It's time we tapped into sex education for internet age

15th July 2011 at 01:00
Porn is a growing problem, and as research shows, it is affecting pupils' school work and their social lives

Sharpe Thinking

Six years ago, limitless quantities of free, shocking, explicit videos became widely available to savvy internet users with high-speed connections. According to psychiatrist Norman Doidge in The Brain that Changes Itself, porn grows more shocking because today's porn users tend to become habituated to the material viewed. So the user needs something even more shocking to get aroused - which the porn industry continually delivers.

Sex education policy may benefit from an update in light of recent developments in the viewing habits of young people via the internet. The four capacities underpinning the Curriculum for Excellence - to be a successful learner, a confident individual, a responsible citizen and an effective contributor - are under threat from the effects of widespread use of internet pornography by young adults. It is time for new guidelines for teachers, based on findings about how compulsive behaviours can alter brain function and impede learning.

According to healthcare professional Linda Thompson, the fashion now is "rodeo porn", a challenge to the machismo of young men to see how long they can stay looking at the extreme material before turning away. Sadly, flashbacks from such episodes can linger a long time, especially in malleable young brains. Girls are not immune either, as they try to please boys by copying what they see in such videos.

The more extreme the material, the more it (over)stimulates a viewer's brain. In some brains, the results are changes consistent with addiction processes (see below). Today's porn can affect the brain in quite a different way from static images in magazines or even an occasional porn DVD. The internet's endless supply of novel, hyper-stimulating material just a click away overwhelms our hunter-gatherer brains, which have not adapted to this degree of intense neurochemical stimulation. A boy of 11, the average age at which boys tend to start looking at porn, can see more extreme sex in one session than his ancestors would have experienced in a lifetime.

Repeated synthetic stimulation can have surprising effects on some users' brains. Young men report that their sexual tastes sometimes morph in unexpected directions, and that they do not respond normally to real girls. It is not unheard of for straight youths to become hooked on transsexual porn, autoerotic asphyxiation, bondage or violent rape. It can be unnerving for them to get sexually aroused by material that conflicts with their self-image. Many notice increased social anxiety and isolation as they delve into porn.

In terms of educational policy, according to a 2010 study, 37 per cent of college-age users say porn has interfered with their work or school, and 10 per cent say it caused academic problems (54 per cent reported that it resulted in some social problems: 24 per cent with friends, 32 per cent with family and 42 per cent with a significant other); 61 per cent reported psychologicalspiritual problems.

Mental health professionals are slow to agree on whether compulsive viewing constitutes an addiction. However, addiction researchers believe that all addictions share similar mechanisms and the same brain circuits. Certainly, the withdrawal symptoms of some porn users - headaches, insomnia, cravings, anxiety, depression, shaking, etc - are similar to those of substance abusers. Ominously, a condition known as hypofrontality has been observed in sex addicts (study done on prisoners). This is a shrinking of the frontal lobes, where creativity and rational thinking take place.

Whom should youths turn to for guidance about their porn escalation or disturbing symptoms? What can teachers and parents do?

Avoid threats and shaming: risky activities release a cocktail of neurochemicals in the brain that reinforce the value of the activity and thus the learning. Forbidden fruit tastes sweetest. Humans are naturally drawn to sexy images because our brains evolved to make reproduction a top priority.

Understand the escalation problem: point out that our brains are generally set for normal degrees of stimulation and arousal. Once we move to higher, artificially-induced levels, we risk overriding our built-in satiation mechanisms. This can gradually make the brain less sensitive to subtler, ordinary stimuli. That is, hotter porn doesn't satisfy users' sexual needs better; it tends to inflame them.

Find a balance: explain that the urge to release sexual tension is normal. It arises primarily from a genetic longing for soothing connection with another. Urge kids to seek out other natural ways to regulate their mood. Vigorous exercise; friendly interaction with others; trusted companionship and service to others have all been shown to help reduce tension.

Stress that porn is unrealistic: sadly today's porn often makes non-alpha kids doubt their future desirability because they cannot see themselves in the standard leading role.

Filters on computers: since some of our most talented computer wizards are youngsters, filters alone will not solve the problem. However, not all kids are adept, so they are still a good first line of defence.

Education: an excellent free website, hosted by a science teacher, with a video that explains the science behind porn-related brain changes in a language suitable for young people, is available at It is called "Things you didn't know about porn".

It is vital for teachers today to learn about the reward circuitry of the brain, the seat of desires, motivation and learning. When it is out of balance, priorities shift, willpower erodes, and learning can become impaired. As the brain changes, bingeing can lead to cravings for other addictive substances in an attempt to ease symptoms of neurochemical imbalance.

We need to tackle this challenge by educating ourselves and our pupils with the latest neuroscience.

Mary Sharpe is the founder of Sharpe Thinking, and runs professional workshops using research in psychology and neuroscience.

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