Protect Kids from Porn: A Simple Lesson from (Fake) Butterflies

Protect Kids from Porn: A Simple Lesson from (Fake) Butterflies

You’ve heard about the birds and the bees. What about the birds and the butterflies?

protect kids from porn cardboard butterfly

Parents want to protect kids from porn. At Protect Young Minds we are always looking for ways to make this task easier. This week’s guest author, Douglas Browning, has come up with a creative way to teach his own kids why pornography is so dangerous to the brain.

He starts by introducing a new word into their vocabulary —SUPERSTIMULUS!

If that doesn’t grab your attention, hold on. He’s about to back it up with a Nobel Prize winner, animal survival instincts, and some fun facts. 

Plus, we’ve included a FREE cheatsheet at the end of this post. Talk Today, Safer Tomorrow: 10 Easy Conversation Starters

A terrifying discovery

In 1973, a Nobel Prize was awarded to Niko Tinbergen for his research about animal and human behavior. He had spent well over thirty years watching, hypothesizing, and testing many types of birds, insects, fish, and even people. He wanted to see how natural behaviors were triggered by visual stimuli. He discovered something terrifyingly insightful —a superstimulus. (Cue ominous music!)

To understand what a superstimulus is, let’s first describe a normal stimulus. Here’s a common one:

My four daughters love music. When one of their favorite songs is playing they start dancing. And if they can’t get up and dance they are tapping their feet to the beat. You know what I’m talking about. That inevitable urge to rock out to an upbeat song. Most of us do it. The music is the stimulus and our movement is the behavioral response.

Try an experiment now. Play the following music video and time how long it takes you to want to get up and dance.

So, a stimulus is anything that triggers a specific behavioral reaction…like dancing!

Understanding instinctive behavior can protect kids from porn

This relationship between stimulus and response is very normal throughout the animal kingdom. It’s what drives critters to do the things they need to do to survive.

I have a nest of phoebes on my front porch. Twice each summer, a brood of five or six baby birds are welcomed into our world. Shortly after they hatch, the mommy and daddy phoebes begin catching insects to feed their young. With bug in beak, they fly up to the nest to deliver the food to one of their chirping hatchlings with wide-open mouths.

Eastern Phoebe Bird on a branch

But, I can get the hatchlings to do the exact same thing (with absolutely no bird-raising training whatsoever) by simply making a faint chirping noise. In this instance the noise is the stimulus that evokes an immediate response from baby birds.

Every member of the animal kingdom (including humans) responds to stimuli. We do it every single day. But the responses are so instinctive that we often don’t notice. It’s just natural.  

The discovery of the SUPERSTIMULUS

Tinbergen didn’t discover natural stimuli, but he was able to clarify that not all stimuli are created equal. From his studies he coined the terms “superstimulus” and “supernormal stimuli.”

He found that a normal stimulus could not compete against a superstimulus. And supernormal stimuli were even more powerful.

A sinister trick on nature

Remember the phoebes in my front porch? Now imagine me wearing a black ski mask and holding a fist full of rubber worms. I take off my shoes and quietly climb up a ladder that leads to the Phoebe nest. Then I make a loud sinister chirping noise. Immediately, the hatchlings come to life. Their heads point upwards, they vigorously chirp back, and their hungry mouths are opened wide. I drop a rubber worm in each mouth, and then watch as each baby bird swallows my lethal treat.

This won’t happen on my porch, but it’s plausible because a fake and sinister stimulus can trigger a very natural response. A phoebe would normally never eat rubber worms. But an artificial stimulus could easily trick the young birds into eating them. And those rubber worms could be harmful, even fatal, to the nestlings!

Understanding the power of superstimuli can protect kids from porn

But it’s actually much worse than that. Tinbergen learned that he could create a visual superstimulus that would cause a more powerful reaction than the natural reactions triggered by normal stimuli.

He studied the mating behaviors of butterflies and learned that the colors and shapes found on a female butterfly’s wings stimulated the male butterflies to want to mate with them.

Then Tinbergen got a creepy idea.

Creepy cardboard butterflies

He took a cardboard box, drew a picture of a large butterfly on it, painted it with exaggerated markings and deeply saturated colors, cut it out, put it on a stick, and planted it smack-dab in the middle of a kaleidoscope of butterflies.

