Pornography and Depression: is there a link?

Pornography and depression - is there a link?

We know for a fact that porn has been around ever since the 19th century. More specifically, pornographic materials have become popular shortly after we began perfecting photography and motion pictures.

This doesn’t come as a surprise, given that pornography satisfies one of the most fundamental human needs.

As soon as the online world exploded into a global phenomenon, the availability of pornographic material has increased dramatically. In fact, this billion-dollar industry was among the first to see the incredible potential of virtual reality (VR) and invested heavily in this technology.

Today, it’s almost impossible not to stumble into pornographic content while browsing the web.

Although experts have been discussing the potentially harmful impact of internet pornography for years, they’ve only recently begun doing extensive research into this phenomenon.

Before we delve deeper into the relationship between pornography and depression, we need to understand what drives porn use and under what circumstances does this behavior becomes problematic.

Here’s what we know so far about porn addiction:

Ever since it gained popularity, pornography use has been both a taboo subject and an issue that sparked intense debates among experts from different fields.

Although researchers have studied porn use for decades, they have yet to determine the exact circumstances under which viewing pornography becomes an addiction.

One thing we know for sure is that the number of people who view pornography is growing by the day.

Some stats about porn use

In 2019, one of the most popular porn sites in the world published some interesting statistics, which gives us a glimpse of the massive popularity this industry has accumulated over the years.

In just one year, this website has had:

  • 42 billion visits with roughly 115 million visits per day.
  • 6.8 million new videos uploaded, which translates to 1.3 million hours of new content.
  • In terms of consumers, Americans seem to hold the first place, followed by Japan, United Kingdom, Canada, France, and Germany.
  • Americans also hold first place in terms of time spent per visit (10 minutes).
  • If we look at gender differences, about 35% of users are female, while 65% are male.
  • Lastly, most users (about 76%) watch porn on their smartphones.

Keep in mind this data was collected based on traffic from ONE site.

With roughly 4 million porn sites on the entire web, you can probably imagine the magnitude of internet pornography.

A booming industry that’s here to stay

From a business perspective, the porn industry has an ingenious system. Its products satisfy a fundamental human need and provide temporary relief from depression, loneliness, and discomfort.

Unfortunately, long-term use of pornography as a coping mechanism will only aggravate these problems.

The more depression, anxiety, or loneliness a consumer feels, the more likely they will be to resort to watch porn as an outlet for unpleasant emotions.

Although this system works well for porn producers, for consumers, the outcome could be quite grim.

World Health Organisation takes the first step towards recognising porn addiction as a disorder

While pornography addiction is not (yet) widely recognised as a disorder, the World Health Organisation has taken the first step towards diagnosing sexual behavior addictions.

Their latest diagnostic manual, International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), includes a diagnostic code for Compulsive sexual behavior disorder.

But there is still some debate as to whether excessive use of pornography that leads to porn addiction should be considered as a disorder.

On the one hand, some experts believe that, even though watching porn can trigger depression or exacerbate other mental health problems, there’s not enough evidence to create a diagnostic category for pornography addiction.

On the other hand, other experts criticise this decision. To quote a statement from The Lancet Psychiatry:

“This exclusion has hindered prevention, research, and treatment efforts, and left clinicians without a formal diagnosis for compulsive sexual behavior disorder.”

But when does pornography use become problematic?

Many experts agree that pornography teaches us that men and women are worth nothing more than the sum of their body parts and how much sexual satisfaction they can provide.

This could have a negative impact on how pornography users see themselves and others in real life. In other words, when they begin to see themselves as sexual objects, it can become increasingly difficult for them to invest in authentic relationships.

But the extent to which this perspective takes root into users’ minds varies depending on numerous factors like personality traits, life experiences, and underlying emotional problems.

For example, people with depressive symptoms may use porn as a coping mechanism to escape loneliness, boredom, or simply to experience sexual satisfaction in the absence of authentic relationships.

Depending on the frequency and reasons behind this behavior, pornography may replace real sexual interactions and fuel unrealistic expectations.

In time, excessive use of pornography can lead to relationship issues and low self-esteem which, ultimately fuels depression and anxiety.

A quick look at depression

Depression is a leading cause of disability, affecting nearly 322 million people worldwide.

Individuals who struggle with this mental health condition often experience intense feelings of helplessness, sadness, and loneliness.

As a result, they lack the motivation to engage in activities they used to enjoy and cultivate

meaningful relationships.

And when social isolation and anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure) take over, you slowly begin to slip into a comfort zone where you feel safe and somehow protected.

But this cozy place you isolate yourself into is also the reason why nothing changes, and you continue to wallow in self-pity while rejecting any form of help that may come from those who care about you.

In its severe forms, depression makes you neglect crucial aspects of your life such as finances, health, and even personal hygiene.

Porn: a quick and easy fix for loneliness and depression

Sometimes, depression is hard to spot because of all the distractions that we surround ourselves with.

From substance abuse and emotional eating to excessive social media use and using porn, the 21st century offers a broad selection of activities that keep us disconnected from the pain and suffering that we’re too afraid to confront.

Using porn can be particularly dangerous because it’s highly accessible and offers a seemingly endless variety of options.

Unlike real relationships where things don’t always go the way you want, and you need to put yourself in vulnerable positions, u pornography gives you precisely what you want, when you want it, and with no emotional investment.

But the worst part is that excessive use of porn can cause changes in your brain, which consequently affects how you handle stress, discomfort, and painful emotions.

