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Adolescent addiction: When pornography strikes early

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We’re trying to give them what they need to get strong enough to move on. If their addiction is more in the early stages, our program should give them the necessary tools to move past it. If their addiction is what we consider a full addiction, then we give them the necessary tools to move past that into professional (help). – Clay Olsen, founder and executive director of Fight the New Drug

WALES, Utah — Justin was 11 when he first saw pornography.

He'd been looking for remote-controlled cars and found a cool YouTube video showing one making a huge jump.

He watched it repeatedly on his home computer, trying to ignore the sketchy video suggestions popping up on the side. But when his friend showed him the pornographic website those sketchy videos brought up, he was instantly hooked.

"At that moment, I wanted more," said the 18-year-old Justin, which is not his real name. "I looked up more. It was a constant need. I had no idea what it was. I was never happy with what I found. Even if it met my sexual preference, it didn't make me happy. I (just started) clicking and clicking and clicking and never stopped."

He's been struggling for years. He is just hoping he can stay in his latest inpatient facility in central Utah long enough to make some real changes.

"The urge to stop has been there for two to three years in treatment," he says. "It just hasn't reached the point where it's strong enough to overcome the temptation."

Justin is just one in a growing body of teenagers who find themselves unable to function because of an increasing appetite for pornography — which was often first found during an innocent Web search on a home computer. Experts say the age of first exposure is continuing to fall and is currently around 11 or 12 years old.

Not every adolescent who struggles with pornography will need something as drastic as a stay in an inpatient treatment center, and even if they did, the huge price tag is prohibitive for many.

For other teens, the struggle is still so private and hidden that the thought of opening up and asking for help is an impossible obstacle. Access to funding to begin an online treatment program is out of the question.

In an attempt to tackle both these problems, Fight the New Drug, a nonprofit group founded as an awareness campaign on the dangers of pornography, will publically release a free online recovery program in mid-January at www.fightthenewdrug.org.

The online recovery program, "Fortify," consists of 55 animated video lessons about brain science, addictions and self-analysis tools to help teens break out of an addiction.

Currently, Fight the New Drug said that it has more than 6,500 teens preregistered for the program.

"We're trying to give them what they need to get strong enough to move on,” said Clay Olsen, founder and executive director of Fight the New Drug. He terms this an “accountability partner” for struggling teens. “If their addiction is more in the early stages, our program should give them the necessary tools to move past it. If their addiction is what we consider a full addiction, then we give them the necessary tools to move past that into professional (help)."

Despite the ongoing debate in the medical world about whether pornography use should be considered an addiction, Olsen doesn't get caught up in the rhetoric.

Fight the New Drug has gotten thousands of emails from kids since its launch in 2010, many from kids wanting to join the movement to "make anti-porn cool," and many more expressing their own struggles, which, to them, look and feel exactly like an addiction.

Younger and younger

At least two or three days a week, for eight hours a day, licensed clinical social worker Matthew Bulkley talks with kids who are struggling with pornography. He helps many work past feelings of guilt and shame, and then teaches them how to manage negative emotions in positive ways — without turning to pornography.

A few are as young as 12, most in their late teens. But recently, his final appointment of the day was an 8-year-old boy whose parents brought him in, horrified to discover his pornography habit.

"No longer can we do the 'birds and bees' talk at age 12 and then not talk about it again," says Bulkley, who practices in St. George, Utah. "This has to become something that kids and parents can talk about on a regular basis."

In an article published in Pediatrics in 2007, researchers found that 42 percent of youths had been exposed to pornography online in the last year and 66 percent of that group didn't want to see it.

Data from the "Youth Internet Safety Survey" conducted in 2000, 2005 and 2010 show that the prevalence of seeing unwanted pornography went from 25 percent to 34 percent and then dropped back down to 23 percent.

"This does not mean that young people who are voluntarily accessing pornography are having a hard time finding it," the authors point out. Rather, it might reflect an increased use of filtering on networks and individual computers, as well as more educated young Internet users. They know enough not to click on unidentified links or email.

But when filters don't work and pornography pops up, or when it's sought out intentionally, it's no longer static Playboy or Penthouse images. Instead, today's Internet porn is high-speed, high-definition and increasingly filled with violent acts.

One content analysis of the top pornography movies from 2005 found that 88 percent of scenes showed violence against the performers, including slapping, spanking, gagging, choking, kicking or hair-pulling, and 94 percent of the time the violence was directed at women.

