Neuroscience, porn and the developing teen brain

By Matt Bulkley | Blog Education Series

Neuroscience, porn and the developing teen brain

Recent research in neuroscience is shedding light on the damaging impact that the use of pornography has on the developing adolescent brain. Because of the ease of access to internet porn, increasing numbers of children and teens are experiencing the negative effects of pornography and its impact on social, emotional and cognitive development.

Porn vs. drugs

Surprising to many, the spike of dopamine and other neurochemicals resulting from porn use is similar to illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine. Most recognize the damage that the use of these drugs pose to teens, but do we share the same degree of concern about pornography?

The “porn high”

For many children and teens, viewing pornography creates a feeling of excitement and euphoria that is novel and initially a foreign experience. This we know is the result of the brain producing dopamine. This feeling can quickly lead a teen into a compulsive pattern of viewing porn as a means of attempting to re-experience the feeling of excitement and euphoria. This is the basis for the compulsivity to move into a pattern of addiction. Additionally, research is finding that this phenomena can result in the teen experiencing a decrease in ability to maintain focus and concentration, which in turn impacts the teens cognitive develop and ability to achieve in school.

Damage to capacity for future relationships

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The dopamine rush of porn/sex can be very confusing to teens whose brains are not yet able to differentiate the feelings. Teens intoxicated with dopamine struggle in distinguishing between love, infatuation and lust. Some teens stick primarily to porn, but for others, the porn use spurs them on to explore sexual activity with a partner at a younger age than intended. The pattern of teens and young adults having multiple sexual partners damages their ability to bond in a committed relationship later in life. When teens engage in these “hook ups” research suggests that a form of bonding does occur, even if it is a one-time encounter. When a pattern of “hook-up” sexual activity occurs with multiple partners over time, collateral damage occurs to the important, innately built-in ability to develop significant and meaningful connection to other human beings. The result is that sexually active teens enter adulthood and their search for a partner with the disadvantage of a diminished attachment ability.

About the Author

Matt is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been working in the field of youth treatment and psychotherapy since 1995. He did his undergraduate work at BYU and earned his M.S.W. at the University of Utah. He has worked in a variety of treatment setting in his career ranging from wilderness therapy and residential treatment to outpatient treatment and state government.

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