By now, you’ve probably heard about and watched the Super Bowl commercial for frozen dinners that mocks porn addiction. Just in case you haven’t, here are links to the 30-second ad that aired nationally, and to the “uncensored” 60-second spot that Devour Foods (owned by Kraft Heinz) produced and distributed online, including on PornHub.
When we first saw the 60-second version, which was released about a week before the big game, we took issue with it on Twitter. We didn’t object to how it poked fun, necessarily, but rather, to its choice of mockery as a medium. We want to expand on that here.
As a rule, we rarely take issue with laughing in the face of addiction. Humor has real power in recovery as a means of reminding us of the absurd and painful decisions we made in the throes of acting out. (A recent podcast episode from This American Life illustrates the complex relationship between humor and tragedy in addiction better than we ever could. Give it a listen.)
But, it’s one thing to laugh at addiction as a tactic for undermining its power, and quite another to mock the pain of someone struggling with addiction and its destructive effects. Imagine if Devour and its ad agency DAVID had created a commercial in which the “girlfriend” character complains through tears and a black eye that her boyfriend becomes a violent “foodaholic” when he eats too many mediocre frozen dinners. Or one in which an impoverished girlfriend bemoans how her boyfriend drained their joint savings to “gamble” on whether the next TV dinner he buys will actually taste good. Or one in which the boyfriend becomes semi-conscious from the euphoria of eating Devour frozen meals until one day the girlfriend finds him on the bathroom floor, dead.
We could go on, but you get the point. Would any of these spots be considered clever or funny? Probably not. Is there a meaningful difference between these and one in which a girlfriend bemoans the pain of an obsession that makes her boyfriend withdraw from life and leads to her feeling coerced into producing “amateur food porn” with him against her will? We sure don’t think so.
On Super Bowl Sunday, we watched the Devour commercial again and it made us shift uncomfortably in our seats. It wasn’t just that the ad recalled the ruinous toll our porn addictions once took on relationships we cared about. We also felt the pain of the innumerable men and women across America who winced at how the spot reflected their current reality. We’d bet our bottom dollar Devour’s ad started its share of bitter arguments. It likely also pushed people who are struggling with compulsive sexual behavior deeper into isolation, making them less likely to find help because, hey, popular culture says what they’re going through is one big joke.
This week, Dr. Gail Dines and Culture Reframed issued a statement condemning the Devour ad. Dr. Dines called on Kraft Heinz to provide resources for people who struggle with very real, very painful, very destructive disorders involving compulsive porn use. We wholeheartedly support that call.
Listen up, everybody. Here at PornHelp, we are not inclined to label news as “fake” or “real.” Not for any political reason. We just find those tags uselessly reductive. They too-easily surrender our right and obligation as citizens to think critically about every piece of information we absorb over the airwaves and internets. As responsible consumers of news and opinion, we believe in always questioning a speaker’s sources, methods, and motivations, and then relying on our own analysis – not someone else’s facile label – to determine what we accept as true or untrue.
So, when we write here about how frustrating we find some journalists’ one-sided takes on porn addiction, we hasten to add we’re not calling their work “fake news.” Far from it. Any time a journalist puts fingers to keyboard to discuss porn addiction, they contribute to an important and vital civic discussion. That they’re doing so, to us, constitutes news worthy of our attention, in-and-of-itself.
Unfortunately, it also seems to us that when it comes to porn use and abuse, many writers fail to do a thorough and careful job in sourcing information and deciding what facts to publish and highlight. To illustrate what we mean, today we’re going to deconstruct an article that appeared this morning in the Daily Beast about the recent college student-led movement to filter porn from campus networks across the country. But, to be clear, in conducting this exercise we’re not picking on the author, Emily Shugerman, or the Daily Beast, in particular. We could do this with any number of pieces we’ve read over the past twelve months. Shugerman’s Daily Beast article is just the most recent example we’ve seen of a lack of journalistic rigor on the topic of porn, which is why it gets the full treatment today.
So, without further ado, there’s the anatomy of a questionably-sourced, needlessly reductive, downright lazy news item about porn, in four parts. Enjoy.