The male butterflies were more attracted and stimulated by this new fake butterfly because she was larger and more colorful than the real ones! The male butterflies even tried to mate with the phony cardboard butterflies. And they completely neglected the female butterflies flying around them!

How could this be? How could those boy butterflies be so dumb? Couldn’t they tell the cardboard butterfly was fake? Didn’t they realize that their energy was completely wasted on the counterfeit?

And let’s not forget about the girl butterflies. They were left in a lurch because they couldn’t genetically compete with the vibrant colors, the stunning wing design, and the enhanced body shape of the “super butterfly.” The whole community of butterflies was negatively affected by one sinister superstimulus.

Protect kids from porn by defining it as a visual superstimulus

Humans are faced with a barrage of superstimuli today more than ever before. Here’s just a few of the more addictive or dangerous ones:

  • Gambling
  • Illicit drugs
  • Pornography

They are all unnatural. They all create heightened responses from participants. And they can all wreak havoc on society.

One of the most powerful supernormal stimuli on the planet is internet pornography. Just like the cardboard butterfly, pornography tricks its users to seek after fake sex, phony happiness, and counterfeit acceptance. It traps its users in a degrading fantasy world.

Watch this trailer for an amazing new documentary, Addicted to Porn: Chasing the Cardboard Butterfly.

Pornography is a superstimulus that grabs its victims like a sticky web. Because of pornography’s powerful addictive properties, every day more and more people become trapped.

 For more information on how the brain responds to pornography and how to explain addiction to a young child, read Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids.

Individuals caught in the web of pornography may need help to of loved ones to free themselves —and even then it’s difficult. Once conditioned to respond to a superstimulus the brain needs both time and determination to rewire itself to accept normal stimulus.

Part of my job as a dad is to protect kids from porn. I want to help my children learn to recognize and reject this kind of destructive superstimuli early. I want them to grow up to experience real love and real connection. My dream for them is to live with no regrets, be strong and keep focused on what really matters.

Teaching them about cardboard butterflies and talking openly about the harms of pornography gives them added protection. With good information, family support, and faith I believe they CAN DO it —they can lead a life free free from the trap of pornography.

FREE bonus gift

It’s important to give kids a safe place to talk about important things. We love how Douglas wove valuable information about the harms of pornography into a story kids can connect with. There are dozens of other ways you can talk with your kids about this important subject. To help you get started we’ve included a link to our Talk today, Safer Tomorrow: 10 Easy Conversation Starters

Get your FREE download by clicking on the image below:

How Porn Hijacks Young Brains and 3 Effective Ways to Defend Your Kids (Part 1)

How Porn Hijacks Young Brains and 3 Effective Ways to Defend Your Kids (Part 1)

This is part 1 of a four-part series by Sam Black from Covenant Eyes. Sam teaches parents all over the country how to prepare their children to be safe online. He also serves on the Protect Young Minds advisory council. Don’t miss part 2, part 3 and part 4 of this series!

Fifteen-year-old Sarah’s brow furrowed as she recounted her story of being stuck on porn at age 8.

As a homeschooled child, Sarah (not her real name) had many advantages in avoiding inappropriate content online. She didn’t ride a school bus packed with kids watching cell phones, and she missed the naughty jokes on the playground. But she did overhear some boys saying words she just didn’t know, so she picked up her dad’s phone to search what she had heard.

Seizing a kids’ natural interest in bodies and sex

Each search produced a parade of images and video that shocked and confused her and ignited feelings she didn’t understand. Like every child, she was curious about what people looked like naked, but this was so much more than that. Each image and video led to another, and only the sound of her parents’ footsteps could break the trance.

In secrecy, day after day, week after week, month after month, she watched porn for two years before her parents discovered her habit and provided help.

Related: The Secret Life of a Young Girl Abused by Pornography

Kids who are exposed to porn are not bad kids

At 15, she brought her dad to our Covenant Eyes conference booth to sign up for internet accountability and filtering services, and she grabbed a handful of flyers to take home. “So many of my friends are struggling too,” she said.

Sarah’s story is common. Children today, who usually know little to nothing about sex, stumble into hardcore and deviant porn. Because they are unprepared for what they see, they fall headlong into its neurologically stimulating trap. Often, they sense that this must be wrong, but their brains won’t turn away.

Feelings of shame, secrecy, and fear lead them to keep their secret from parents, yet they are less reserved about sharing their discoveries with other children. So pornography is being spread from child to child like the secret handshake of an exclusive club. Except the membership is sadly broad and destructive.

