Is Porn Addictive? Why You Might Struggle to Quit Porn

Many people who use porn regularly find it hard to quit, even when they want to, making them wonder: Is porn addictive? In this article, we will explain how porn can affect the brain and behavior, and whether or not it can lead to addiction.

by Tech Lockdown Team
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Updated August 31, 2023

Pornography is one of the most widely consumed and controversial forms of media in the world. With the advent of the internet and smartphones, accessing porn has become easier and more convenient than ever before.

As a result, many people have started to wonder: is porn addictive? And if so, what are the effects of porn addiction ?

In this guide, we will explore what the latest research says about whether or not it's even possible to be addicted to porn.

How Porn Changes the Brain

One way scientists know that porn is addictive is because porn users experience observable brain changes that are consistent with the  addiction model .

Porn addiction occurs because the brain develops a strong association between porn and the reward it provides, such as arousal or relief from stress.

This association activates the neural circuits that mediate incentive salience , a type of motivation that drives behavior.

Addiction is about what happens in the person's brain, not the substance or behavior.
- Gary Wilson, "Your Brain on Porn"

Craving, Compulsion, and Incentive Salience are signs of Porn Addiction

Sensitization is a common phenomenon observed in addiction. Sensitization involves changes in the brain’s dopamine system and a protein called delta FosB. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that signals reward and pleasure, and delta FosB is a protein that helps the brain remember and repeat an activity.

Sensitization is observed in people who use porn and it's one of the main reasons that we know that porn use can lead to addiction.

Porn addiction can be understood as a form of sensitization, where repeated exposure to pornographic images or videos causes an increased and exaggerated craving for more stimulation, even if the person no longer finds pleasure or satisfaction in it.

Incentive salience makes porn seem more attractive, valuable, and important than other activities or goals, and can override rational thinking and self-control.

Sensitization can make porn addiction more severe and harder to overcome, as it can lead to compulsive porn seeking and loss of interest in real-life intimacy.

Repeated exposure to porn can cause the dopamine system to become hyperactive and less responsive to natural rewards, and can increase the expression of delta FosB in the brain regions involved in addiction.

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The Effects of Porn on Reward, Motivation, and Desensitization

Desensitization occurs because the brain's reward system, which releases dopamine when experiencing pleasure, becomes overstimulated and less responsive to normal levels of stimulation.

Desensitization is commonly observed in people struggling with addiction. Tolerance is often observed in people with a long-term porn habit, where the person needs more extreme or novel content to achieve the same level of interest.

Repeated exposure to pornographic images or videos causes a decreased response to natural sexual stimuli, such as real-life partners, intimacy, or arousal. 

Desensitization can have negative consequences on the person's sexual health, such as sexual dysfunction and low libido.

Desensitization can also affect the person's emotional well-being, self-esteem, and relationship quality, as they may feel less connected, less satisfied, or less attracted to their partners.

Desensitization can make porn addiction more difficult to overcome, as it can create withdrawal symptoms, such as irritability, anxiety, depression, insomnia, or cravings, when the person tries to quit or reduce their porn use.

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How Porn Impairs Crucial Brain Functions

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of the brain that is responsible for activities such as planning, reasoning, decision-making, impulse control, and self-awareness. Studies have shown that porn addiction can cause changes to the PFC .

Excessive porn use can impair the function and structure of the PFC, leading to what is known as hypofrontality. 

Hypofrontality can result in poor judgment, impulsivity, compulsivity, and loss of insight. It can also weaken the connectivity between the PFC and the reward system, making it harder to resist porn cues and cravings.

Ultimately, these observed brain changes show how continued porn use leads to weakened willpower, which ultimately makes it harder to quit porn

The Effects of Porn on Stress System Dysregulation

The body's stress system activates the fight-or-flight response, which prepares the body for action by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and alertness.

Stress system dysregulation impairs the body’s ability to adapt and recover from stress and this phenomenon is commonly observed in people struggling with addiction. Stress system dysregulation is often observed in long-term porn users.

Porn use can interfere with the natural regulation of the stress system by altering the levels and sensitivity of hormones and neurotransmitters involved in stress and reward.

Porn addiction can contribute to and result from stress system dysregulation. On one hand, porn use can be a form of self-medication or coping mechanism for stress, as it provides a temporary escape and reward.

On the other hand, porn use can also increase stress levels, as it can cause guilt, shame, isolation, conflict, dissatisfaction, or withdrawal symptoms.

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The Internet Makes Porn Addictive

The brain's reward system is hijacked by technology to encourage compulsive behaviors. High-speed internet use can quickly turn porn use into a “need” instead of a casual behavior.

Internet porn use ultimately leads to addiction because of how easy it is to access and the endless content provided by the internet.

Addiction is not related to time spent watching but to variety and degree of arousal. High-speed porn makes it easy to switch between videos and find new and exciting content.  

When I entered the murky world of internet porn, my brain had found something it just wanted more and more of. I was out of control in less than 6 months. Years of mags: no problems. A few months of internet porn: hooked.
- From the book "Your Brain on Porn" by Gary Wilson

Internet porn is addictive due to endless novelty, seeking behavior, and overconsumption.

The brain loses interest in familiar content (it's desensitized) and traditional methods (circa 2006) didn't provide easy alternatives to jump to. Internet porn leads to addiction because the user can discover new and unique content with little effort.

The act of discovering unique (novel) content fires a strong response from the brain. The "seeking and searching" behavior is part of what keeps users addicted.

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