Part One: An Enticing Opening Belies The Facts
The article starts off strong with an eye-catching title and an intriguing lede about “college men” picking up the torch of resisting porn from “Republicans and radical feminists.” Sounds tasty! It goes on to report (accurately) that earlier this semester male students at Notre Dame published an open letter asking the university to block porn, that more than 1,000 men and women at the university joined in their call, and that men and women on campuses across the country have taken up the banner at their schools, too. So far so good.
And yet, hold on a second. If men and women at these schools have called on administrations to filter porn on campus wifi, why is the article titled “These College Guys Are Trying to Ban Porn on Campus”, and why did the lede make it sound like we were only going to be reading about “college men”? Also, not to nit-pick, but isn’t calling what these students want to accomplish a “ban [on] porn on campus” a bit too strong, considering their aim is to filter campus wifi and they acknowledge students can still access porn in myriad other ways? Finally (as you’ll see below), that lede is, shall we say, a tad misleading in saying “college men” are taking the mantle from “Republicans” when it later describes those men as, you know, Republicans.
Hmm. Seems like a bait-and-switch. Let’s read on.
Part Two: Manufacturing Narrative Tension By Cherry-Picking Science
Something strange happens next in Shugerman’s piece. She suggests maybe the students advocating for campus wifi filtering are misguided in their concerns about porn addiction. Citing two unattributed studies from 2013 and 2014, Shugerman argues porn isn’t such a big deal because college kids don’t actually use online porn all that much.
Hold on. lolwut?
If there’s one thing unassailably true about internet porn use today, it’s that college-age kids comprise an enormous portion of the user population. Didn’t Shugerman read Kate Julian’s recent article in The Atlantic about why young people are having less sex than ever? It describes in vivid detail how porn has seeped into every aspect of young adults’ intimate lives. Whatever the two studies are that Shugerman is relying on, their conclusions (at least as Shugerman describes them…we’re relying on her say-so here since she hasn’t actually provided links) is contradicted by widely-available research showing frequent porn use is common among college age people and young adults.
The article then alludes to two more studies to buttress the argument that the campus porn filtering activists have little to fear from porn. One study from 2007 (again, not linked) purportedly claims porn does not predict negative attitudes toward women. The other study, from 2014, argues “perceived” porn addiction correlates with religiosity. (Shugerman fails to mention, however, that this study has been forcefully debunked and debated, particularly regarding the relevance of “perceived addiction” to, you know, actual addiction.)
And that’s the extent of the “science” Shugerman cites. It’s odd, to say the least, that despite the students she interviewed mentioning “porn addiction” as a concern, none of the studies she chose to highlight actually discuss widespread evidence of problematic pornography consumption and compulsive screen use generally in younger populations. It’s not as if she lacked for dozens-upon-dozens of studies to choose from. For whatever reason, the article simply confines itself to some research only tangentially related to what students cited as a major concern for their movement.
Why might that be? Wait, don’t tell us. We’re gonna guess it has something to do with reducing everything to political and cultural stereotypes…
Part Three: Invoking That Same Old, Tired Chestnut
…Aaaaaand, we were right.
Shugerman next casts the campus wifi filtering debate in terms of left vs. right political labels. There are some convenient facts on her side. For instance, she notes that a major conservative publication picked up the story, and that it attracted the attention of a “conservative firebrand” (and female) student at Georgetown. Yet, the article could just as easily have mentioned concerns about problematic porn use on the other side of the political and cultural spectrum. (See, for example, Kate Julian’s Atlantic article above, or this one from London’s Gay Star News about a college-age playwright’s award-winning one man show about his search for sexual identity while struggling with porn addiction.)
Shugerman then doubles down on the political angle by arguing that the whole campus wifi filtering movement is just a reboot of the religious right’s war on porn that cleverly coopts arguments from old-school feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. In constrast, she argues “today’s feminists” aren’t too fussed about porn. As to which, uh, are you sure about that? We’re pretty sure Melissa Farley and Gail Dines would beg to differ, as would Sara Ditum, a former critic of Dines’ who writes for the Guardian and other major publications.
The problem we have with Shugerman casting the campus porn filtering debate in political terms is twofold. First, it’s just so lazy to pigeonhole porn skepticism into left/right, liberal/conservative tropes. As we mentioned, Shugerman wouldn’t need to search hard to find left-leaning speakers expressing alarm about porn use and abuse. Second, Shugerman herself reports that “[e]very student who spoke with The Daily Beast mentioned the levels of violence against women displayed in modern pornography” as a motivating concern. That doesn’t seem like an issue confined to one side of the political spectrum to us. At the very least, it would be nice to see the Daily Beast acknowledge the ambivalence men and women across the political landscape feel about how pervasive and influential porn has become in shaping modern sexuality.
