Three articles from this weekend’s New York Times deliver a gut punch to anyone still wondering whether they should hand their kids an iPad to keep them quiet at a restaurant. The answer, you might have guessed, is “no way.” At least, that’s the loud, clear message from the people who designed and built the screen you’re reading this blog post on right now. How do tech executives describe the products they and their employers have foisted upon humanity? “Crack cocaine…going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain,” says one. “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children,” says another.
Silicon Valley isn’t known as a bastion of social conservatism. When tech elites liken their own products to hardcore drugs and Satan, it's probably not to throw down a culture war gauntlet. More likely, these folks know something horrible is happening, especially to kids, and they want to stop it.
Alarm grows outside of Silicon Valley, too. A Kansas City pediatrician interviewed by the Times calls screens a massive “social experiment” using poor and middle-class children as test subjects. A British Member of Parliament this week published an op-ed in which he compared parents’ and children’s screen use as a creeping crisis "akin to climate change." Half a world away, Chinese health authorities recently released nationwide guidelines for diagnosing and treating adolescent internet addiction.
Why the warning bells? Perhaps it’s because we’re reaching a global tipping point of awareness of just how drastically some fundamental human behaviors and health factors appear to have changed since the advent of ever-present screens. As screen use has risen, rates of sexual intimacy and procreation have declined. As online porn consumption and availability has risen, so have rates of young men reporting problems with erectile dysfunction and of young adults struggling with intimacy. As social media use has risen, teen mental health has declined. Screen use has been linked by researchers to sleep disruptions, declining person-to-person interaction, and a plethora of unwanted addictions and compulsive behaviors.
Researchers rightly point out that correlation is not necessarily an indicator of causation. Long term studies, not anecdotes, are necessary to establish scientific conclusions. Screens, in the form we use them today, simply haven’t been around long enough for multi-generational longitudinal study.
And yet, we’re not blind to screens’ effects on our lives. It’s not just that people are getting into horrific car wrecks because they feel the insatiable need to send a text at 65 miles per hour. It’s not just that “phubbing” (snubbing people by staring a phone) is actually a thing. It’s not just that people are becoming more sexually responsive to cold pixels than to a warm touch. It’s not just that research has coined a term (“ludic loop”) to describe the trance-like state video gambling (and other screen) addicts enter when they stare at a screen for hours on end, or that screen content designers readily admit they aim to manipulate and exploit their users’ primal psychological responses to help them enter that state. It’s all of those threads woven together that make it feel like screen use has us trapped in a terrifying spider’s web.
Traffic to PornHelp.org has grown steadily since our founding in February 2016. As our readers know, we’re based in the U.S. But, our visitors come from all over the planet these days. That global interest in our mission is, to us, the strongest signal that Silicon Valley executives have good reason to keep their own children as far away from screens as possible. Screens bring the same problems wherever they go. A college student in India reports the same life disruptions from using online porn as does one from Brazil, or France, or Kansas. Chinese teens and British teens struggle equally with compulsive gaming. Humans everywhere, no matter their age, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or culture, seem equally attracted, entranced, and disturbed by screens.
So, consider this a wake up call. Around the world, alarms are ringing. Red lights are flashing. For all the productivity and creativity screens bring humanity, they also inflict widespread and indiscriminate harm. Like so many Dr. Frankensteins, tech designers show growing terror at what their creations have wrought. These people? They know. Something horrible is happening.
A while back, we wrote about the unfortunate politicization of the porn addiction “debate,” such as it is. We return to that theme this week in light of the sad display of political polarization Americans are witnessing in the ongoing Supreme Court nomination battle. As our readers know, we don’t express political views here. But you don’t need to take a side to recognize how the Great Kavanaugh Blowup has reinforced the ugly political and social rifts in this country.
It makes us wonder, what is going to heal the wounds we keep inflicting on our country? It seems like, every time we start to knit things back together, something or someone goes and picks at a scab, and the bleeding starts all over again.
So, here’s our modest proposal for a place to start. Porn! That’s right, porn. Or, more precisely, internet porn use and screen-based addictions generally.
How is turning our national attention to problematic online porn/internet/screen use going to heal the country? Let’s break it down.
Reason #1: The Right Wants to Tackle This Issue.
Nothing warms the heart of conservative America more than bemoaning the world going to hell-in-a-hand-basket because of naked bodies and “kids today.” It’s a time-honored tradition. Pastors have Bible verses and jazzed up hymns at the ready. Little old ladies can’t wait to wag their fingers at the first sign of cultural decay and encroachment by liberal, coastal elites. Folks really, really, really want to make America great again. And, what better place to start than tackling the one thing that indisputably didn’t exist back in those halcyon days? Kids today hole up in their bedrooms with laptops and phones, disappearing into a fog of porn or Fortnight or Instagram (or all three) for hours and hours and hours on end. It's a conservative's feast: clear evidence the next generation is doomed!