All children are at risk

Parents shudder at this thought. It’s hard to imagine that our beautiful, sweet, and playful child would ever be curious (like you and I were curious at that age). And even if they did see pornography, wouldn’t they just look away? It wouldn’t dig its claws into them, right? If they did see porn, wouldn’t it be better to just ignore it, because talking to them about it might make them more curious, right?

In this four-part series, I will help parents understand why an untrained child has such a difficult time looking away from pornography. We can train our kids to turn, run, and tell, so that porn doesn’t have an opportunity to stain their minds and how they view the world.

Prepare your young kids to be safe with Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr: A Simple Plan to Protect Young Minds. CLICK HERE to learn how to protect kids ages 3-6 from the dangers of pornography.

Holy smokes, what’s that?

Porn is not sex; it is a hijacking of sex.

Today’s graphic online pornography commandeers the brain’s neurology with what science calls supernormal stimuli. In basic scientific terms, a supernormal stimulus is anything that is artificially enhanced and exaggerated to create a response that is greater than normal. Think junk food, violent video games and (of course) porn. It can subvert and redirect our natural appetites and motivational systems.

Since the 1950s, a myriad of studies by Niko Tinbergen and others have explored supernormal stimuli through songbirds feeding fake babies who had wider and redder mouths, peacocks choosing exaggerated dummies for mating, and butterflies trying to mate with bright cardboard replicas and ignoring other real butterflies.

These animals were attracted to unnatural illusions of the real thing even when it when it would lead to their eventual destruction.

We see supernormal stimuli affecting people today as they choose saltier, sweeter, and fattier processed foods. Our senses are artificially stimulated far above what we find in nature.

Related: Protect Kids from Porn: A Simple Lesson from (Fake) Butterflies

Pornography, the great fake

Pornography is a totally artificial and exaggerated version of what real bodies look like and how real people engage in healthy and intimate sexual relationships.

In other words, porn can light up a brain, including an unsuspecting and inexperienced child’s brain. Today’s pornography activates fireworks shows in the arousal and rewards systems of the brain.

Online, a person can surf through dozens, even hundreds, of images and videos at a time. Seeing so much pornography, which is often shocking, violent, and even bizarre, isn’t normal. We weren’t designed for this. And our brains are taken hostage.

Supernormal stimulus is just the first step. Cravings and seeking out porn come with repetition.

And often, adults who struggle most with pornography were exposed at early ages.

Join me in part 2, where we’ll review some basic neurochemistry that rivets our kids’ attention when they see pornography. Parents who understand what is happening are better prepared to help their kids!

Read the next post in the series – part 2.

Free guide to help you stay ahead

Be ready to teach and mentor your kids with our Quick Start Guide for Proactive Parents. It’s got the basics that all parents should know about defending kids from pornography. Just click below for your free copy!

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how porn affects kids

Keep Kids Safe: 9 Ways Porn and Predators will Target Kids in 2018

Keep Kids Safe: 9 Ways Porn and Predators will Target Kids in 2018

By default, every device that connects kids to the internet also connects kids to porn. It’s that simple —and it’s that infuriating! To keep kids safe in the digital age, parents need to stay one step ahead of trends and know exactly what they are up against.

Keep kids safe —boy looking at tablet

In this post we’ll highlight 9 major culprits that should be on every parent’s radar in 2018!

Want to teach your kids how to stay safe from pornography in every situation? Get our FREE Quick Start Guide for Proactive Parents at the bottom of this post.

1. Apps that let porn slip past parental controls

In 2018 so many kids are growing up with a device in their hands from the time they leave the cradle.

In response to a question about the age recommendations for Amazon’s Fire HD 8 Kids Edition, one mom enthusiastically replied, “My eleven month old loves it, if he breaks it it will be replaced [free of charge], and it is saving my phone!”

Whether it’s a tablet at age two (not that we’re recommending it) or a smartphone at twelve, many parents believe the myth that if a browser has not been installed (or parental controls have been set) kids will be safe from all internet dangers. But not so!

Earlier this year Chris McKenna shared how easy it is for kids to find hidden doors to the internet through apps. Even the Holy Bible app can lead to porn! That’s because most apps also come with a built in search engine.

Here’s a simple example: If your kids have any live chat features on their device though any app, they could be sent links to porn that are not registered on the browser.