Part Four: Burying (What Should Have Been) The Lede
But alas, that kind of complicated analysis doesn’t catch eyeballs.
Instead, the Daily Beast article that opens by touting a movement by “college guys” to “ban porn on campus” concludes, ignominiously if you ask us, by giving short shrift to the most interesting issues buried in the campus wifi filtering debate. Would filtering be technologically feasible without restricting academic research? Would it have unintended negative consequences like deterring people who struggle with porn addiction from seeking help? Would it unduly restrict rights of free expression? It’s unfortunate Shugerman left these topics for the end of her piece, because they raise crucial questions inherent in any discussion of pornography today.
So, there you have it, the basic anatomy of a lazy news article about porn: (1) grab attention with a false/reductive title and lede; (2) cherry-pick research to manufacture controversy; (3) POLITICS!; and (4) treat nuance like it’s for chumps. We haven’t tried it out on other articles yet, but we suspect it’ll hold.
Which is too bad, because we all deserve better from our news sources when it comes to the public discussion of porn.
It’s an odd but distinctly American impulse to acknowledge the unhealthy effects of recreational screen use but to embrace constant interaction with screens as a fixture of the modern workplace. After all, one of our most ingrained cultural principles as Americans is that work can, and ideally should, be pleasurable and satisfying. For many of us, that equates to an expectation of feeling rewarded and fulfilled by a long day of typing out messages and staring at pixels.
Which leads us to wonder: is training ourselves to feel satisfaction from workplace screen interaction just as potentially unhealthy as seeking reward and stimulation through on-screen porn, games, or social media? At the very least, is it possible one activity reinforces the other, and vice-versa?
Of course, few people achieve true fulfillment at work. Many of us find the hours we spend earning a living in front of a screen exhausting and mind-numbing. And yet, we go back to work, day-in, day-out, because we know we have to for our own economic survival, at the very least. We all have bills to pay. Working with screens is what most of us must do, and if we can find even a modicum of satisfaction in it, too, then we’ll count ourselves lucky.
And so, at work we unconsciously train ourselves to find, if not necessarily happiness or stimulation, at least a sense of achievement and relief, from pressing “send” on an email, filling out an order screen, or scrolling through columns of numbers. Hitting a button or checking a box means we’ve completed a task. We’ve done what we needed to do to earn, maintain, and survive. Click click click, job done, mission accomplished, pressure from the boss temporarily relieved.
Is it any wonder, then, that even in our off hours, we scroll, click, and text as if our lives depended on it? It’s not just that designers engineer porn, games, and social media to attract and hold our attention. Those features are effective, to be sure. But we suspect we also make ourselves susceptible to problematic use of porn, games, and social media by cultivating a relationship with screens at work in which we associate specific screen interactions like scrolling and clicking with accomplishing tasks and relieving stress.
From personal experience, we can remember feeling like there was a feedback loop between at-work productivity and at-home porn use. The job functions we performed during the day, and the cycle of feeling and relieving tension by engaging in tasks on-screen, felt similar to (albeit somewhat less intense than) searching for and clicking on page after page of porn content. It was as if the previous night’s porn use was the proverbial shot, and the next days’s at-work screen time was the chaser.
Screens aren’t going to disappear from the workplace. But, it may be possible to develop boundaries with our use of tech during the day that could translate into safer use at home. For some of us, that may entail adjusting our perspective of why we use a screen to begin with, and being mindful of only engaging with a screen for a well-defined purpose. Instead of falling in love with swinging a hammer, in other words, some of us may need to re-learn how to take satisfaction in having driven the nail.
Today is the second year anniversary of my father’s death. When it happened, I was a little more than a year into recovery from porn addiction.
My dad struggled with addiction throughout his life. When I left home for university, he gave me a talk about avoiding alcohol and gambling. “Those have been a problem for men in our family,” he said. He meant himself. I knew that and I heeded his warning. I drank in moderation (at least, for a college student). I never developed a taste for betting ponies or playing cards. I obeyed Nancy Reagan and just said “no.”
