The naked truth
Internet porn poses challenges for obsessive viewers
There's a fair amount of debate regarding how much of the internet's content is really comprised of pornography. By some estimates, it's 12 percent and, by others, 30 percent. Regardless, it can be viewed from nearly anywhere, at any time—frequently for free. According to Dr. Steven Hayes, a clinical psychologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, it's estimated that around 13 percent of the U.S. population regularly watches pornography, and, among these viewers, eight percent watch 11 or more hours per week.
Many researchers, including Dr. Michael Levin of Utah State University's psychology department, have said that watching pornography online, even frequently, isn't necessarily problematic.
Sometimes pornography can even be beneficial or facilitate people's relationships in a positive way, according to Hayes. Yet, for a portion of the population that struggles with compulsive watching, the wide availability of pornography via the internet can have serious consequences on their relationships, mental health, and overall ability to function or be productive, he said.
Hayes said that in terms of brain processes for people who struggle with compulsivity, parts of the brain used in emotional regulation become active. He said people may compulsively watch to self sooth by trying to avoid loneliness, anger, anxiety or depression. Hayes said this is known as experiential avoidance—attempting to avoid thoughts, feelings or other experiences you don't want to have by distracting yourself.
“It's self-accelerating,” Hayes said, “It doesn't have a natural limit. Once you start avoiding, you're going to want to avoid more because to turn around and face things you've been avoiding is hard, so you turn around and avoid them again.”
Of course, people have struggled with compulsive viewing patterns since long before the internet, but now, according to Hayes, the chances of acquiring viewing habits that are out of control are much higher.
“It's like the way we have sweets and health problems,” said Hayes, “It has to do with the constant availability of sugar. The constant availability—that you're just a click away, you know, nowadays, not necessarily even at any cost. So what's to prevent you?”
According to Hayes, if a person is thinking about porn all the time and how awful it is that they're watching it, they're still thinking about it. And this can push them to watch more. He gave the comparison of frequently thinking about food when dieting. The more obsessively a person thinks about it, the more likely they are to overeat.
“It's only when you build habits that will sort of allow you to do well mindlessly, when you can build habits in diet and exercise, that lead to permanent weight loss,” said Hayes, “If you're thinking about it all the time, it's a really bad way to do it, and it's the same way [for porn]. If you have a wagging finger of shame or blame in the back of your head, good luck with that.”
One of the things Hayes has said he's found in studying out-of-control viewing habits is that a reduction in a person's sense of shame and guilt can lead to an increase in their ability to regulate their behavior. This is the central focus of acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT. Hayes said this type of therapy is designed to help people become more emotionally open and less entangled with judgment, while building habits around values rather than phobias or judgments.
According to research from Dr. Michael P. Twohig of Utah State, after eight one-and-a-half-hour sessions of ACT therapy, an 85 percent reduction in participants' porn viewing was reported as a post-treatment result. And rather than trying to simply suppress the urge to watch, Hayes said a mindfulness-based therapy like ACT may lead people to become more open about porn and less obsessed with the negative emotions with which they associate it. And this can help them gain behavioral control.
Although there's no argument in the scientific community about the fact that people struggle with compulsivity, “pornography addiction” is not listed as a disorder in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association—and some researchers have argued that it's not a real condition at all.
In the field of neuroscience, research published in 2015 by a team at the University of California, Los Angeles indicated that compulsive porn viewers' brains don't react like those of typical addicts.
The researchers measured electrical activity in the brain when people were shown both sexual and non-sexual images. What they found was that—unlike your typical cigarette, cocaine or even gambling addict, whose brains show increased reactions when exposed to their drug of choice—people who struggled with excessive porn viewing had decreased brain reactions when viewing porn.
“This finding is important, because it shows a reversal of a part of the brain response that has been consistently documented in other substance addictions and gambling disorder,” Dr. Nicole Prause, who led the study, said in a press release following its publication.
In the press release, the researchers concluded that putting the “addiction” label on excessive porn viewing may not be a wise move.
“Labeling a person's attempt to control urges a ‘sexual addiction' may interfere with therapy approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that can reduce distressing sexual behaviors,” said psychologist and study co-author Cameron Staley.
According to Hayes, the integration of technology into day-to-day life can be dealt with by people who develop what he calls “modern minds.”
“The world is different now than it used to be, and it just isn't exposure to porn, you're exposed to horror for example,” said Hayes.
Exposure to not only pornography but things like violence as well may be a fact of life in the internet age. But, according to Hayes, acceptance and commitment therapy is one way for people to develop modern minds of their own, while learning to keep a balance of self-control and openness, too.