And here’s the kicker: getting on the internet through an app completely bypasses parental controls that have been set up on the device! It’s a completely unfiltered internet experience. That’s seriously scary stuff!

2. Xbox, PlayStation, porn bots and sextortion

Sextortion is one of the fastest growing threats to online safety for kids and gaming systems are a breeding ground for predators. Police in the UK report being inundated with calls almost every day about children pressured into sharing explicit pictures and videos of themselves online —some of these kids are as young as 10-years old!

Gaming systems are notorious for introducing kids to porn. Sadly, our friends at Protect Young Eyes report gaming systems may be where parents most underestimate the risks. Dangers inherent to gaming systems include:

  • Violent, hyper-sexualized content of many games
  • Live-chat features connect kids with complete strangers
  • Pornographic content live-streamed via webcams
  • False notions of invincibility inspired by conquering gaming levels translating into more risky online behavior
  • Failing to set age appropriate parental controls
  • And NEW for 2018 —porn-bots!!

According to, without strict privacy settings in place, gamers (of any age) could be solicited by porn bots multiple times in a 24hr period. These porn bots will start with generic questions: “What are you doing? What’s your age?” Then quickly move to more provocative messaging. If the gamer takes the bait, they’ll be invited to view a “private webcam” show.

These solicitations could be scams to get credit card information, introduction to a porn site, and/or sextortion traps.

3. 50 Shades: Mainstream media normalizes domestic abuse

50 Shades of Grey is poised to wash out the #TimesUp “Blackout” (inspired by the recent Golden Globes). But you can do something about it!

50 shades of grey is abuse

Hollywood has lined up (for the third time), another pathetic promotion of domestic and sexual abuse for Valentine’s Day. “50 Shades Freed”, billed as the final climax in the E.L. James trilogy, has convinced millions of women and teen girls to fantasize about a relationship that is a living hell for abused women everyday. In a year marked by not one, but two, powerful anti-abuse campaigns (#metoo and #timesup) we find this unconscionable.

At the 2018 Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey recounted the story of Recy Taylor, a woman who was brutally raped and beaten by 6 white men in 1944, as she walked home from church. Recy never saw justice in her lifetime because her abusers were beyond reproach.

But can Oprah’s speech resonate in our society if women (who are the major purchasers of 50 Shades) continue to support the normalization of sexual violence in mainstream media?

When “50 Shades of Grey” became a movie in 2015, it made over 85 million dollars in its opening weekend and teens in Florida who had been denied entry “stampeded” their way into a theater. Social media was buzzing with controversy over the BDSM (bondage & discipline; sadism & masochism) and abuse themes within the film. 

Visit Flood social media with the truth about 50 shades. Talk to you your sons and daughters about why this franchise is abusive against women and is a threat to the both the #metoo and #timesup campaigns.

4. School library databases push porn to students

Most parents trust their kids’ schools to filter out the dark side of the internet. Unfortunately, porn will be pushed to millions of American kids in grades K-12 through their school’s library portals, the ones they use to complete school projects and find educational resources.

In fact, students using EBSCO Information Services can easily get links to graphic sexual material using innocent search terms like “7th grade biology.” No wonder the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) has added this company to their Dirty Dozen list.

Although EBSCO promises “fast access to curriculum-appropriate content,” its system actually bypasses school internet filters and delivers XXX content to America’s elementary, middle school and high school kids.

What can you do to keep kids safe using school resources? Find out here (including how you can see for yourself if your kids can link to porn via their school databases). Then ask your school principal about their library databases. Continue to talk with your kids about the harms of pornography–no matter where they find it.

5. Porn won’t disappear from Snapchat —your teen’s favorite social app

Snapchat has a serious porn problem. But despite what many parents fear, it’s not access to sexualized content that draws kids to Snapchat. Young people say the “disappearing posts” give this app an “in-the-moment” vibe that for teens feels real and honest. That is, until you get the Discovery section which has fake written all over it.

Snapchat’s Discovery is really an advertising section (Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Buzzfeed, Self and more) that poses as a news feed. It contains highly sexualized adult content that the Snapchat creators say they can’t or won’t control.

What’s incredibly annoying is this feature cannot be removed, customized or edited in any way. Subscribers to the app have to scroll past the Discovery section every single time they want to see their friends’ stories.