But I have a compulsive side, just like my old man did. And when screens with porn on them came along, I got hooked hard. My dad hadn’t warned me about those. He hadn’t known to. They weren’t really a thing when I left home for the first time.
When I entered recovery and started attending SAA meetings years later, my dad said he thought I was being too hard on myself. He was a product of his generation. He struggled with the notion of porn being harmful. Hell, he’d given me my first Playboy. I also don’t think he grasped how screens changed porn consumption, how they rewarded compulsivity and trapped people in a trance-like ludic loop, even as he played hours of hours of solitaire on the home computer (and maybe looked at porn, too, who knows).
So, when I tried to talk to my dad about addiction, he mostly shied away. I wish he hadn’t, but as a dad myself I also empathize. I feel responsible for making sure my children won’t struggle with this disease. If they do, I’ll feel like I’ve failed them.
And yet, my dad taught me profound lessons in confronting addiction that carry me through recovery every day. A great admirer of Winston Churchill, he often tried to foist some biography or collection of Churchill’s speeches on me to read. As sons are wont to do, I resisted with all my might. But, since my dad’s death, I have cracked those books and found, not surprisingly I guess, a wealth of experience, strength, and hope, as we say in the program. Churchill was a poet of overcoming adversity. I think that’s why my dad loved him.
In October 1941, as bombs were still falling on London, Churchill visited his old prep school, Harrow, to deliver a speech to the student body which included this now-famous line:
But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period - I am addressing myself to the School - surely from this period of ten months this is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never - in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
My dad read that passage to me countless times as a kid. I shrugged it off back then, but no longer. Now that I see and know the threat porn addiction poses to my life and others’, I will never, never, never, never give in.
I owe that resolve to one person.
I miss you, Dad.
The cover story of the forthcoming issue of The Atlantic is a 14,000-word behemoth titled “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” It’s worth your time to read, but if you don’t have the bandwidth, then not to worry. We can sum up the article’s (reluctant) answer for you in one word: porn.
Porn is the single most influential reason young people the world-over aren’t having sex. At least, that is the clear message author Kate Julian’s article sends. For readers of this blog, porn’s emerging influence over human sexuality won’t necessarily come as a surprise, but it seems to have frustrated Julian, who goes to impressive lengths (and length) to tease out a non-porn-related explanation for the world’s current “sex recession.” Yet, Julian’s insistence that the problem is not just porn, that it can’t really just be porn, only highlights porn’s obvious dominance.
Of the five probable culprits she identifies in her investigation of the mysterious decline in young people having sex – masturbation, romantic immaturity, dating apps, bad (painful) sex, and inhibition – Julian cannot help but tie three directly to the influence of pornography. Her interview subjects report how masturbating to porn serves as “just enough” of a substitute for sexual intimacy to “placate [sexual] imperatives”, how porn sets a shame-inducing standard for what naked bodies and genitalia should look like, and how porn serves as a warped instruction manual for at-best unsatisfying, and at-worst injurious, sexual encounters. (Even Julian’s misguided doubts about the dangers of porn addiction and porn-induced erectile dysfunction find a quasi-foil in none other than Ian Kerner.)
When the article doesn’t explicitly point the finger at porn, the ubiquity of screens as the sole medium of young people’s social interaction betrays porn’s behind-the-scenes influence. The same screens that Julian’s subjects use for watching porn also serve double-duty as a means of initiating sexual advances, and also avoiding them. Young men swipe right on Tinder in furious pursuit of an elusive sexual partner, while young women stare into their phones in purposeful avoidance of any perceived come-on from a real, live human. So pervasive is screens’ mediating influence in Julian’s telling that these young people find it quaint, but also unsettling and threatening, to interact with a potential romantic partner in person.
What’s more, declining sexual intimacy among young people isn’t just an American phenomenon. Julian reports that countries in Europe and Asia have observed it in their young people too, despite distinct cultural differences among their populations. What could explain the common trend? Julian points to a correlation with the emergence of widespread broadband internet access in each country. In other words – say it with us – porn.
Let’s pause here to acknowledge, as Julian does, that young people having less sex isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Abstinence among teens and early 20-somethings can prevent a host of social ills. Teen pregnancy goes down. Rates of sexually transmitted diseases drop. High school sweethearts make it home by curfew with their clothes on straight.
