This Disorientated Generation – Part 2

Earlier this year, Isaac Withers was one of 300 hundred people who attended the Vatican Pre-Synod of Young Peoplespeaking with Pope Francis on the issues that his generation and younger face. Inspired by this incredible trip he has written an eight-part series of articles highlighting these challenges and sharing how we, the Church, can support and nurture this young generation. We are excited to present the second of his articles here. You can find Part 1 here. 

The project started with the philosophy that much academic information should be freely available to anyone.’ These are the words that Tim Berners-Lee used on 6th August 1991 to describe his latest project, the World Wide Web. As a history’s biggest blank canvas, the content that now thrives on the internet is a fascinating reflection of what it is that humanity searches for, especially in anonymity. Berners-Lee could never have predicted that his academic sharing  space would become the foundation for meme culture or fake news or internet pornography.


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A 2016 study from SimilarWeb (the world’s greatest database of digital behavior) gives us us the  first research into the ranking of the most popular websites that included mobile phone browsing, not just desktops. This provided a large statistical overhaul. The big discovery they made was that pornography sites were even more popular than previously reported. They found that Pornhub ‘sees a staggering 54% of its visits from mobile phones… It rose from 38th place to 23rd, a higher position than online titans such as eBay, MSN and Netflix with a 1.1 billion monthly visitor rate. SimilarWeb also found that xvideos.com, overall the world’s biggest porn site ‘jumps to 18th overall… attracting 1.5 billion worldwide combined visits… its traffic and page-views beat that of Google Japan, Google Germany, and Google Russia.’ Before, statistics were only showing us half of this picture.

This once blank canvas is increasingly being used for internet pornography, and when people are more drawn to watching the sex of strangers  than checking in with ‘Stranger Things’ something is happening. Paul Fishbein, founder of Adult Video News once said that ‘Porn doesn’t have a demographic—it goes across all demographics’ and research would seem to show that he is right. Whilst pornography is usually discussed as a male problem, the gap between men and women is closing with Pornhub’s ‘2017 Year in Review’ reporting that women are now 26% of their visitors worldwide. The Barna Group (a leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture) found in its 2015 study, ‘The Porn Phenomenon’ that age, gender and faith practice were the three biggest factors in pornography use. ‘Practicing Christians are more than three times less likely to use porn than other teens and adults (13% compared to 42%), and young adults (57%) are much more likely than both teens (37%) or adults 25+ (29%) to be a frequent porn user.’

‘Neurons that fire together wire together’: what internet pornography does to the brain

The answer as to why pornography crosses all demographics is found in our neurology. Pornography is quite similar to social media in how it uses brain’s dopamine reward system, but there is resistance to the idea of pornography addiction.


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Some key research here is Valerie Voon’s 2014 study for the University of Cambridge. Voon and her researchers used MRI scans among other tools to observe the brain activity of nineteen healthy subjects and nineteen subjects with compulsive sexual behaviour. They found that three distinct parts of their brains lit up when stimulated with pornography.

Significantly, these regions – the ventral striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate and amygdala – were regions that are also particularly activated in drug addicts when shown drug stimuli. The ventral striatum is involved in processing reward and motivation, whilst the dorsal anterior cingulate is implicated in anticipating rewards and drug craving. The amygdala is involved in processing the significance of events and emotions.’ Voon concluded that whilst more research would need to be done, ‘there are clear differences in brain activity between patients who have compulsive sexual behaviour and healthy volunteers. These differences mirror those of drug addicts.’

In his book ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’ psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr Norman Doidge writes on how the neurochemistry of this process changes the brain. Working with men addicted to internet pornography in the nineties, Doidge found that ‘Since neurons that fire together wire together … They imagined these images when away from their computers, or while having sex with their girlfriends, reinforcing them. Each time they felt sexual excitement and had an orgasm when they masturbated, a “spritz of dopamine,” the reward neurotransmitter, consolidated the connections made in the brain during the sessions. … Because plasticity is competitive, the brain maps for new, exciting images increased at the expense of what had previously attracted them —the reason, I believe, they began to find their girlfriends less of a turn-on.’

Doidge goes on to answer critics of internet pornography addiction who argue that as there is no physical addictive substance, it is not an addiction. He argues that. ‘People can be seriously addicted to gambling, even to running. All addicts show a loss of control of the activity, compulsively seek it out despite negative consequences, develop tolerance so that they need higher and higher levels of stimulation for satisfaction, and experience withdrawal if they can’t consummate the addictive act. All addiction involves long-term, sometimes lifelong, neuroplastic change in the brain.’

Here he is in agreement with Charles O’Brien, MD, chair of the DSM-5 Work Group on Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders, who concluded that ‘The idea of a non-substance-related addiction may be new to some people, but those of us who are studying the mechanisms of addiction find strong evidence … that addiction is a disorder of the brain reward system, and it doesn’t matter whether the system is repeatedly activated by gambling or alcohol or another substance.’

Is this affecting our relationships?

Dr Kevin B Skinner, author of ‘Treating Pornography Addiction: The Essential Tools for Recovery’ makes a strong case for just how detrimental pornography is to marriages and families. Writing for Psychology Today, he references Dr Jill Manning’s testimony to the United States Senate in which she reported ‘that 56 percent of divorce cases involved one party having an obsessive interest in pornographic websites’ and that the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers ‘polled 350 divorce attorneys in 2003 where two thirds of them reported that the Internet played a significant role in the divorces’. Relating this to the on average million divorces that occur annually in the US, Dr Skinner proposes that, ‘I don’t think porn is “always” the cause of divorce. In fact, I have a hard time imagining that the 500,000 divorces in the United States each year are because of porn. Nevertheless, if even 25% of the 500,000 divorce cases are due to porn, that is 125,000 marriages each and every year that are a direct result of pornography. That’s too many broken homes. That’s too much hurt and pain.