There’s literally no way to keep kids safe from sexualized headlines and images that the advertisers provide. Bare bums, near nip slips (nipples) and silhouettes of naked women are everyday experiences with Snapchat Discovery. It’s difficult for curious minds not to get lured in. You can imagine what images might go with these headlines:

  • 14 Drunk Convos Every Woman Has Had”
  • “12 Awkward Things that Can Happen When You Have Sex with a New Partner”
  • “Everything You Wanted to Know About Penis Tattoos”
  • “How to Treat Camgirls, According to Camgirls.”
Warning: Predators know how popular Sanpchat is among young people. They use the app to both contact kids and send and receive child pornography. Snapchat’s disappearing features make it more difficult to track predators.

12-year-old New Hampshire girl told investigators she’d used Snapchat and Kik to send numerous explicit photos of herself and her 10-year-old sister to a 33-year-old man in Fort Wayne, Ind., at his request.

6. YouTube features free porn (no help to parents trying to keep kids safe!)

Although YouTube has been forced to start cleaning up their act on their popular YouTube Kids app, this profitable site (with over a billion users!) will still be pushing porn to your kids in 2018. That’s why YouTube remains on the Dirty Dozen list created by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.

Here’s a run down of the problems with YouTube.

  • YouTube ignores their own strict Terms of Use, which specifically prohibit sexual nudity, pornography, and other sexually explicit content. Massive amounts of pornographic and sexual content is uploaded on the website each day. The result? Millions of kids have access to porn on YouTube while Google rakes in the ad money.
  • YouTube depends on users to flag and report inappropriate content, not their own employees. In fact, when users see the bad stuff, they’ve got to watch it and then go through a rigorous process to report it for removal.
  • Even the YouTube Restricted mode can include inappropriate videos because uploaders often label their content with innocent terms to get past the YouTube filters. And guess what, it’s easy for kids to toggle off the Restricted Mode and then turn it back on again! (There’s no way parents can add a passcode to keep the Restricted Mode on.)
  • YouTube often keeps flagged videos up because they are generating millions of views and profits for Google.
  • Inappropriate ads often precede innocent videos. YouTube–can you do something about that to help keep kids safe?
  • YouTube pops up suggested videos which can be extremely inappropriate for kids! And if a curious kid clicks on one, YouTube suggests even more!

Find out more about what you can do to encourage YouTube to enforce their own Terms of Use and keep kids safe. Click here to take action.

7. Anime cartoons “trick” kids into a world of porn

Anime is a style of Japanese animation easily distinguished by characters with large round eyes, brilliant colors, extraordinary hairstyles and a unique sense of fashion. That in itself is not pornographic. What’s difficult for many kids to distinguish is when anime crosses the line from innocent children’s cartoons to something much more sinister.

In truth, most anime is not created for children. Anime themes run the gamut from action, sci-fi, romance, erotica, to extreme sexual fetishes. Hentai is a genre of anime that literally translates to pervert. It contains some of the most violent pornography made today.

When pornography is created through animation there are no limits placed on the cartoonist’s imagination. They can make sex scenes of fetishes that would be impossible in porn shots with real actors.

Even anime created for younger audiences often presents young women and teens in provocative clothing, heavily accentuating their exaggerated female anatomy. Kids don’t need to be exposed to the hard core Hentai to find themselves lured into a fantasy world they find difficult to escape. One reader in recovery from an anime porn addiction related that she would have been too embarrassed to watch real porn. However, she was quickly pulled in to watching cartoon porn, because it didn’t seem real. Unfortunately for her, anime porn was still as addicting.

The innocent looking and childlike features of anime characters are alluring; but depending on the genre can also be extremely deceptive. This is another example of the cardboard butterfly phenomenon. When it comes to anime, it’s difficult to keep kids safe from rampant sexual objectification and even pornography.

8. Minecraft Skinseed app with live chat

Skinseed is a popular app with kids who play Minecraft. It allows them to create different “skins” for the characters they create. Sounds fun until you realize that Skinseed app also includes a live chat function. Yep, other users can chat with your kids via this app!

Recently a Protect Young Minds reader discovered that her son was chatting with someone on Skinseed who had all of the markings of a child predator. Even though she had tirelessly educated her son about online dangers and warned him not to give out personal information, there it was in the messages they were sending back and forth. Her son’s school, his age, etc. etc.