And yet, as Julian points out, something is amiss. People around the world who are at the height of their sexual energy and fertility are avoiding sex on a population-level scale. Think about that. Think about the fact that forty-three percent of Japan’s population between 18 and 34 – 43%! – are virgins. Consider that, if Julian’s interview subjects are representative, young Americans find it “creepy” to say hello to someone to whom they’re attracted unless a screen mediates the interaction. Even after accounting for the benefits of a decline in teen moms and STDs, we’re still left with a dramatic shift in human behavior. And dramatic shifts, in our experience, presage chaos.
Still, all is not lost. If the Atlantic’s article leaves you feeling concerned for the future of humanity, take heart in knowing that young people have begun to fight back against the tech and porn industries’ unregulated global experiment in manipulating their sexuality and social behavior. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen a steady stream of op-eds from university newspapers across the country rejecting the influence of porn, screens, and social media on the student-age generation. At Notre Dame, groups of men and women called for the university to filter porn from the campus wifi network, calling adult content an affront to human dignity and highly addictive. At Fairfield University, a student writer observed the “growing reliance on technology is an epidemic that deeply affects everyone with access to a phone.” The student newspaper at Colorado State called out social media for “making us … anti-social.” Since the beginning of the school year, similar articles have appeared in student newspapers at Mississippi State, and Pitt, and Southeastern Louisiana, among others.
So, let’s not write the obituary of humankind just yet. Maybe the very same young people whose sexual behavior has departed so drastically from the norm will lead the way out of the virtual world and back into the real one, sex and all.
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.
In a previous blog post, we argued the “Salience Value” of screen-based content could serve as a predictor of whether a screen user would fall into a “ludic loop” of problematic content consumption. In this post, we delve deeper into the concept of salience and how it may influence porn use and other screen content consumption behavior.
In their 2017 treatise Decision Neuroscience, researchers Kahnt and Tobler wrote: “At the most general level, salience can be defined as the capacity of a stimulus to direct attention.” They went on to describe, however, some confusion in the neuroscience literature between two concepts for which the term “salience” has been used as a shorthand. One of those concepts, “perceptual salience,” refers to “physical properties (i.e., the color, contrast, orientation, or luminance) that make [a stimulus] more likely to capture attention.” The other, “acquired salience,” refers to “the importance that a stimulus has acquired through association with an incentive outcome.” (It bears noting that both “perceptual” and “acquired” salience may have alternate definitions outside of the neuroscience context, amplifying the definitional ambiguity.)
In our blog post proposing a model for “ludic loops,” we posited (based mostly on anecdotal evidence) that screen-based stimuli – porn, social media, gaming, etc. – have a measurable Salience Value (SV), and that SV has a direct correlation to the likelihood of a problematic “ludic loop” use pattern arising. We hypothesized that the SV of screen-based content features at least two core components: (1) how the content is designed to attract attention, and (2) how the content responds to the user’s deep-seated or primordial needs. These two categories roughly correspond to the concepts of “salience” in neuroscience research articulated by Kahnt and Tobler. Screen content can be engineered to increase its “perceptual salience,” and can feature subject matter that varies in its “acquired salience” according to its fundamental importance to the user.
Delving into those distinctions further, consider how the design engineering of screen-based porn (or social media or gaming) increases “perceptual salience”. Over the past year, ex-Silicon Valley engineers, among them former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, have warned about the tricks and techniques app and web designers use to grab and hold the attention of content consumers. These include on-screen content placement and visual design, leveraging unpredictable rewards, auto-playing video content, infinite scrolling, and tracking user movements to design even more enticing, personalized future interactions. You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to recognize how effective these design features can be. Hands up if you’ve ever lost time scrolling through Instagram or playing Candy Crush. We can’t see you, but we know you have your hand up because we do, too.
Similarly, consider how degrees of “acquired salience” impact a user’s interaction with screen-based content. In our previous blog post, we contrasted the SV of porn with that of cute cat videos. Both may appear on screen in an identical, YouTube-style interface. Both likely feature design engineering calculated to grab and hold user attention. But, only one speaks to a primordial need – the sex drive – of most users. Kahnt and Tobler describe “acquired salience” as relating to the importance of a stimulus for motivated behavior independent” of whether its outcome is positive or negative for the content consumer. That makes sense in our model, because sexual content, whether it arouses or disgusts, holds an “absolute” value for most people that is far greater than more neutral content that rarely arouses or disgusts, such as cat videos.