In essence, the brain is an efficient organ meaning that it will look for the easiest, fastest, and most cost-effective solutions. Whenever you’re dealing with a situation or emotion that is causing discomfort, your first instinct is to avoid or distract yourself.

Why would your brain prompt you to adopt a healthy (but costly) solution when there are plenty of distractions that work just as well?

Feeling lonely and depressed?

There are 4 million porn sites to choose from.

Feeling worried and stressed out?

Order some pizza and fall asleep in front of the TV.

But what your brain fails to consider in that moment of discomfort is that while these “solutions” provide a momentary sense of relief, the long-term consequences can be devastating.

And this is where self-awareness comes into play.

The capacity to realise how something we do right now can affect us in the future helps us bypass our brain’s preference for quick fixes and perhaps adopt healthier solutions.

Pornography and depression: is there a link?

As we discussed earlier, some experts are still skeptical about the link between pornography use and depression or other mental health issues. Researchers have yet to determine the underlying mechanisms of porn addiction.

While it’s not clear whether excessive porn use causes depression, current scientific literature offers us some possible explanations as to why using pornography may exacerbate depressive symptoms and vice versa.

First of all, just like alcohol, shopping, or junk food, pornography may not be addictive in itself. As one study points out, the relationship between internet pornography and depression varies depending on how we perceive this behavior and how frequently we view porn. [1]

Second, if we wish to understand the link between pornography and depression, we need to look at one of the most painful consequences of depression – loneliness.

Not only that loneliness is a “heavy” feeling that robs you of motivation, but it also separates you from those who could support you during a depressive episode.

Current evidence suggests that people who are dealing with loneliness are more likely to use internet pornography. [2] As a result, viewing porn may become a maintaining factor for depression.

But internet pornography isn’t the only online activity that can exacerbate or cause depression and loneliness. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology concluded that people who are dealing with loneliness and depression are vulnerable to Internet gaming and online shopping, which, along with excessive porn use, can drastically decrease their life satisfaction. [3]

Third, another factor that can explain the relationship between depression and pornography is scrupulosity.

A scrupulous person is someone who tends to worry excessively over something they did, which, in their view, might be considered a violation of their religious or moral code.

One recent study revealed that less scrupulous men are less likely to develop mental health problems like depression or anxiety because of excessive porn use. Simultaneously, women with high scrupulosity are more likely to struggle with anxiety and depression because of excessive pornography use. [4]

Once again, researchers have shown that the extent to which viewing pornography becomes problematic and can exacerbate depression varies depending on our identity and perceptions.

And since we’re on the subject of morality and scrupulosity, a paper published in Society and Mental Health highlights the role of moral values in the relationship between pornography and depressive symptoms. [5]

While men who morally reject porn can develop depressive symptoms even at low frequencies, men who don’t see porn consumption as a moral issue can develop depressive symptoms at higher frequencies.

To sum up, current evidence indicates that although there is a link between pornography use and depression, the impact of porn on emotional wellbeing depends on numerous factors such as subjective perceptions, scrupulosity, loneliness, and moral values.

While watching porn doesn’t necessarily cause depression, having depressive symptoms means you’re more likely to use porn as a coping mechanism.

Some tips to help you avoid porn addiction:

First of all, it’s vital to understand the telltale signs of problematic porn use.

Although porn addiction is still a debatable topic, mental health professionals believe this condition may be associated with:

  • Social isolation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Low sexual satisfaction
  • Relational problems
  • Decreased libido
  • Decreased productivity
  • Lack of emotional intimacy with your partner
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Lack of interest in real relationships.

Second, if you feel like porn has taken over your personal and professional life, it’s essential to discuss this issue with someone you trust or even a professional. The first step in dealing with a problem is admitting you have a problem.

Third, if you wish to overcome this addiction, make sure to:

  • Invest in real and meaningful human interactions,
  • Avoid actions that could lead to excessive porn use,
  • Make a list of the reasons why you want to reduce or give up pornography,
  • Identify pleasant activities that you can do either alone or with other people,
  • Adopt healthy coping strategies for unpleasant emotions (e.g., mindfulness, exercising, breathing techniques, journaling)

References

[1] B. J. Willoughby, D. M. Busby and B. Young-Petersen, “Understanding Associations between Personal Definitions of Pornography, Using Pornography, and Depression,” Sexuality Research and Social Policy, vol. 16, p. pages342–356, 2019.

[2] V. C. Yoder, T. B. Virden and K. Amin, “Internet Pornography and Loneliness: An Association?,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, vol. 12, pp. 19-44 , 2005.

[3] Y. Tian, S. Zhang, R. Wu, P. Wang, F. Gao and Y. Chen, “Association Between Specific Internet Activities and Life Satisfaction: The Mediating Effects of Loneliness and Depression,” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 9, 2018.

[4] N. C. Borgogna, J. Duncan and R. C. McDermott, “Is scrupulosity behind the relationship between problematic pornography viewing and depression, anxiety, and stress?,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 293-318, 2018.

[5] S. L. Perry, “Pornography Use and Depressive Symptoms: Examining the Role of Moral Incongruence,” Society and Mental Health, vol. 8, no. 3, 2017.

About the editor, Amelia Cambrell

About the editor, Amelia Cambrell

Amelia Cambrell, Psychologist & Counsellor, BA; BSc (Hons); M Psych (Counselling); Dip Clin Hypnotherapy, is a senior psychologist at Counselling in Melbourne and with 15-years of experience in the mental health space is driven to seek client outcomes.

Find out more about Amelia Cambrell

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