April 29, 2014

Porn Use and Mental Health: Is there a Relationship?

Dr. Kevin Skinner, Clinical Director at Addo Recovery

A few years ago, a writer from a large national magazine contacted me for an interview. He had been given an assignment to stop viewing pornography and write about his experience. He was two weeks into his experiment when he called me. I asked how often he viewed pornography. He said, “I have viewed almost every day for the past five years.” His honesty caught me a little off guard. People are not generally that open.

I asked how the past two weeks had been. He said that he had no cravings and that it had been easy. He had not had any withdrawal symptoms. Later in the conversation, I asked how pornography had influenced his relationship with others. He commented that a couple of women at work had noticed that he seemed happier than usual.

His response got me thinking about the relationship between overall mental health and pornography. In my book, Treating Pornography Addiction, I include a link to an online survey about frequency of pornography use, duration of use (how long an episode lasts), subjective well-being, and common mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, and stress). After our conversation I was curious what my online results from thousands of individuals would tell me.

I was most interested in respondents’ frequency of viewing porn in the past year (daily, 3-5 times a week, once a week, etc.) and the relationship to depression and anxiety levels. I also included a happiness scale because pornography has been found to have an opposite relationship to depression (e.g. higher levels of happiness are related to lower depression scores). Furthermore, I wanted to know if people who view pornography are more or less satisfied with life than the general population.

Before I report the results of my findings, I think it is important to describe the demographics of the more than 3,000 people who have taken the online survey. The here is an overview of the participants:

  • Men seeking help or a better understanding of how to deal with their pornography involvement
  • Live in North America, although some participants come for Europe and Australia
  • Nearly 70% are between the ages of 18-50
  • An equal distribution between single and married individuals
  • A majority have at least a bachelors degree
  • Over 75% report being affiliated with a religious organization (e.g. Protestant, Catholic)
  • About 44% attend church every week
  • 25% never attend religious services

I believe it is important to recognize that the individuals who participate in this survey are:

  1. self selected, meaning they sought help on their own,
  2. told that they would receive summary results based on their answers.

I believe this is important because they are looking for answers and trying to understand what is happening to them.

The Results

Imagine viewing pornography every day for a year or even five years. Is this normal behavior for men in our society today? I found it may be more common than we think. 63% percent of the individuals who completed my survey viewed pornography at least 3-5 times a week during the past year. Given this level of involvement in pornography, we can safely assume that for individuals seeking help, a majority of them are viewing porn at least 3-5 times a week if not more.

If this is common behavior, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves how this much sexual entertainment alters or changes us? Is it possible that this much involvement in pornography could alter how a person thinks, feels, and behaves? These are the questions I found myself asking when I looked at my data.

I discovered that the men who most frequently view pornography reported lower subjective well-being in every category I assessed. The men who viewed porn almost every day, if not daily, had the lowest scores on the subjective happiness scale and had the highest scores for all negative indicators of well-being (depression, anxiety, and stress). Furthermore, individuals who viewed pornography 3-5 times a week had the next lowest scores on subjective happiness and the next highest scores for depression, anxiety, and stress.

Another core finding was that when the episode time duration increased, positive indicators of subjective well-being (satisfaction with life, subjective happiness) decreased and the negative indicators of well-being (depression, anxiety, and stress) increased. Clearly, long episodes of viewing porn daily is related to lower subjective well-being.

Discussion

I should be clear; I am not arguing that people who view porn become depressed due to their involvement in pornography. It can just as easily be argued that people who are depressed, anxious, and overly stressed turn to pornography to cope with these difficult emotions. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the frequency of porn use along with prolonged exposure in relation to elevated mental health issues – depression being at the forefront.

We as a society should understand and not ignore the fact that individuals who are viewing porn 3-5 times a week or more are also likely dealing with other mental health issues. This is the story of thousands who are knocking on the doors of professional counselors, clergy, and others in the helping professions. They need our support and help, and in most cases the help they need extends to treating them for depression, anxiety, and elevated stress.

 

Dr. Kevin Skinner
Clinical Director, Addo Recovery
LMFT, CST-C

Further Reading