Kahnt and Tobler also observe that “acquired salience” may vary according to learned expectations about the outcome tied to the stimulus. In the context of screen-based content, does this imply “acquired salience” can vary over time? Anecdotally, we suspect so. We think the “acquired salience” of a cute cat video be high initially (when a consumer finds himself entranced by the hilarity of watching a cat fall from a piano bench), but can decline predictably as the novelty of cat antics decreases. Conversely, the “acquired salience” of online porn sustains (or even grows) in intensity because of the near-infinite variety of pornographic genres, themes, and on-screen behaviors available for consumption. Simply put, online porn doesn’t just tickle a particularly potent human instinct, it also remains salient by offering the opportunity to discover new outcomes, no matter whether they are positive (arousing) or negative (disgusting).
Summarizing and simplifying these concepts, here’s the state of our thinking at this point on the Salience Value of screen-based content, particularly online porn. From the perspective of the user, the SV of screen-based content depends upon both exogenous (originating externally) and endogenous (originating internally) factors. Those factors aren’t necessarily held constant. In fact, they’re likely highly dynamic. Engineers can tweak exogenous factors to make content more perceptually salient, and users can respond by adapting modes of use that mitigate those tweaks (e.g., by going gray-screen). Likewise, users’ endogenous valuation of subject matter can evolve through learning, experience, aging, and (perhaps) medical interventions, but can be countered by content providers when they produce ever-more novel subject matter.
Why bother with this exercise? As we wrote previously, we think there's a need to spur focused discussion about the multiple variables that may contribute to problematic online porn use and other compulsive, screen-based behavior. Too many discussions of porn addiction we read proclaim the problem too difficult and nuanced for effective analysis. Our fondness for behavioral economics leads us to believe that basic modeling and multi-disciplinary analysis can bring order to chaotic discussions like these, and perhaps lead to treatment methods tailored to each problem user's needs.
We were recently invited to sit in on a high school class that asked students, over the course of a semester, to envision how they wanted their own lives to unfold in the coming decades. As the guests of honor, we were there to field questions from the students – all high school seniors – about what we’d learned since we left the cocoon of secondary education.
No softballs came our way in this class. These kids had already been thinking about their questions for a few weeks under the guidance of their teacher, and quickly honed in on some core life issues: “Are you happy, however you understand that word?” “Do you think of yourself as a good person, and are you?” “What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made so far?” And, “If you were going to write a letter to yourself at our age, what advice would you give?”
We won’t lie, the session got pretty raw. Not so raw as to tell an unsuspecting group of teens what it’s like to be in recovery from porn addiction, mind you. It wasn’t that kind of setting. But still, we’d lay odds these kids had never heard a group of adults in their 30s and 40s open up about vulnerabilities in way yours truly and others did. One adult talked about coming late to the realization of how important it was to fail miserably. Others reflected, sometimes tearily, about how dreams of having children or careers had eluded them.
Perhaps the most trenchant question, for your correspondent at least, was the last one – what advice would you give to the high school senior version of yourself? Now, remember, these students had already done a lot of thinking about this topic. By the time that question surfaced, we were way past answering in clichés like “don’t take yourself too seriously.”
In contemplating a response to that question, our inner monologue went something like: “I’D TELL MY 18-YEAR OLD SELF TO QUIT LOOKING AT PORN!!!!” But, raw as the class was, getting into the nitty-gritty of porn addiction seemed too specific. The students were asking the adults to translate our experiences into lessons that would be universal, not idiosyncratic. The adults stepped up the challenge with some uniformly insightful answers:
We have no idea which, if any, of the other adults in that class was in recovery. Their answers, however, struck us as something of a textbook lesson in emerging from addiction, and in turn, of how addiction recovery distills and seeks to address the core challenges of human existence.
Would our 18-year old selves have listened to that sage advice? The premise of the class, at least, was we would have. Which is why we feel lucky to have spoken to those young adults. We may not be able to turn back time on our own addictions, but we can play a part in shaping how others confront the future, and in so doing, in making the world a healthier place.
Longer-form writing from the PornHelp team on current topics relating to problem porn use and recovery.