Get the FactsThe Heart

How Porn Can Impact Mental Health and Fuel Loneliness

Many porn consumers use porn as a self-soothing technique when they’re feeling lonely or depressed, but research suggests that porn may actually fuel mental health issues, rather than help them.

By May 12, 2021May 28th, 2021No Comments

Author and activist Naomi Wolf has traveled all over the United States, talking with college students about relationships. “When I ask about loneliness, a deep, sad silence descends on audiences of young men and young women alike,” she says. “They know they are lonely together … and that [porn] is a big part of that loneliness. What they don’t know is how to get out.”Wolf, N. (2003). The Porn Myth. New York Magazine, Oct. 20. Retrieved from https://nymag.com/nymetro/news/trends/n_9437/COPY 

But what does porn have to do with loneliness?

Dr. Gary Brooks, a psychologist who has worked with people struggling with unwanted porn habits for the last 30 years, explains that, “Anytime [a person] spends much time with the usual pornography usage cycle, it can’t help but be a depressing, demeaning, self-loathing kind of experience.”Interview with Dr. Gary Brooks, Oct. 23, 2013.COPY 

The worse people feel about themselves, the more they seek comfort wherever they can get it. Normally, they would be able to rely on the people closest to them to help them through their difficult times—a partner, friend, or family member. But many porn consumers aren’t exactly excited to tell anyone about their porn habits, least of all their partner. So they turn to the easiest source of “comfort” available: more porn.

As some porn consumers find themselves further down this cycle, an isolating porn habit can lead them to skip out on interacting with friends, participating in hobbies, or connecting with the people in their lives.Volkow, N. D., Koob, G. F., & Mclellan, A. T. (2016). Neurobiological Advances From The Brain Disease Model Of Addiction. New England Journal Of Medicine, 374, 363-371. doi:10.1056/Nejmra1511480COPY Park, B. Y., Wilson, G., Berger, J., Christman, M., Reina, B., Bishop, F., Klam, W. P., & Doan, A. P. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 6(3), 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs6030017COPY  Some consumers can become so emotionally and physically reliant on porn that they may start to prefer watching porn to participating in real-life sexual experiences, which can understandably seriously harm their relationships.Sun, C., Miezan, E., Lee, N., & Shim, J. W. (2015). Korean Men’s pornography use, their interest in extreme pornography, and dyadic sexual relationships.27(1), 16-35. doi:10.1080/19317611.2014.927048COPY Rasmussen, K. (2016). A historical and empirical review of pornography and romantic relationships: Implications for family researchers. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 8(2), 173-191. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12141COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Negatively Impact Love and Intimacy

Research on porn and mental health

Studies have found that when people engage in an ongoing pattern of “self-concealment,” which is when they do things they’re not proud of and keep them a secret, it can not only hurt their relationships and leave them feeling lonely, but can also make them more vulnerable to mental health issues.Laird, R. D., Marrero, M. D., Melching, J. A., and Kuhn, E. S. (2013). Information Management Strategies in Early Adolescence: Developmental Change in Use and Transactional Associations with Psychological Adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 49(5), 928–937. doi:10.1037/a0028845COPY Luoma, J. B., et. al. (2013). Self-Stigma in Substance Abuse: Development of a New Measure. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 35, 223–234. doi:10.1007/s10862-012-9323-4COPY Rotenberg, K. J., Bharathi, C., Davies, H., and Finch, T. (2013). Bulimic Symptoms and the Social Withdrawal Syndrome. Eating Behaviors, 14, 281–284. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2013.05.003COPY 

In fact, a number of peer-reviewed studies have found a link between pornography consumption and mental health outcomes like depression,Harper, C., & Hodgins, D. C. (2016). Examining Correlates of Problematic Internet Pornography Use Among University Students. Journal of behavioral addictions, 5(2), 179–191. https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.5.2016.022COPY  anxiety,Wordecha, M., Wilk, M., Kowalewska, E., Skorko, M., Łapiński, A., & Gola, M. (2018). 'Pornographic binges' as a key characteristic of males seeking treatment for compulsive sexual behaviors: Qualitative and quantitative 10-week-long diary assessment. Journal of behavioral addictions, 7(2), 433–444. https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.7.2018.33COPY  loneliness,Butler, M. H., Pereyra, S. A., Draper, T. W., Leonhardt, N. D., & Skinner, K. B. (2018). Pornography Use and Loneliness: A Bidirectional Recursive Model and Pilot Investigation. Journal of sex & marital therapy, 44(2), 127–137. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2017.1321601COPY  lower life satisfaction,Willoughby, B. J., Young-Petersen, B., & Leonhardt, N. D. (2018). Exploring trajectories of pornography use through adolescence and emerging adulthood.55(3), 297-309. doi:10.1080/00224499.2017.1368977COPY  and poorer self-esteem and overall mental health.Koletić G. (2017). Longitudinal associations between the use of sexually explicit material and adolescents' attitudes and behaviors: A narrative review of studies. Journal of adolescence, 57, 119–133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2017.04.006COPY  These studies have found that these links are particularly strong when pornography is consumed to try to escape negative emotions, and also when pornography consumption becomes heavy and compulsive.Levin, M. E., Lillis, J., & Hayes, S. C. (2012). When is online pornography viewing problematic among college males? Examining the moderating role of experiential avoidance.19(3), 168-180. doi:10.1080/10720162.2012.657150COPY  According to another study performed in the United States, researchers found a significant bi-directional association between pornography and loneliness, prompting them to conclude:

