Pornography consumption has seen a tremendous increase following the rise of the internet, with popular adult websites like PornHub reporting over 39 billion searches and 42 billion visits in 2019 alone.
This surge has been accompanied by a concerning rise in reports of problematic use and addiction-like symptoms.
Users and researchers alike have debated whether habitual pornography usage can develop into a genuine addiction, similar to substance addictions.
A recent study has attempted to shed light on this contentious issue by examining potential withdrawal symptoms, a characteristic feature of addiction, in individuals abstaining from pornography for a seven-day period.
“While the concept of pornography addiction is met with varying degrees of acceptance among researchers, some believe it is inherently addictive due to its novelty and rewarding stimulus. They argue that symptoms of dysregulated pornography use fit within an addiction framework, sharing similar neurobiological mechanisms with substance addictions and other behavioral addictions,” the researchers explained.
“In contrast, others argue that pornography addiction is not a valid clinical entity and can instead be explained by non-pathological learning.”
In order to investigate this dichotomy, researchers recruited student volunteers, predominantly female (64.2 percent), who used pornography three or more times in the previous month.
These volunteers were split into two groups: a control group, continuing normal pornography use, and an abstinence group, who were asked to abstain from pornography for a week.
While more than half of the abstinence group reported no pornography use during the experimental period, a considerable proportion (45.35%) reported using pornography at least once during this period.
Despite not achieving complete abstinence, these participants were kept in the study to better understand the natural fluctuations of pornography use.
Both groups were given daily questionnaires to evaluate mood, cravings for pornography, and any potential withdrawal symptoms during the period of attempted abstinence.
Contrary to what might have been expected, the team found no significant increase in craving, negative affect, positive affect, or withdrawal symptoms when compared to baseline scores.
In an intriguing twist, those participants who did experience negative effects and withdrawal symptoms actually reported decreasing severity over time.
This ‘downward drift’, the researchers suggest, is an effect seen in other addiction studies which is “the tendency for participants to report progressively fewer negative affect-related symptoms when tested repeatedly, regardless of assignment to treatment or control.”
Although there was no notable difference in most scores across the board, the study revealed an exception among those with higher levels of problematic pornography use (PPU).
This group reported an increase in cravings during the study period. The team posited that this could be interpreted as a withdrawal symptom, but it might also be due to a heightened sexual desire by the participant.
“If participants’ primary sexual outlet was masturbating to pornography, then urges to use pornography could be a natural manifestation of sexual desire and/or arousal throughout the deprivation period,” the team wrote, adding that the lack of other negative effects provided support for this alternative explanation.
In concluding, the researchers emphasized the need for further studies with larger samples of participants with PPU.
This approach will potentially offer a more detailed understanding of the observed craving increases and help determine whether they represent genuine withdrawal symptoms or are merely manifestations of sexual desire.
The findings of this study contribute to a nuanced, ongoing discussion surrounding pornography use and potential addiction. While the debate is far from settled, this research represents an important step towards understanding pornography use and its effects on users.
Future research will continue to explore this intricate relationship, striving for a comprehensive understanding that can inform effective treatments and interventions for pornography addiction.