Can you really become 'addicted' to internet porn?

If you are finding that your porn use has increased and you can’t stop even though you want to, then yes, you may be suffering from an addiction.

In the last few years advances in neuroscience have shown that addiction is not just a matter of changes substances create within your brain, but also the changes compulsive behaviour create. Since 2011, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) has defined addiction as:

“...a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”

Addiction is characterised by being unable to stop, even when you’re suffering adverse consequences, and increasing dependency on the behaviour or substance that is giving you the ‘high’. Because your brain is not ‘hard-wired’ as was thought for many years, but is rather more plastic and adaptable to the ‘diet’ you ‘feed’ it, porn use can make real and lasting changes in the way your brain responds to sexual stimulation. This ‘soft-wiring’, called “neuroplasticity”, can make changes to the way your brain processes rewards when you view porn. Your brain is a complex system that can be trained to respond in different ways to ‘rewards’ for different habits.

One of your key reward neurochemicals is dopamine – which triggers the sensation of pleasure you get when you do an activity you enjoy. It is released when you watch porn and masturbate because, of course, masturbating is a pleasurable activity! However, overuse of porn, especially in the easily accessible hardcore form we’re now saturated with online, can cause your brain to become overstimulated and seriously impair the functioning of your dopamine reward system.

When this happens your brain releases so much dopamine that the cells that receive it become flooded and unable to properly receive it. In self-defence, the receiving cell will drop some of its dopamine receptors to try and cope – which in turn reduces your capacity to process dopamine in the future. Eventually, your reward system can become so desensitized that even much more explicit porn is not enough to satisfy you anymore.

Researchers have also found that younger men are particularly at risk, as younger test subjects have “enhanced reward circuit activity” – making them more vulnerable to the high dopamine spikes that can lead to early sexual conditioning to porn as well as addiction. University of Cambridge neuroscientist Dr Valerie Voon has discovered that compulsive porn users show sensitization – which is a hyper-reactivity to cues that lead to craving and using porn. This causes the user to become super sensitive to triggers that compel them to look at porn. This compulsion to engage in behaviour is one of the defining characteristics of addiction.

Voon also remarks - “There are clear differences in brain activity between patients who have compulsive sexual behaviour and healthy volunteers. These differences mirror those of drug addicts.” 

The bottom line is that, despite the protests from some quarters, some of whom may have an agenda in denying porn can become addictive, numerous studies show that, yes it can happen. Whether it is happening to you can be determined by a range of factors which we’ll explore next.