In June of 2009 internet users launched more than ten billion searches on the most popular search engines. Two and a half billion of those searches were for pornography! (How big is a billion? If you were to count out loud to one million, it would take you about 11 days. To count to a billion would take you 30 years!) With the advent of iPads, Droids and Dreamscreens pornography is available to anyone, anywhere at any time. A 2009 CyberSentinel poll found that 13-16 year olds spend almost two hours a week viewing pornography, and Columbia University found that 45% of teens have “friends” who regularly view and download porn. Pornography has become the naked elephant self-stimulating itself in the middle of our digital living room.

Can something that feels go good and seems so harmless be in any way connected to the suffering in the world?  Longtime sex therapist and noted researcher, Wendy Maltz thinks so:

(After many, many years of research), I’ve come to the conclusion that pornography is moving from an individual and couples’ problem to a public health problem, capable of deeply harming the emotional, sexual, and relationship well-being of millions of men, women, and children.

Empirical evidence is currently unclear as to whether excessive viewing of pornography is the “new crack cocaine” that leads to addiction, misogyny, pedophilia and sexual dysfunction. These claims were made amidst great criticism by a number of scientists and clinicians before a Senate subcommittee a few years ago. But from a neuroscience perspective, some things are pretty certain. One is, different brains will be affected by pornography in different ways. Even though many things done to excess hold the possibility of becoming toxic – drugs, alcohol, tobacco, sugar, shopping, television, work – not all brains turn the opiods released by repeatedly viewing pornography into so-called “erototoxins.” Viewing doesn’t automatically lead to addiction, but it does increase the risk for those who are vulnerable.

Cooling Our Jets

Pornography is a hot topic that often stirs strong responses in mixed company, which can work against constructive dialogue. The strength of our emotional reaction to porn is often an indicator of how integrated (or not) our own brains are around the subject. And while we might wish that pornography and easy access to it didn’t exist and wasn’t a significant problem, burying our collective heads in the sand won’t go very far in accurately informing each other or in providing useful guidance for our children.

While accurate statistics are hard to come by, supposedly a high percentage of people who participate in the porn industry were sexually abused as young children (The psycho-neurological mechanisms of shame, repression, dissociation and denial make any such stats questionable at best). Abuse in any form though, reduces neurogenesis (growth of new neurons) and synaptogenesis (the integrated connectivity of neurons). Add in the shame that often accompanies the use of pornography, and we can begin to build a pretty compelling case for the social consequences of pornography leading to substantial neurological impoverishment.

Pornography, like casual sex, invites turning off those parts of our brain that would have us emotionally connect to and deeply care for others. In addition, according to an MSNBC study, more than 70% of porn users keep their use secret and view it in isolation. Social isolation is another proven impairer of optimal neurological development.

Help for the Hand-icapped

So what can we do to skillfully address the issue of pornography where our children are concerned?  I have some recommendations:

Be willing to entertain the possibility that pornography may be a problem. Human beings engage in lots of initially enjoyable things that inevitably turn out to be harmful, only later coming to realize it. This may be one more.

Be prepared for the subject to present itself in our homes. This will often come as an unexpected surprise: a magazine found under the mattress, a computer screen left open and active by accident, etc.

Work with trusted others to begin to reduce our own charge, negative or positive, on the subject. Whatever our hot buttons, our kids are the ones who know them best and they will almost always find ways to press them. You can be pretty sure if you have a hot button around sexuality and pornography, eventually it’s going to get pressed.

Depending upon the extent of the problem, seek professional help. These kinds of compulsive behaviors are not easy to beat single-handedly.

Pornography usage can be a difficult emotional issue to tackle head on. Like many of the challenges of parenting, it will very likely require us to change the hardest thing of all … ourselves.