Reason #1A: The Left Wants to Tackle This Issue Too.
It’s not just conservatives who are geared up to address how out-of-control screen time erodes our families, minds, and societal norms. Here’s a quiz: can you guess the one group of Americans most firmly committed to keeping their kids away from screens? Nope, it’s not Heartland dwellers. It’s Silicon Valley executives and engineers! No joke. The world’s most Waldorf-school-loving, social-justice-warring, non-vegan-shaming, gender-neutral-bathroom-building liberals uniformly agree on one thing: the screens they want you to buy stuff on, play games on, read gossip on, and surf porn on, are bad for their own children. They won’t let their kiddos near an iPad…and they're the ones who make iPads. Oh, and you know who else thinks screen time is bad for kids? The French!!! Seriously now. How much more liberal can you get?
Reasons #2 through Infinity: Everyone Wants to Tackle This Issue Because it Involves Our Kids.
Yeah, we’re being a little tongue-in-cheek. But, look, if there’s something we all want no matter our political affiliations, it’s for our children to grow up safe. Parents everywhere understandably worry about every new trend and technology children seize on, especially when we still haven’t caught up to whatever it was they were into six months ago. Sure, sometimes we might blow the dangers out of proportion, but it’s not wrong to worry. That’s what parents do.
The thing is, sometimes it’s not only natural to worry, it’s also correct. And, when it comes to online porn/social media/gaming, there’s real cause for concern. Our focus on this blog is porn, so we’ll start there.
Yes, humans like looking at naked bodies. No, doing that in moderation isn’t going to kill anyone. But, when normal adolescent sexual curiosity meets streaming hardcore pornography, available 24/7/365 in unlimited quantities for free, it’s not hard to see how things can go off the rails. The purveyors of online porn engineer it to attract and hold users’ attention, and train their AI to keep users engaged by showing them ever-more novel content specifically tuned to past porn use patterns. Make no mistake: online porn platforms know exactly what your teenager watches, and when he or she watches it, and for how long, and what type of content and rewards will keep him or her on the site longer next time.
That’s not paranoia on our part. It’s an indisputable fact.
The result: a gigantic experiment in mind-control and sexual conditioning of young people who, by dint of their age alone, haven’t reached a stage of maturity that allows them to discern among, digest, or cope with often violent, exploitative, and outlandish depictions of sexual activity; an experiment which may, for some, devolve into a compulsive obsession that proves ruinous.
These dangers also extend to other forms of screen-based content. Social media companies engineer their product to capture and hold attention, and to engage those parts of the adolescent brain most susceptible to wanting, needing, “likes” and emoji and social acceptance. Games, too, whether focused on fighting, sports, or skill, also engage users by rewarding compulsive, prolonged use, teasing the promise of achievement and bragging rights.
Let’s be clear here. We’re not saying that sexual curiosity, a desire for social validation, or wanting to play games with one’s friends are inherently bad for kids. Our concern is that the means by which the world’s children and adolescents are being conditioned, one might even say forced, to indulge these impulses have been rigged against their long-term wellbeing in order to increase profits for porn, app, and game developers. We worry about how screen-based content amplifies, distorts, and exploits “normal” child and adolescent behavior without any regard for the entirely predictable negative outcomes.
It’s a real problem. It’s also one that folks from the right, left, and center have reasonable approaches to addressing. When it comes to porn, for instance, age verification has the potential to play a significant role, as it has in the UK. So, too, does investing in education about human sexuality, intimate relationships, respect, consent, and being a wary consumer of anything delivered for “free” on-screen. There’s room for dialogue, compromise, and mutual respect and understanding on these solutions, because we all see an obvious need to protect our children.
So, on what promises to be another contentious, polarizing day in American history, let’s embrace an issue that brings us back together. All reasonable, conscientious Americans, no matter their politics, can unite behind addressing the impacts of porn/screen use and addiction on our children.
There's no better time to start than the present. Agreed?
This post is the third in a series in which we explore the “Salience Value” (SV) of online porn. SV is the term we’ve coined for a notional measure of online porn’s ability to attract and hold a user’s attention.
We proposed in two previous posts that SV can serve as a rough predictor of whether a user falls into problematic patterns of porn use, and that SV comprises two distinct elements based on concepts used by neuroscience researchers: “perceptual salience” (how well the design and presentation of porn attracts and holds user attention) and “acquired salience” (how a user’s personal valuation of the porn use experience causes porn to attract and hold user attention).
In this post, we draw from those previous exercises and take a look at how to reduce or mitigate the SV of internet porn. Our aim here is not to make qualitative judgments about how effective these interventions might be in reducing porn use. Instead, our goal is simply to organize into coherent categories for further discussion the different modes of reducing/mitigating porn's SV.