“Results revealed that the association between loneliness and viewing pornography was positive and significant…those who viewed pornography were more likely to experience loneliness, and those who were experiencing loneliness were more likely to view pornography. These findings are consistent with research linking pornography use to negative affect.”Butler, M. H., Pereyra, S. A., Draper, T. W., Leonhardt, N. D., & Skinner, K. B. (2018) Pornography Use and Loneliness: A Bidirectional Recursive Model and Pilot Investigation, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 44:2, 127-137, DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2017.1321601COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Contribute to an Unhealthy Cycle of Stress

Although it’s fairly common for consumers to use porn as an escape mechanism or self-soothing technique, research indicates that those who consumed pornography to avoid uncomfortable emotions had some of the lowest reports of emotional and mental wellbeing.Brown, C. C., Durtschi, J. A., Carroll, J. S., & Willoughby, B. J. (2017). Understanding and predicting classes of college students who use pornography. Computers in Human Behavior, 66, 114-121.COPY  Another study examined the relationship between the frequency of online pornography consumption and mental health problems, particularly in the context of “experiential avoidance” or trying to avoid negative emotions. The study found that frequent pornography consumption was significantly related to greater depression, anxiety, and stress as well as poorer social functioning.Levin, M. E., Lillis, J., & Hayes, S. C. (2012) When is Online Pornography Viewing Problematic Among College Males? Examining the Moderating Role of Experiential Avoidance. Journal Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, 19 (3), 168-180.COPY 

And in yet another study, researchers at Columbia University, Yale University, and UCLA, found a link between compulsive pornography consumption and poorer mental health, low self-esteem, and poor attachment in relationships. The authors concluded,

“In this paper, we propose that pornography use has the potential to become addictive and might be conceptualized as a behavioral addiction… individuals who scored higher on the Problematic Pornography Use Scale reported poorer mental health and self-esteem, and more insecure close relationships than those who scored lower, illustrating the negative emotional correlates of problematic pornography use.”Kor, A., Zilcha-Mano, S., Fogel, Y. A., Mikulincer, M., Reid, R. C., & Potenza, M. N. (2014). Psychometric development of the Problematic Pornography Use Scale. Addictive behaviors, 39(5), 861–868. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2014.01.027COPY 

Loneliness vs. love 

A second reason porn consumers struggle with relationships is because of the nature of porn itself.

Porn portrays people as little more than objects with the sole purpose of giving the consumer pleasure. The kind of “intimacy” porn offers is nothing more than sexual stimulation. Real human connection offers so much more. Real connection—whether with friends, family, or a romantic partner—is about what we give, not just what we get. It’s other-centered, not self-centered. Connection is understanding someone at a level porn never attempts. It’s seeing yourself through another’s eyes, and caring about others and for yourself.

It’s the opposite of loneliness. It’s love.

Related: How Porn Can Hurt a Consumer’s Partner

If you have been struggling to quit an unwanted porn habit, please know that you’re not alone. It can feel really lonely and frustrating, but there is hope. While research shows that consuming porn can fuel the cycle of loneliness, research also shows that it is possible to overcome a porn habit and its negative effects.Young K. S. (2013). Treatment outcomes using CBT-IA with Internet-addicted patients. Journal of behavioral addictions, 2(4), 209–215. https://doi.org/10.1556/JBA.2.2013.4.3COPY 

Need help?

For those reading this who feel they are struggling with pornography, you are not alone. Check out Fortify, a science-based recovery platform dedicated to helping you find lasting freedom from pornography. Fortify now offers a free experience for both teens and adults. Connect with others, learn about your compulsive behavior, and track your recovery journey. There is hope—sign up today.

Send this to a friend