Seeing scenes like this makes an impact on adolescents. Researchers at the Center for Innovative Public Health Research (CiPHR) in San Clemente, Calif., found that youths who watched violent pornography were six times more likely to engage in sexually aggressive behavior compared to non-viewers. These behaviors include in-person sexual assault, or technology-based sexual harassment or solicitation.

This connection persisted even when other important factors like substance abuse, prior sexual victimization and aggressive behavior in general were taken into account. On the other hand, youths who viewed non-violent pornography were no more likely than non-viewers to act out aggressively.

"Not all porn is equal," said CiPHR president and research director Michele Ybarra. "We expected to see a difference, but not to this magnitude."

Viewing non-violent pornography may present its own concerns. According to a 2009 study on “Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors Associated With U.S. Early Adolescents’ Exposure to Sexually Explicit Media,” by Jane Brown, 13- to 14-year-old males who watched Internet pornography, X-rated videos and read pornographic magazines were nearly three times more likely than their non-viewing peers to have engaged in oral sex (59 percent versus 20 percent), and 10 times more likely to have engaged in sexual intercourse (38 percent versus 4 percent) two years later as 15- and 16-year-olds.

But watching non-violent pornography doesn't rise to the alarming public health crisis that violent pornography is creating, said Ybarra.

"How you feel from a moral perspective is valid, but separate, from a public health perspective," she said, "and violent pornography is qualitatively different than non-violent."

Neurological pathways

The adolescent brain is not simply a smaller, newer version of the adult brain. Instead, it's more of a "work in progress," where connections are constantly being made as systems continue to develop.

"Their brains are not fully developed," said Bertha K. Madras, a professor of psychobiology in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, speaking of adolescents. "Their executive part, the frontal lobe that puts the brakes on impulses, is involved in sizing up situations, assigning a rational response to emotional situations, all of that is simply underdeveloped in the adolescent."

Those areas will continue to grow while unused connections will be pruned back until youths are about 25 years old. Parts of the dopamine circuitry are some of the last things to finish forming.

Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain in response to pleasurable activities, whether it is running, playing chess, eating a favorite food, shooting up heroin or watching pornography. After an enjoyable activity, the brain makes a mental note that it felt good, so it should repeat it, explained Peter Kalivas, professor and chairman of the Department of Neuroscience at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

After a few encounters with the same stimuli, the brain no longer produces as much dopamine. But drugs — and pornography, many believe — are so damaging because they produce large amounts of dopamine every time. Each shot of heroin or drink of alcohol cues the brain to absorb all it can about its surroundings. Pretty soon the user's entire world becomes linked with, and reminiscent of, drug use.

"That's thought to be how we get addicted, and whether that happens with biological things like sexual stimuli [or] highly palatable foods, you can become addicted to those other behaviors," Kalivas said.

Teens are at great risk for addiction — defined broadly by Kalivas as compulsive relapse and inability to regulate behavior — because their brains are still developing and unlike adults, are not "biologically mature enough to "exert cognitive control required to suppress sexual cravings, thoughts and behaviors elicited by pornographic content," according to a 2012 review of the latest research on the impact of Internet pornography on adolescents.

The inability to say "no" can have life-long impacts.

Madras has been studying the impact of drugs on the adolescent brain and preliminary data show that the risk of having an addiction as an adult is up to six times greater when adolescents begin using drugs or alcohol before the age of 14 than if they initiated drug or alcohol use after the age of 18.

While Madras can't authoritatively generalize her findings to pornography, she believes it might be possible that viewing pornography may have a similar impact on the brain — there's just more research needed.

How to change behavior

Kurt was 9 when he stumbled across pornography on his home computer while looking for music.

After that, he started hunting for it.

By the age of 12, he was looking at pornography three to four times a week. By 14, it was multiple times a day.

He went to Oxbow Academy — an inpatient treatment center in central Utah for boys who struggle with pornography — for almost 20 months and finished high school there.

Kurt, not his real name, learned how to handle his stress and anger and created a life plan that doesn't involve pornography or objectifying women. He's planning to attend Snow College where he wants to study computer programming. He's come so far, but he still knows he's not "cured."

"No matter how well you do at Oxbow, you'll have struggles for the rest of your life," he said. "(You have to) keep yourself in alignment all the time."

Such alignment is crucial for teens like Justin and Kurt — and even those who think their pornography issues aren't that bad, because recovery means retraining the brain by creating new non-pornography-related pathways, and then staying on those new paths.