Kids are just so trusting. And they are often distracted as they play or create, and predators are expert at nurturing online relationships and patiently, methodically, extracting bits of personal information. Apps with live chat make it difficult for parents to keep kids safe from predators.

9. Virtual Reality Pushes Porn

The bad news about VR (virtual reality) technology is that more than half of all content created for VR is porn. And it’s making a lot of money for the porn industry. Luxora Leader reports:

keep kids safe

“Industry experts estimate that more than 50% of all VR content is porn-related and that adult content is a major driver of hardware sales… The VR porn market saw an estimated $93 million in revenue for 2017 and could reach $1.4 billion by 2025.”

For the porn industry, which has been negatively impacted by the abundance of free porn on the internet, VR is a cash cow, bringing back welcome revenues to porn production companies.

Can kids get access to VR porn? This is the bad news mixed with the good news. The three major manufacturers of hardware, Samsung, Sony and Facebook-owned Oculus, are blocking porn apps from their online stores.

“While apps aren’t required for viewing porn, they provide a user-friendly interface that allows consumers to access and view videos without having to manually download each new movie.”

While these workarounds might discourage some, for others it’s just one more technical challenge to overcome. It’s a no brainer that some kids will find ways to consume porn via VR.

Is it possible to keep kids safe?

There’s no doubt about it, raising kids in the digital reality of 2018 isn’t a walk in the park. But at Protect Young Minds we advocate that knowledge is power. When parents really know the what dangers kids have to overcome they CAN make a plan to keep kids safe!

Remember this simple formula

    1. Filter and monitor the areas under your control.
    2. Help your kid install an internal filter so they CAN protect themselves in the areas you can’t control.
    3. Continue to have open and ongoing conversations about pornography, sextortion, and other dangers found in media
    Porn-proofing today's young kids“Talking to your children about porn doesn’t have to be embarrassing and awkward. We used this book with our 13, 9, 7, and 5 year old children to teach them about the dangers of pornography. It was a great experience. . …Highly recommend!

    In other words, you may not be able to prevent all pornography exposure, but you can keep kids safe by minimizing the negative impacts of being exposed.

Get Your FREE Quick Start Guide Now!

If the thought of talking to your child about the topic of pornography seems scary or awkward, don’t worry! Protect Young Minds is here to help you every step of the way. If you are new to our website, download our FREE Quick-Start Guide for Proactive Parents.

Get answers to these important questions:

  • Why are so many good kids getting pulled into pornography?
  • How can parents get more comfortable talking to their kids?
  • What are the benefits to tackling this subject early?
  • What EXACTLY do your kids need to know to stay safe from pornography in every situation?

Learn all this and more in The Quick Start Guide for Proactive Parents. Get your FREE copy by clicking on the image below:

How Porn Use Becomes an Addiction (Simplified!)

How Porn Use Becomes an Addiction (Simplified!)

Internet porn—used regularly and often—chemically and structurally changes the brain. These brain changes are consistent with the brain changes that occur in other types of addiction, like addiction to drugs or alcohol.

To understand how pornography can be addictive, it is important to understand something about the reward circuit of the brain. All addictions –both chemical and behavioral–  impact the brain’s reward circuit.

Many kids are exposed to pornography before they turn 8. Do your kids know what to do if they are caught off guard by a XXX image? Get the popular guide: 3 Secrets to Porn-Immune Kids! CLICK HERE or on the image at the bottom of the post.

The reward circuit of the human brain

The reward circuit shapes our moods, colors our emotions, leads us to fall in and out of love, and decides what we do and don’t like. In fact, we never make a decision without consulting our reward circuit. You might think of the reward circuit as an inner compass that continually influences all our choices.

Simply put, the reward circuit wires us

  • to avoid physical and emotional pain, and
  • to seek out pleasure and novelty.

Why are we wired to seek novelty? This is what makes us inquisitive and curious, driving us to find new territories, new sources of food, and new relationships (including romantic ones.)

Dopamine: the power of the reward circuit

Dopamine is one of the major neurochemicals powering the reward circuit. It’s the craving neurochemical. Simply put, a shot of dopamine tells us “I’ve got to have it, whatever IT is.”

If you think of the reward circuit as an engine, dopamine would be like the gas. The higher your dopamine, the more you want, crave, and seek.

It’s important to recognize that dopamine is associated with wanting, craving, and seeking—NOT pleasure or enjoyment. It is released within the brain in anticipationof reward, not in attaining the reward.