After an understanding of how pornography affects creates a very strong bond between the person and pornographic images in the place of their sexual partner, this is an unsurprising result but a sobering one.  Matt Fradd, author of ‘The Porn Myth’ would sums it up saying, ‘no person can live up to the on-demand, anything-goes sex depicted in movies. When maintaining a human relationship, it is much easier for a porn addict to opt for the instant relief of virtual sex. Marriage will not fix a pornography habit, but a pornography habit will likely destroy a marriage.

Is it a greater problem for young people?

In 2009 Norton researched the top one hundred searches conducted by people under the age of eighteen. They found that ‘”Sex” and “porn” made it to the top overall search terms for kids age 18 and under (#4 and #5 respectively).’ Perhaps the most shocking find there was that the fourth highest search term for the seven and under demographic was “porn”.

So the majority of young people are seeking out and coming into contact with this highly addictive media before they have an understanding of sexuality.

Neurology once again then plays a role here as a secondary result of Dr Voon’s study was a correlation between increased brain activity and age. They found that, ‘the younger the patient, the greater the level of activity in the ventral striatum in response to pornography. … The frontal control regions of the brain – essentially, the ‘brakes’ on our compulsivity – continue to develop into the mid-twenties.

With so many young people learning about sex through the distorted sex that they see in pornography, we then see this play out in their behaviour. A 2013 ChildLine poll of 500 children in the UK, ages thirteen to eighteen, found that 60% of young people had been asked for explicit photos or videos of themselves, and 20% said that the photos they sent were shared with others.

These insights would seem to show the normalisation of pornography among younger generations, and compared to previous generations, this seems to be true. The Barna Group found in their 2016 study of thousands of American teens that ‘Around half of adults 25 and older say viewing porn is wrong (54%), and among teens and young adults 13-24, only a third say viewing porn is wrong (32%). … They generally assume most people look at porn at least on occasion, and the morality of porn is rarely discussed or even considered. Just one in 10 teens and one in 20 young adults report talking with their friends about porn in a disapproving way.’

The lack of conversation of pornography’s morality among young people could be because they are growing up in a society that was conditioned by pornography decades before they were born. Dr Norman Doidge remarks on this too stating that, ‘Thirty years ago, “hardcore” pornography usually meant the explicit depiction of sexual intercourse between two aroused partners, displaying their genitals. “Softcore” meant pictures of women … in some semi-romantic setting, in various states of undress … Hardcore pornography now explores the world of perversion, while softcore is now what hardcore was a few decades ago …. The comparatively tame softcore pictures of yesteryear—women in various states of undress—now show up on mainstream media all day long, in the pornification of everything, including television, rock videos, soap operas, advertisements, and so on.’ So their parents’ generation may speak more negatively about pornography, but young people have arrived in a world which subliminally accepts and promotes it in the everyday.

How can we help young people in this?

The most obvious solution to the growing problem of pornography is strong age restriction, in fact, surveyed young people are saying this themselves. The Institute for Public Policy Research surveyed five hundred eighteen-year olds and found that, ‘Eight out of 10 say it is too easy for young people to accidentally see pornography online’.

Thankfully, the Church has already begun to make moves in this field with the ‘Child Dignity in the Digital World’ conference, called for by Pope Francis that took place in October 2017. The subsequent declaration stated that, ‘The detrimental impact of pornography on the malleable minds of young children is another significant online harm.’ Pope Francis in his remarks recognised the generational difference in this struggle, stating ‘The spread of printed pornography in the past was a relatively small phenomenon compared to the proliferation of pornography on the net. You have addressed this clearly, based on solid research and documentation, and for this we are grateful.’

Some major progress was made on this very recently when the World Health Organisation in their June revision of the International Classifications for Diseases register (or ICD-11) for the first time acknowledged compulsive sexual disorder as a mental disorder, listing it under ‘Mental, behavioural and neurodevelopmental disorders’. The ICD register describes it as ‘characterized by a persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges … causes marked distress or significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.’ As the ICD register is widely used as a benchmark for diagnosis, this is an amazing step in the right direction.

As shown above by the Barna Group research, young people are mostly causal in their attitude towards pornography and rarely discuss its morality, showing that a culture shift and education are also necessary. The organisation Fight The New Drug originally set up by a few like minded college students is now a global initiative, describing itself as ‘a non-religious and non-legislative organization that exists to provide individuals the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding pornography by raising awareness on its harmful effects using only science, facts, and personal accounts.’ As such, it is creating and informing a counter culture, their counter narrative is that ‘Porn Kills Love’, and that love is worth fighting against the distorted image of relationships encouraged by porn. There are a lot of young people stuck in this particular fight, and it is overdue an informed and serious conversation in our society.

‘A person’s rightful due is to be treated as an object of love, not as an object for use.’   St. Pope John Paul II

For further reading check out:

‘The Porn Phenomenon’ by the Barna Group

‘The Brain That Changes Itself’ by Norman Doidge

‘Harmful Effects of Pornography, 2016 Reference Guide’ by Fight the New Drug

‘Top 300 Biggest Websites: Based on Both Mobile and Desktop Data for the First Time!’ by Johnathan Marciano

‘Pornography & Public Health, Research Summary’ prepared by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation

‘Is Porn Really Destroying 500,000 Marriages Annually?’ by Dr Kevin B. Skinner

‘Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviours,’ Valerie Voon, et al.,

‘The Declaration of Rome’ by World Congress: Child Dignity in the Digital World

‘The Porn Myth, Exposing the Reality behind the Fantasy of Pornography’ by Matt Fradd

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

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