The two concepts of salience we covered in our last post, “perceptual” and “acquired,” suggest two generalized, but distinct, approaches to the problem of reducing/mitigating SV. On one hand, if we want to make a dent in the “perceptual salience” of porn, we need to make changes to how the user is able to perceive it. On the other hand, if we want to reduce the “acquired salience” of porn, we need to make changes to how the user values the experience of that perception.
We don’t think it would be accurate to treat these concepts as independent of each other. Changes to perceptible features of porn can affect how the user values it, and vice versa. Still, for simplicity’s sake, we think it’s useful for starters to locate interventions that could reduce/mitigate the SV of online porn along a spectrum, with “perceptual salience” at one end, and “acquired salience” at the other:
(changes to how porn (changes to how user
can be perceived) values porn)
Using that spectrum as a rough guide allows us to organize interventions for reducing/mitigating the SV of porn into four general categories:
Category 1: Pure Perceptual Salience Interventions
One way to reduce/mitigate the SV of online porn is to alter the porn itself. By this we mean making porn less attractive to the five senses, such as by altering its:
- screen size;
- screen resolution;
- auto play/preview;
- continuous play; and
- content duration.
Some of the most popular life hacks in the porn-quitting community fit into this category, such as changing screens from color to grayscale and turning off continuous and auto-play features on streaming video sites.
Category 2: Mostly Perceptual Salience/Slightly Acquired Salience Interventions
This next category deals with altering the means of interacting with online porn to reduce/mitigate its SV. We categorize these interventions as mostly relating to changing “perceptual salience,” but also affecting “acquired salience,” in that the user’s interaction with a porn platform can both change how the user is able to perceive the porn and how the user values the experience of perceiving that porn. These interventions might include changes to:
- user’s ability to control the presentation of content;
- user’s ability to choose which content to consume;
- depriving a user of sensory inputs; and
- limiting the user’s time available to consume content.
For instance, if a user lost the ability to scroll through content, to adjust the volume, to choose what types of porn he sees, or even to have a tactile interaction with his screen, these interventions could reduce the porn’s SV for the user mostly by negatively altering what the user sees on screen, but also by causing the user to value the experience less.
Category 3: Mostly Acquired Salience/Slightly Perceptual Salience Interventions
Traveling further along the spectrum, we come to interventions that alter the user’s valuation of his porn use experience via external influences. These interventions work mostly upon the user’s subjective enjoyment of using porn, but also may have a direct impact on the user’s ability to perceive porn at all. Generically speaking, we’d classify these as “social” interventions of one form or another that interfere with the user’s desire for anonymity and privacy. They may include:
- publicizing the porn use;
- observing the user during porn use; and
- subjecting the user to accountability for porn use.
Accountability software, putting a home computer in a “public” part of the house, and deterring use through threatened negative consequences/punishment all fall into this category.
Category 4: Pure Acquired Salience Interventions
Finally, some interventions that reduce/mitigate the SV of online porn work purely at the level of changing the user’s valuation of the experience of porn consumption through internal influences. These interventions assume nothing about the porn or the user’s means of interaction changes, but instead the change occurs for the user from the inside-out. They may include:
- non-medication health improvements (diet/exercise/etc.);
- education about porn leading to aversion; and
- applying religious/moral principles leading to aversion.
These interventions have the potential to cause a user to place a lower value on the experience of using porn, and therefore to react to it more negatively.
You may have noticed we’ve skipped one obvious intervention, which is cutting the user off from porn altogether through content filtering, elimination of screens/going “low tech,” age verification, paywalls, etc. We’ve excluded these interventions up to now because they don’t fit neatly on a spectrum of interventions, but rather, represent both a pure “perceptual salience” intervention and a pure “acquired salience” intervention. Eliminating access to porn makes perceiving it and valuing the experience of using it impossible. Consequently, we can place that intervention on both ends of the spectrum, or conceive of the spectrum as bending until its ends meet and it forms a circle.
As we said at the outset, we’re not prepared at this point to judge the effectiveness of any of these approaches to mitigating the SV of porn. We suspect different interventions, and combinations of interventions, work for different people. We’ve heard some people in recovery from porn addiction say “I still love porn but I know I can’t be near it.” We’ve heard others say “now that I know what porn is does to me, it disgusts me.” Some find relief from using porn in being found out. Others in recognizing and addressing the feelings they associate with an urge to binge.
For the same reasons, we cannot say which, if any, of these interventions may do more harm than good for a particular user. It's possible the intervention that helps one user could cause another user greater degrees of emotional distress than the porn use itself. We can't evaluate that here.
For now, our hope for this post is simply to contribute to the ongoing discussion of how sufferers, researchers, advocates, and treatment providers can organize their thoughts about ways to quit porn and tackle compulsive porn use. We believe the more systematic and uniform our community can make the process of selecting interventions to reduce/mitigate the Salience Value of porn, the more precise and effective those interventions can eventually be.
As always, comments welcome.
Longer-form writing from the PornHelp team on current topics relating to problem porn use and recovery.