While it's difficult, it is possible, thanks to the neuroplasticity or regenerative abilities of the human brain, especially in adolescence, said Kalivas.

And the sooner the intervention begins, the better. That is why parents should be engaging in deep and potentially difficult conversations with their children about healthy sexuality, says Tim McOmber, clinical mental health counselor at Aspen, a counseling center in American Fork. If they notice something is amiss with their child, they should be willing to seek help.

"We don't just say, 'Hey, the child got a cut, it's not deep, we don't need to do anything about it,' says McOmber. "You treat it, to prevent the infection from coming or getting worse."

Red flags include attitude shifts, like a calm child becoming one ridden with anxiety, or a social child who now prefers to be alone all the time. Parents should be concerned if adolescents become extremely guarded of personal property or don't want parents to touch their backpack, jump drives, computers, phones or gaming systems, said Shawn Brooks, executive director of Oxbow Academy.

Brooks encourages parents to sit down with teens and establish rules and responsibilities — prior to the technology arriving, if possible. One of his key rules is that Internet-enabled devices do not belong in bedrooms. Adolescence can be complicated enough without adding pornography to the mix.

"(With puberty) and the release of estrogen and testosterone, it jacks you up," says Brooks. "Then throw in a data package or a smartphone and it's like Russian roulette but all the chambers have bullets."

Rallying attention

The students file in silently to the auditorium, staring at the signs on the stage, "Become a Fighter: Change Begins with One. Fight the New Drug."

When everyone is seated, Todd Blaquiere bounds up on stage. He asks a few ice-breaking questions to loosen up the sixth- and seventh-grade students at Sandy's Eastmont Middle School, attending their annual Red Ribbon Week anti-drug assembly.

Blaquiere, Fight the New Drug's director of marketing, dives into a kid-friendly discussion of dopamine, the brain's reward pathway and how drugs alter that pathway by making the user crave drugs more than anything else.

He explains that with prolonged drug use, the brain's frontal lobes — or decision areas — shrink, making future correct decisions even harder.

And then, about halfway through the presentation, Blaquiere adds a new dimension.

"Pornography can harm your brain like a drug," he says. "Not all addictions come from chemicals you put into your body."

A small ripple of surprise rolls through the auditorium as the students digest this new information.

"I didn't know there were other addictions beyond chemical," says 12-year-old Eli Schott as he waits to sign the "Fighter Pledge" banner after the assembly. "It's a big surprise that porn is an addiction."

For the last two years, Fight the New Drug has shared the same message across the U.S and Canada.

"As a 7-year-old gets not just exposed, but develops a compulsion to viewing hard-core, violent pornography, what is that doing to their attitudes and perceptions toward women, love and what intimacy look like?" Olsen asks. "It's really kind of messing our society up."

This year, Fight the New Drug will conduct about 80 assemblies, plus meetings with parents and church groups.

They're trying to channel, rather than suppress, normal youthful rebellion by pointing it toward the pornography industry.

"Teens are ready to talk about this," Olsen says. "They're anxious for truth. So we just talk to them in a very real way and approach them as a peer, rather than an authoritative lecture. We approach it as a public health issue. It's harming ourselves, it's harming our relationships and our society as a whole."

"Porn is never going to go away," Olsen finishes. "The objective of our campaign is not to decrease porn, but to decrease demand through education."

For additional resources, see the six sites below:

Nofap.org — a forum-style website where individuals who have committed to abstain from pornography and masturbation for a period of time can talk about their experiences and engage in challenges to help them recover. A sister website of the reddit NoFap community.

Overcomingpornography.org — a resource provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to help addicted individuals or hurt family members rely on the Atonement of Jesus Christ to overcome and heal from the damage caused by pornography addictions.

Yourbrainrebalanced.com a forum-style website that allows individuals to share their stories of working to overcome pornography addiction and porn-inducted erectile dysfunction, both as a way to gain strength and to inspire others.

PoSARC.com — Partners of Sex Addicts Resource Center offers information and resources to help promote recovery for both addicts and the people who love them.

Teens.drugabuse.gov — The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s teen-focused website teaches adolescents how their brains work and how drugs affect them.

Nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-teen-brain-still-under-construction/teen-brain.pdf — This publication from the National Institute of Mental Health teaches parents and teens about the adolescent brain; how it develops, how it changes and how it’s different from an adult’s brain.