How pornography changes our brain (and why our teens need to know about this)

We’ve talked a lot about pornography in the past (you can read our article on pornography vs real-life here). It’s because it’s such a significant, inescapable aspect of adult – and now thanks to free pornography sites and the internet – teen life. Sadly, many young people are getting their sex education from mainstream pornography, which we know often is deeply problematic and shows unrealistic portrayals of sex. That’s why it’s so important that schools, parents and carers counteract this miseducation by talking with young people. And one important aspect of pornography they need to know about is the effect on the brain.

Before we jump in, it’s also worth noting that this is touchy topic and different parents will have different values and opinions. Some parents and carers may not agree, but we believe all these points are worthy of consideration and at least a chat. It’s also impossible to know the true long-term effects of frequent pornography usage on developing brains, as the easy access to porn on devices has only been around for about 10 years.

How porn works on the brain

Pornographic images and videos stimulate the part of the brain that releases dopamine – the neurotransmitter of pleasure and reward. It’s one of the things that makes us feel good when we enjoy food or sex or buy a new pair of shoes. In fact, the imagery in porn is so hyper-stimulating for the brain that it releases unnaturally high levels of dopamine. Trying to create these high dopamine rushes again and again can ‘wear out’ the system. It may be why some frequent consumers of pornography say they need to go to more hardcore kinds of porn to get the same feelings of pleasure as before.

Porn can wear out our reward system

Pornography releases such high levels of dopamine in the brain that frequent viewings can leave the brain unresponsive to natural sources of pleasure (or even what was giving us pleasure before). It desensitises our brain’s reward circuitry and can mess with our natural ability to produce dopamine. Studies show that anything that creates significant changes in the transmission of dopamine can contribute to depression and anxiety, which may be why other research shows that frequent porn consumers report greater depressive symptoms, lower quality of life and poorer mental health compared to those who don’t watch porn.

Porn may change our ‘sexual scripts’

Frequent pornography consumption may change our ‘sexual scripts’, according to one study. Basically, our sexual scripts are our sexual interests, behaviours and expectations. Mainstream pornography offers an almost uniform sexual script of female objectification and degradation and male violence towards them. The results from the study showed that ‘the more pornography a man watches, the more likely he was to use it during sex, request particular pornographic sex acts of his partner, deliberately conjure images of pornography during sex to maintain arousal, and have concerns over his own sexual performance and body image.’ Higher pornography consumption was also associated with lesser enjoyment of intimate behaviours with a partner.    

Anecdotally, we’ve heard this ourselves in the classroom. Some (mostly male) students who admitted to watching a lot of porn said they found it difficult to get turned on by the real-life partners and that their brain couldn’t connect in the moment. And we often hear from students of all genders that porn puts pressure on people to do the things that are shown onscreen.

Porn could lead to erectile disfunction

Studies show that today, between 14% and 35% of young men experience erectile disfunction. Until 2002, this number was between 2% and 3%. Of course, erectile disfunction is a complex issue that can relate to many factors including drug and alcohol use, stress, anxiety and depression. But some researchers believe that frequent and/or compulsive porn consumption now is also an important factor in this percentage rise – especially as it overlaps with the explosion of free and easily accessible online porn sites. 

Porn may affect our ability to delay gratification

One study from the Journal of Sex Research found that pornography may make people choose immediate payoffs over delayed gratification. What does this mean exactly? It means our ability to wait or work for something that will bring us higher reward rather than go for whatever pleasure is in front of us right now. Our ability to have a long-term mindset when it comes to rewards is what helps us, say, save money for something important rather than buy the cool thing in front of us right now, or work hard on a meaningful project even if it’s difficult rather than slacking off.