not usually worried about neuroplasticity – the way our brains are shaped by repeated and intensive stimuli.

Yet in the last decade or so the porn industry has grown drastically, and with it instant access around the world to online material that once would have been niche for the darkest fantasists.

Now a growing body of scientists and researchers are linking a host of ills – including social anxiety, body dysmorphia, criminality and aggressiveness, as well as sexual dysfunction – to compulsive or obsessive porn viewing.

In effect, people are increasingly getting addicted to internet porn in much the same way they get addicted to drink, drugs or gambling: by knocking the brain’s reward system, which balances rational thinking and wanting, out of kilter.

But whereas over time users need more and more alcohol and drugs to get the same hit, viewers of online porn often crave endless novelty. And young people are most at risk of being drawn in, via smartphones, laptops and other devices.

Mary Sharpe, CEO of the Reward Foundation – which campaigns to raise awareness of the risks associated with excessive porn use and help those beset by it, including school pupils – says the brain’s structures for sex are being rewired by intense exposure to highly stimulating material.

“Never before in history has so much of this material been available, and it is growing all the time,” she told SecEd.
Usage appears to be growing rapidly too. She cites surveys showing that between 20 and 50 per cent of boys aged 15 in the UK regularly watch porn, up from five per cent in 2008. For 18 to 21 year-olds it rises to around 80 per cent. Girls may be less keen but their numbers are growing too. “In terms of mental health issues in schools, we are seeing a huge rise in things like social anxiety, depression, negative body image,” Ms Sharpe said. “We are hearing from teachers that some porn-viewing kids are scared to come to school – they’re like zombies, they don’t want to interact with other kids.”

Scientific evidence

She cites the Nobel laureate Nikolaas Tinbergen, who discovered that birds, butterflies, and other animals could be duped into preferring extra large fake eggs and mates. Today’s pornography, with its surgically enhanced performers and extreme scripts, offers the same kind of “supernormal stimulus”, she argues.

Fortunately, neuroplasticity works the other way too. Addicts or compulsive users can break the porn habit and a growing number of recovery websites help people do so.

“People on those sites talk about all the benefits after they quit: their depression often lifts, their concentration improves, their sexual dysfunctions go, and so on,” said Ms Sharpe, who is also on the board of the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health in the US and is an experienced lawyer.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines sexual health as: “A state of physical, mental and social wellbeing in relation to sexuality. It requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.”

By contrast, a review of the 250 most popular pornographic films cited in an academic study found that 88 per cent of the scenes contained physical aggression and 49 per cent verbal aggression towards women.

In June 2018, WHO officially recommended the new diagnosis of compulsive sexual behaviour disorder (CSBD) for future implementation. This includes both risky casual sex and binge pornography and masturbation – in effect, porn addiction. Concerned observers hope this could mark a turning point in regarding problematic porn use as a public health risk.

Also, age-verification for accessing online porn is due to start in the UK later this year under the Digital Economy Act, though doubts remain over how exactly this will be done.

Ms Sharpe continued: “The adolescent brain is prone to addiction of any kind, particularly when puberty hits – this is when the brain is naturally curious about sex and trying to learn all the skills it needs for adulthood and how to engage in relationships.”

Overdue revision

SHARE, Scotland’s former sex education programme, was out-of-date and did not cover pornography. A new programme, due out in 2019, forms part of the new, integrated Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood programme.

“It would be good if in it they focus on the impact of pornography on brain development, and the evidence of its effects on mental and physical health,” Ms Sharpe said.

As well as working with health professionals and GPs throughout the UK, the Reward Foundation has also visited many independent schools in Scotland to highlight the problem and offer possible ways out.

Last year it won Big Lottery Funding to pilot a series of lessons in four state schools in Edinburgh. Two lessons are for P7, two for S2/S3 and two for S5/S6. Teachers will give their feedback in the autumn, and the Reward Foundation is hoping for eventual roll-out across Scotland.

These lessons cover areas such as sexting – the sending of sexually explicit photos of themselves or others – which is rife among teenagers even though it is illegal for anyone under-18. The distinction is also drawn between consensual texting and aggravated texting, which involves some kind of coercion.

Teachers are asked to look at any gender difference in pupils’ responses to issues around sexting and porn, while suggesting that people may be more open to sending/viewing sexts or porn if they are bored, lonely, angry, stressed, tired or hungry.

Pupils also learn about real-life stories, for example that of J (himself a child) who was convicted of possessing indecent images of children. A professional footballer, he kept them on his phone after being sent them by young admirers. He lost his lucrative job and was placed on the Sex Offenders Register.

It means he will find it difficult to travel abroad; his job and college opportunities will be restricted and he will have social work and police staff supervising him for years. J will be regarded by many as a “paedophile” even though his offence was a non-contact one – the legal system and media do not distinguish between the two types of offending.

Education places the emphasis on safety and staying legal, showing what help the school can offer and also encouraging parental and community support. The focus is also on how pupils can help each other.

Other pilot lessons look at extreme gender stereotyping, so-called “slut shaming” and the “rape myth” that – boys who have sex with multiple partners are seen as “studs”, while some girls who behave the same way are seen as “sluts”.

“These sexual double standards are not harmless and can have real-life consequences, including severe reputational loss for girls compared with boys,” Ms Sharpe said. Another aspect to this is the distribution or threat of “revenge porn”, which now carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Supply and demand

The key change took place in 2006 when YouTube caused the creation of huge tube sites where free streaming videos were available. Users could now switch from video to video and have a gallery of endless options available while they masturbated. It is a far cry from the old world of magazines, DVDs or dial-up.

Researchers have noted that sexual aggression among younger people has risen sharply too, as viewers act out what they see. Ms Sharpe cites a 34 per cent increase in child-on-child sexual abuse charges in Scotland between 2012 and 2016.
The absence of condoms from almost all porn is another example of modelling risky behaviour, she added. Yet the industry is as loath to admit any potential harm – just as tobacco companies used to be.

Darryl Mead, chairman of Reward, explained that two basic patterns have emerged among those who watch pornography intensively from an early age. “About half of them remain virgins for a long time. So you’ll have people who are 23 and have been using porn for 10 years and still not held another person’s hand, whether gay or straight.

“The other half of those who end up in difficulty are the ones who have managed to make a connection with somebody. And then the question is: are they acting out what they are viewing in terms of their approach?”

Ms Sharpe said that schools need to tackle the problem urgently, like wider society.

“With drink and drugs, not only do you have to spend money to get them but parents can see the clear physical damage. The challenge for schools and parents is that with pornography the harm is often hidden and problems don’t tend to manifest for quite a while.

“Of course the porn industry is saying: it’s all natural, it’s free, it’s allowing them to explore their sexuality. But in reality, it is shaping their sexual tastes.”

  • Sam Phipps is a freelance education journalist

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Comments
And yet every time I comment on one of these articles that parents should STOP giving their under 18 yos phones with internet access, I get attacked for being too protective and not exposing kids in a "safe" way to the dangers of the world. Parents are cowards or in denial on this issue. Unfortunately, even parents who take the societally unpopular position of denying phones to their kids, still have not eliminated the possibility of porn usage. It's a nightmare.
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