Is there a direct link between pornography and depression? The short answer is no, as studies have not found a causative link yet. Rising concern over porn addiction is becoming grave.
With the increase in accessibility and easy availability of the internet, there is an exponential increase in porn consumption behavior among people.
Access to pornography:
Earlier on institutional guidelines kept away the under-aged group (under 18) from sexually explicit content, currently this regulation is hard to maintain, since every individual, across all age groups, has access to mobile phones and internet.
With easy access and exposure to internet pornography, individuals hardly know about the whirlpool of events it possibly leads to. It begins with the loop of viewing porn repetitively because of super stimulation and gradually the dependency increases as the desire to experience stimulation also increases.
Users, at the initial time of usage, hardly are aware of the mental health issues that pornography can cause.
Pornography and Depression
The relationship between pornography and depression is not direct and explicit. A lot of studies have failed to find out the direct link between the two, but there are several mediating factors, and depression is seen as a common mental health problem among porn addicts.
On the other hand, depression leading to pornography is also highly inconclusive.
Although at times sexual activities and masturbation help in improving your mood, as it increases the level of oxytocin momentarily, sustainability of this is very low and occasional. Depressive symptoms like a decrease in libido – meaning sexual drive (decrease in libido is one of the symptoms of depression) and there is a marked decrease in sexual energy, so depression leading to pornography addiction is very inconclusive.
Mental health professionals across the globe have carried out numerous studies on pornography and depression, studied cases very closely, talked to the porn addicts, mapped their experiences deeply, went deeper to understand their mental status, their thought processes, and so on.
What is emerging in the results is the causative link between pornography and depression. They tried exploring is Porn Depression real or does something like Porn Depression ever exist. But no empirical evidence was found.
Excessive porn watching behavior, losing the sense to control watching porn, is itself a mental health concern, and excessive porn watching behavior can negatively impact your mental health and can lead to various other issues, is most common.
Mental health awareness in developing countries is considered poor. When it comes to mental health-related problems due to watching internet pornography, awareness is further poor. The scenario isn’t very promising in developed countries either.
Having poor mental health awareness, most people do not recognize that excessively viewing pornography is related to mental health concerns or could lead to mental health issues.
They see it separately; even true for common people in the society. Parents or relatives of a porn addict often have asked me “Why porn addicts are required to be taken to a mental health professional?”
The most challenging point for a mental health professional is providing ‘medical advice, diagnosis or treatment’ for porn addiction, as porn addiction has not been recognized as a mental health issue or a disorder.
Although the clinical profile of a porn addict replicates and overlaps substance addiction, behavioral addiction, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder of sexually explicit content and so on. Possibly this could be a reason why mental health issues and pornography are seen separately; lack of mental health awareness fuels ignorance even further.
Do people with depression watch more pornography?
It’s hard to say for sure if a person with depression is watching more porn, but if you use porn when you believe that porn is morally wrong, you will experience symptoms of depression.
The results of a survey published in 2017 found that depressed men were more likely to use pornography as a coping aid. This is especially true for men who morally reject pornography. It shows that those who use pornography and believe it is morally wrong, experience an overall state of emotional confusion and depression from guilt and shame. It suggests that you may experience overwhelming emotions.
This is because there is a disconnect between their belief system and their actions and so the person feels conflicted. Therefore a moral or religious standpoint comes into the picture. This seems to be one of the reasons why pornography and depression could be related but there is no definitive cause that is found.
There might be people who are depressed and seek pornography to feel something. Watching pornography can give you a hit of dopamine and trigger your reward system. Over time you end up needing more porn to feel the same level of satisfaction from dopamine production.
This is just one side to the story. People may watch porn for different reasons. There is no definitive proof that watching pornography can lead to depression or that depression can cause people to watch porn excessively. More research is required to give a definitive answer to this problem.
Currently, we are only seeing a faint link. Research with larger sample sizes and more accurate tests are required. But before that, we require research in terms of pornography itself. The effects of pornography are only observed, regular and rigorous studies are required to further understand the inner workings of the brain while using pornography.
This is the only way to truly understand the causative link between depression and pornography and how it affects the people of our generation.
The initial Clinical Presentation of an individual with Pornography Consumption Behavior
As a practicing Clinical Psychologist, the experience of dealing with individuals with porn addiction is highly complex. The first time an individual with excessive porn watching behavior seeks consultation for therapy, their first complaint is never about their porn-watching behavior. They mostly report complaints of difficulty in sleep, difficulty in attention and concentration, feeling lethargic and uneasy. These are the most common.
Apart from it, some may report low mood, anger spells, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, difficulty in maintaining an intimate relationship, preference to stay alone, etc. to name a few but not limited to only these. As we probe into the difficulties, and therapy sessions progress, then comes onto the surface the problem of porn watching. In the therapy setup, understanding excessive porn consumption is complex.
There is a thin line of demarcation between porn addiction and compulsive porn-watching behavior, although the common between the two is the lack of control.
