Portions of this post were originally published by the New Zealand Herald. It has been edited for content and length. 7-minute read.
Children as young as 9-years-old are becoming hooked on online pornography leading to compulsive use, unhealthy relationships and rising levels of sexual abuse. It is the stark reality of a world with easy access to x-rated material on myriad digital devices and is setting a generation up for serious problems in later life.
Experts say New Zealand, in particular, is ill-prepared for treating the rising numbers of boys and girls needing help, and that we need to prepare for a “tsunami” of damaged young people.
A common story: exposed to porn at age 10
Richie Hardcore recalls watching his first pornographic video when he was 10. He saw it with a group of older kids at his friend’s house and he has never forgotten the impact.
“It was an incredibly powerful and exciting thing,” he says. “I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I liked it.”
Now 36, Hardcore is an anti-sexual violence campaigner who admits his early glimpses of porn set him on a rocky path.
“By my early 20s, I knew something wasn’t right about the amount of stuff I was viewing. I began to think it was unhealthy. It was influencing my sexual tastes and what I saw as being appealing.”
He watched for hours at a time, often on his own, and started to be late for morning appointments. Hardcore realized his early sexual relationships were more about sex than intimacy—he didn’t see it as being an emotional connection with a partner.
“Relationships are much nicer now because I am not simply trying to recreate what I see online, which was making me really uncomfortable with myself as a person.”
The hardcore trajectory: social & societal issues
Sexual health therapists warn the country is facing an unprecedented rush of young people struggling due to porn-related issues. Auckland-based counselor and author Bridget Wilson specializes in working with people with sexual addiction.
She warns New Zealand is ill-prepared for treating the rising numbers of young males presenting with problems as there are not nearly enough trained professionals to deal with the issue.
“The human brain doesn’t mature until we’re in our mid-20s, so introducing any mood-altering process like porn is damaging and arrests development of the brain,” she says. “The earlier this happens, the more damaging. You wouldn’t give a 6-year-old alcohol, so why allow them access to porn? This is already happening, folks, so prepare for a tsunami of damaged people.”
Wilson says it is not porn that is the main problem, it is the mind.
“The addict brain always wants more, hence the need for more hardcore images. So in the US, for instance, kids are presenting for treatment for sexual addiction in their early 20s and the same is starting to happen here… At this stage they’ve been accessing hardcore pornography for half their lives and they can’t function on many levels—can’t talk to female peers, can’t function sexually when presented with the ‘real’ thing—that is, not a porn star—and they have no ability to be sociable.”
Porn is like a drug
Over on Auckland’s North Shore, sex therapist Louise von Maltitz agrees. She’s heard of kids starting to watch porn at 9 and is seeing the consequences of this behavior when these children reach adolescence and beyond.
Von Maltitz cites evidence that high-speed internet pornography addiction rewires the brain in a significant and extreme way. This phenomenon, where sex causes the production of reward chemicals in the brain, has been described by researchers to be equivalent to other addictive behaviors.
“When the individual is involved in activities that they enjoy, a certain part of the brain ‘lights up’—similar to lights on a Christmas tree,” she says.
“This is caused by the hormone called dopamine and causes the porn user to want more and to want it immediately… I describe this as like the brakes of a car failing or the equivalent of a person devoid of willpower. Parents and caregivers are not aware of the devastating impact that porn addiction is having on our young people today and we urgently require a mass media onslaught and education around this issue.”
It is a fast-growing problem with youngsters the world over. The Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls Report released last year stats: “The growing ubiquity of mobile devices means those targeted or indirectly implicated are getting younger and younger—with children as young as 5 or 6 now exposed to cyberbullying and online pornography—sometimes of the most extreme kind.”
And a major study at the University of Sydney in 2012 showed that for men who were frequent consumers of porn, 43% were first exposed to it between the ages of 11 and 13.
Education, education, education
The Australian Psychological Society recently spoke out over concerns about emerging evidence of serious negative impacts for children under 12 who access pornography, largely in terms of increased sexual abuse by young children on other children.
Brisbane sexologist Liz Walker says that at 6 she was exposed to graphic porn on the school bus, leading to early sexualized behavior and promiscuity; she believes it is time New Zealand wakes up to the issue.
“I feel like I have been shouting about this for years and only now are significant numbers of people listening,” she says. “It is time we had a mature and open discussion about the harmful effects of online porn.
“Boys are developing warped attitudes towards relationships, some are developing erectile problems and girls think they have to perform like porn actresses or can get turned off sex completely because of some of the things boys are asking them to do. Before the internet appeared, erectile dysfunction in males under 40 was reported as being about 2-5%, now that figure has jumped to between 27% and 33%.
“We have reached the tipping point of denial. People simply can’t ignore it anymore.”
The underage accessibility of porn
In South Auckland, clinical psychologist Barry Kirker has male offenders as young as 15 being referred to him by the courts because they have been accessing illegal porn on the dark web.
“These are not bright boys or computer experts so someone is showing them how to do this,” he says. “Younger kids tend to first come across porn via older children but when they become young teens their obsession with sexually explicit material can become obvious and leads to imbalanced lives and emotional problems.
“There is no doubt more kids are getting hooked into this at an earlier age and coming to the attention of the authorities.”
Most experts agree education is the most effective solution but it is often a difficult subject for parents to discuss with children. The Ministry of Education says policing the internet is complex and children accessing porn at school is a concern.
“This isn’t an easy area for either schools or parents,” says Lisa Rodgers, the ministry’s head of early learning and student achievement. “We all have to do our bit, to talk about what is okay and what isn’t, and what is healthy and what isn’t… We know that schools work hard to keep kids safe, and to discuss these difficult issues.”
“What we’re doing in the education system is asking schools to talk to students about normal, healthy relationships, as part of sexuality education. This is in contrast to the distorted view of relationships depicted in pornography.”
Why this matters
Technology and the internet have added greatly to the world and our society, while they’ve also provided easier-than-ever accessibility to the most hardcore porn imaginable for viewers 9 years old and younger.
It’s more important than ever that conversations are started and continued about what porn does to the brains of viewers, their relationships, and how it affects our society in general. If we leave these issues taboo and undiscussed, our relationships will suffer and our generation will settle for love’s hollow counterfeit over real-life connections with people.
Porn offers very short-term thrills at the expense of long-term costs, and in the end, watching just isn’t worth it. It’s time we fight for something real, healthy, and crucial to having a thriving society—it’s time we fight for love.