Of course, there are other neurochemicals released in the brain when we get what we were seeking, providing pleasure and satisfaction (such as endocannabinoids and endogenous opioids.) These neurochemicals make us feel temporarily satisfied after a good meal, a long drink of water, or an orgasm.
But here’s the kicker: the dopamine system is stronger than the opioid system. We seek more than we are satisfied because seeking and taking action is more advantageous to our survival than sitting around in a satisfied stupor. Because of this, stimuli that promote larger releases of dopamine (like concentrated sugars and fats) can override feelings of satiety, tempting us into getting that sweet dessert even though we just declared that we were full.

All potentially addictive substances and activities elevate dopamine in the reward circuit. Cocaine, alcohol, nicotine all feel different because they affect other neurotransmitters, but they all flood the reward circuit with dopamine. Drugs hijack the circuits and mechanisms that have evolved for normal rewards; repeated porn use also hijacks the reward circuits of the brain.

This experiment demonstrates the power of dopamine

If an electrode is implanted into the reward circuit of a rat, the rat will press that lever over and over again until completely exhausted. He will ignore food, females, whatever, just to press this lever until he dies of starvation—not because it feels good, but because it feels excited–like he is just about to do something really important, like eating some cheese or having some sex. But he’s not actually doing anything conducive to survival; rather, he is in a chemical-induced state of perpetual seeking.

Similarly, a porn addict might endlessly surf the web looking for just the right video clip, seeking something new or more shocking.

Watching porn keeps dopamine levels high

Sexual stimulation produces higher dopamine levels than any other natural reward.

Besides this, internet porn users can keep dopamine levels elevated for hours at a time clicking from video to video, opening many tabs at once, and exploring new genres. This behavior is called edging and can be indicative of a problematic relationship to porn use.

In addition to edging, porn users often watch compilation videos which combine very short clips from dozens of different scenes into one, keeping the content fresh and the dopamine high. In a single session, a person could see dozens or hundreds of what our reward circuit sees as willing, attractive mates engaging in a lifetime’s variety of sex acts.

Compared to the sexual environment for most humans throughout our evolutionary history, internet porn is an explosion of stimulation. Users can also orgasm and then immediately override their feelings of satiety by finding more novel and exciting content. Porn use, like other addictive behaviors, overstimulates the reward circuits in the brain.

In essence, a porn addict’s brain becomes so habituated to seeking (due to prolonged exposure to high levels of dopamine) that it loses much of its capacity to feel satisfied. Porn users find themselves wanting porn more while liking it less, never fulfilled.

The truth is that internet porn is a supernormal stimulus, an exaggerated version of a normal stimulus that amplifies the qualities we find especially compelling. Porn provides videos of people with enhanced bodies responding to sex acts in exaggerated ways–all without the work of a relationship!

It was Nobel laureate Nikolaas Tinbergen who years ago coined the term supernormal stimulus. Tinbergen discovered that birds, butterflies, and other animals could be duped into preferring fake eggs and mates. For example, Shorebirds would abandon their own smaller eggs to incubate much larger, more colorful plaster eggs – fabricated by Tinbergen.

Related: Why Even Good Kids Get Pulled Into Porn

When does porn use become an addiction?

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), “Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.”  A simple way to say this is that an addict’s reward circuits are impaired!

Brain changes in addiction

4 neurological changes occur in addiction. It’s important to understand these brain changes to fully grasp the power of addiction:

  • Sensitization
  • Desensitization
  • Hypofrontality
  • Altered stress response

Sensitization reinforces behavior

Sensitization, or sexual conditioning in the case of internet porn, is the brain’s way of reinforcing behaviors it thinks we should continue.

Consistent dopamine releases cause our brain to create neural pathways. This means the brain becomes sensitized (or “wired”)  to pursue the activity causing those dopamine spikes. Dopamine tells our brains, “This activity is really valuable, we should do it again and again!” Hence the more internet porn we consume, the more we respond to and desire to consume it.

Take the case of a 13-year old boy whose sexual feelings are emerging. He may have never kissed a girl, but if he is masturbating regularly to actors on a computer screen, he is already programming his sexual response.

While the boy may think he is watching porn so that he knows how to have real sex in the future, his brain is wiring itself to the type of sex he is having in front of a screen. This boy’s brain (over time) will become sensitized to respond to internet porn and NOT real life girls.  