Understanding the link between pornography and depression
The complex causative link between pornography and depression is multifaceted. It can be better understood by going deeper into the experiences of clients of problematic porn consumption behavior.
Excessive porn consumption behavior does not just occur overnight. It breeds over time, merely begins with experimenting at a young age, which now according to research is evident among children under 10 years of age. This experimenting stage paves the way to the more complex behavior of craving. As the use of porn consumption behavior increases, it gradually turns into a ‘problematic category,’ where the individual loses the sense of control to watch.
By now the individual feels a lot stimulated and craves such stimulation even more. This problematic behavior triggers our neural system of the brain in a certain way. This neural trigger works in such a way that porn consumption is experienced as more rewarding, and this further reinforces the porn consumption and thus gradually it gets worse. To gratify the increasing stimulation, and maintain the rewarding experience, porn consumption behavior is increased manifold.
While the individual gets completely engrossed in achieving this gratification, his/her lifestyle gets maladaptive. I have had the experience of dealing with individuals of similar conditions where they had given up eating, considering eating would consume their porn-watching time.
Disruption of the sleep-wake cycle is most common in these cases, for obvious reasons- 1. The night gives easy and uninterrupted access to indulge in porn watching behavior after everyone has slept, and 2. Compulsive exploration of explicit content and masturbation and inability to resist consequent urges consumes a lot of their time at night, and hence they go to sleep very late.
The disruption of the sleep-wake cycle effects affects a neural chemical called melatonin which further disrupts cognitive functioning, resulting in various mental and physical health issues.
Individuals with problematic porn-watching behavior keep looking for opportunities to explore explicit content when alone and thus always want to stay aloof, disrupting their social functioning and behavior. This takes them to a cave hole, away from loved ones, family members, friends, and relatives.
They often report feeling fatigued, both because of excessive masturbation and sleep disruption. They are unable to concentrate and pay attention- mostly since they are occupied with thoughts of sexual content and masturbation and could also possibly be due to melatonin disruption. Their day- to day activities get shattered, their socio-occupational functioning is highly disrupted. Deadlines are missed, procrastination is common since either they are fatigued or porn consumption becomes a priority.
Social life gets highly disrupted, particularly for those who are married or have a partner. Sexual dysfunction due to pornography is not uncommon and additionally hampers the sexual health of the relationship.
By this point when the individual realizes how things have been shaping in his/her life – of not being able to live an adaptive lifestyle, socio-occupational functioning is disrupted, pending work is piled up over the head, haven’t been sleeping well, losing or distancing from loved ones- this hits a spell of low mood.
The individual upon realizing what has happened to him while he was immersed into the sea of problematic porn watching behavior, triggers a series of depressive symptoms- experiences low mood, feel enormously guilty, develops negative thoughts about self, self-esteem is affected, experiences worthlessness, experiences difficulty in attention and concentration and so on.
The spells of depressive symptoms are not just limited to this phase, it possibly gets severe in the recovery process.
Recovery from problematic porn-watching behavior or porn addiction is a difficult process with a roller-coaster of emotions. It can be comparable to a de-addiction process of a substance abuse patient. While quitting from pornography problem, individual experiences severe difficulty in resisting the urge, often showing signs of withdrawal.
Withdrawal symptoms in porn addiction often replicate and/or overlaps with depressive symptoms. This is because failure and struggle are part of the process of quitting porn and as the individual struggles to overcome problematic pornography behavior they feel very pessimistic about themselves, experience low mood, self-doubt their ability to overcome the problem, loss of motivation, and so on.
Currently, there is no comprehensive conclusive evidence to support the assumption that the use of pornography causes depression, or that people with depression are more likely to develop porn addiction.
Experts also do not see how it relates to or influences negative emotions or mental states such as depression.
If you feel that the use of pornography is excessive or has a negative impact on your life, please consult a psychologist.
A psychologist can work with your behavioral patterns and understand how and why you react and respond the way you do. They are here to understand your struggles and help you navigate such difficult times through researched techniques, so you can learn how to deal with your situation in the most appropriate way.
Based on a lot of research and my personal experience of dealing with clients with problematic exposure to porn as a Clinical Psychologist, we can say that depressive symptoms are commonly seen among individuals who indulge in problematic porn watching behavior.
Possibly not having a direct link between the two, but having a causative mediating link between the two.
Often interestingly, it is because of these symptoms of depression, an individual with problematic porn-watching behavior seeks therapy, and not because of the porn-watching problem; going back to the same vicious circle – of not considering porn watching as problematic behavior.
(The article is based on certain cases reported and intervened at the clinical set up of the Clinical Psychologist )
For additional information, read through these sources:
American Psychiatric Association . 2013. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
Mattebo, M., Tydén, T., Häggström-Nordin, E., Nilsson, K. W., & Larsson, M. (2018). Pornography consumption and psychosomatic and depressive symptoms among Swedish adolescents: a longitudinal study. Upsala journal of medical sciences, 123(4), 237–246. https://doi.org/10.1080/03009734.2018.1534907