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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Internet Pornography—Akin to Cocaine


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


The progressives who brought the world the sexual revolution assure one and all that that Internet pornography poses no threat to social or personal well-being; indeed, they argue that Internet pornography deserves the same legal protections afforded expressions of political opinion. But the progressive view on pornography appears ever less credible as evidence accrues showing that addiction to Internet pornography looks very like addiction to cocaine and carries consequences that may prove just as harmful for individuals and families. Giving focus and meaning to much of this evidence is a recent review article in Behavioral Science by an international team of scholars affiliated with the University of Duisburg-Essen, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and the Erwin L. Hahn Institute for Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

As the authors of this new review article note, the term “‘addiction’ has historically been associated with the problematic overconsumption of drugs and or/alcohol.” However, they recognize that “burgeoning neuroscientific research in this field has changed our understanding over the last few decades,” compelling mental-health professionals to acknowledge that “pathological behaviors such as uncontrolled gambling, Internet use, gaming, pornography, and sexual acting out” affect the brain in ways that look like those associated with “addiction involving various psychiatric substances, such as alcohol, opioids and cocaine.” The reviewers therefore find it entirely appropriate that the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) formally expanded their definition of addiction in 2011, making it apply both to substance use and to behaviors that create a “chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuits.” Whether it involves substances or behaviors, addiction thus leads to “dysfunction” of the brain of an addicted individual “pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief” through these substances and behaviors.  

Guided by the newly expanded definition of addiction, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 2013 identified Internet gaming as “a potential addictive disorder warranting further study” in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The authors of this new review of research endorse this identification. But these reviewers believe the APA erred in deciding that “viewing pornography online . . . is not considered analogous to Internet gaming disorder” and therefore cannot be considered as a potentially addictive behavior without further research.  Convinced that the APA’s judgment on viewing pornography online is “inconsistent with existing and emerging scientific evidence,” the reviewers adduce a body of evidence indicating that “Internet pornography addiction (IPA)” fits very well into the newly expanded definition of addiction. 

Citing psychiatrist Norman Doidge’s 2007 book The Brain That Changes Itself, the authors of the new review explain the consequences of “the continued release of dopamine into the reward system when an individual compulsively and chronically watches Internet pornography,” so “stimulat[ing] neuroplastic changes that reinforce the experience.”  These changes “build brain maps for sexual excitement,” creating stimulation not available through “previously established brain maps for ‘natural’ sexuality” and drawing “the addicted individual . . . to more explicit and graphic Internet pornography in order to maintain the higher level of excitement.”

The reviewers complement what they find in Doidge by turning to a 2011 article on pornography addiction by neurosurgeons Donald Hilton and Clark Watts. Asserting that pornography addictions “operate via the same underlying mechanisms” as all other types of addiction, Hilton and Watts limn the way pornography addiction causes “neuroanatomical changes,” including “changes in dopamine receptor density, and . . . the [neural] reward system.” These neurological changes consequent to pornography addiction, Hilton and Watts point out, may result in “selective atrophy of cortical areas associated with reward pathways.”

The authors of the new review find more relevant evidence of the addictive effects of Internet pornography coming out of a series of neuroimaging studies at Cambridge University starting in 2014. When examining the brains of Internet pornography addicts, the Cambridge scholars conducting these studies found “the same brain activity as seen in drug addicts and alcoholics.” More specifically, these scholars found that addiction to Internet pornography seemed to affect the amygdala and ventral striatum in the brain much as alcohol, cocaine, and nicotine do.

In this context, the reviewers also find germane a 2014 study from Germany’s Max Planck Institute concluding that “subjects who consumed more pornographic material were found to have less connectivity between the right caudate and left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC),” the DLPFC being the seat of “executive functions . . . associated with cue reactivity to drugs and Internet gaming.” Quite plausibly, the reviewers connect such findings to a 2014 analysis of “neurocognitive assessments of people with gambling and alcohol-use problems in which both groups demonstrated greater impulsivity.”

The authors of the new research review refer to similar findings in very recent studies of the effects of addiction to Internet pornography presented at a 2015 conference on behavioral addiction held in Budapest.  Many of these very new studies, the authors of the new commentary acknowledge, have not yet been scrutinized through peer review. Still, in these studies, the authors find ample proof that “there is a rapidly growing body of research” on the issue of Internet pornography addiction. In conjunction with the earlier studies that have been fully vetted by peer review, the latest body of research buttresses the reviewers’ claim that they have amassed “strong neuroscientific evidence” for regarding the viewing of Internet pornography as “potentially addictive.”

Given the terrible harm that the global flood of pornography has inflicted on marriage and family life, it is past time to recognize the alarming similarity between such porn and the addictive drugs that law-enforcement authorities have long been fighting. 

(Todd Love et al., “Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update,” Behavioral Science 5.3 [2015]: 388-433.) 

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