Studies out of Cambridge University show how sensitized porn users react to porn cues compared to healthy subjects in a control group. This is the same evidence of sensitization that we see in the brains of drug addicts.

Many of today’s college-age men who grew up on internet porn have been shocked to learn they have porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED); these guys can still get aroused by porn, but they are physically unable to have sex with a real person. In the last 20 years, youthful erectile dysfunction rates have increased by nearly 1000%! No joke.

The good news is this process is largely reversible. When porn use stops, the porn pathways eventually weaken, allowing guys to start strengthening the pathways for real sex. The bad news is that this process can take many months or even years.

Desensitization leads to loss of interest in life

Desensitization is what happens when the addictive behavior becomes the highest point of stimulation in daily life and everything else just isn’t as stimulating as it used to be. Many guys addicted to porn lose interests in hobbies they used to enjoy and are no longer even interested in dating.

To understand why this happens, let’s look at how neurons send messages to each other.

The strength of the neural message depends on three factors:

  • the number of neural connections
  • how much dopamine is available in the system, and
  • how many receptors there are to receive the message

A decline in any one of these factors results in a weakened message.

With frequent internet porn use, especially with long sessions or edging, this system is blasted with high amounts of dopamine, and the nerve cells are overwhelmed. Like someone who covers their ears at the sound of a loud noise, nerve cells also try to protect themselves. They do this by reducing the number of receptors and the amount of dopamine available for release. This way we get a numbed pleasure response: less excitement and satisfaction in daily life.

Over time desensitization also results in a more observable structural change, a decline in the number of nerve connections or synapses.

A brain scan study out of the Max Planck institute proves this point. This study did not include porn addicts or try to compare compulsive users to healthy ones. Instead, it correlated total years and hours per week spent using porn to gray matter volume in parts of the reward circuit. What they found was that the more porn consumed, the lower the gray matter volume in a part of the reward circuit called the caudate.

Lead author Simone Kuhn said, “That could mean that regular consumption of pornography more or less wears out your reward system.”

Eventually, addicts also become desensitized to what they are addicted to. This is called “tolerance”, and this is part of why a veteran alcoholic can have a few drinks and not feel it. When porn users become desensitized to the porn they watch, they may start spending more time watching porn.

Many users also escalate the type and genres of porn that they watch, getting into new fetishes or more extreme or abusive pornography. This works for them because strong emotions like shock or surprise can also help heighten arousal. These users can end up using types of porn that used to disgust them or that don’t fit with their sexuality.

Hypofrontality: impaired thinking and stronger cravings

Hypo means below-normal and frontal refers to the frontal lobes and prefrontal cortex. These areas of the brain are largely responsible for things like rational thought, planning, reflection, prediction of consequences, and self-control and willpower.

Our frontal lobes comprehend the consequences of our actions – and try to inhibit impulses that we might later regret, such as punching our annoying boss, or screaming at our kids.

In addiction, these frontal lobes undergo chemical and structural changes that impair their functioning, making it even harder for an addict to control their behavior and recognize the consequences of it. Watch this video to better understand hypofrontality:

Altered stress response: stress and craving reinforce one another

In addiction, stress or any uncomfortable feeling has the tendency to become a trigger for cravings. The addict’s brain knows that the addictive behavior is the thing that always brought relief in the past. Cravings are so painful that addicts want relief NOW. Even minor stress activates sensitized addiction pathways.

On top of this, withdrawal from addiction activates stress systems in the brain. An overactive stress system is behind many of the withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, fatigue, mood swings, and insomnia.

Scientific studies support the addiction model

According to Gary Wilson, at least 31 neurological studies (and 10 reviews of the literature) support the porn/sex addiction model: No studies falsify the addiction model.

For a more thorough review of relevant research, I recommend the paper Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports.

Most of the information in this post and some of the slides are from Gary Wilson’s site

Additional Resources and Videos

I recommend Gary Wilson’s book, Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction

For my own work and book, visit

To simplify and explain addiction to a young child, read them Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids.


The content from this blog post was taken from my presentation given at the 2016 Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation Summit in Houston, TX, hosted by The National Center on Sexual Exploitation:

Raised on a Diet of Internet Porn: The Neurological Consequences of Long-term Addiction from Center On Sexual Exploitation.

If you haven’t seen it, you must watch Gary Wilson’s classic TED talk, The Great Porn Experiment:

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