Sister Marysia Weber, DO, an osteopathic family physician certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, is helping raise awareness of this growing problem and how to treat it at the American Osteopathic Association's OMED 2014, the Osteopathic Medical Conference & Exposition in Seattle.
"Internet pornography addiction can develop even more easily than a drug or alcohol addiction because it engages the most sensitive sense we have, our eyes; and it's readily available in unlimited quantities. It's even more addictive than drug addictions because the images are directly stored in the memory and imagination which remain long after viewing Internet pornography, altering the structure and function of the brain," said Dr. Weber.
She also says it's the medium of the message that has a more significant role than the content in altering the functional connectivity of the brain—specifically that high speed Internet can rewire the pleasure center, especially when coupled with pornographic images.
Studies show that those who view Internet pornography for hours each week have decreased gray matter, a major component of central nervous system, than those who do not view it. This means there are fewer neurons and neuroconnectivity in the pleasure centers of the brain. This leaves the brain craving more, while making it harder for the same images to provide pleasure. Addicts then seek increasingly deviant sexual images depicting violence or children to satisfy their craving.
"Internet pornography leaves people wanting more and more, but they may not necessarily like what they see, which contributes to symptoms of anxiety and depression," Dr. Weber says. "Over time, your senses dull and it's harder to find pleasure in the images, or even in everyday life."
High speed Internet and the subject matter create a highly addictive combination. Every second, at least 28,000 people are watching pornography on the Internet, and at least 40 million U.S. adults admit to viewing Internet pornography daily. And, according to the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families, 2010, 47 % of U.S. families reported that pornography was a problem in their home.
The most at risk? Teenage boys, 12 to 17 years old. "Addictions typically happen with adults—we've never had a group addicted which is so young and growing in numbers," says Dr. Weber.
During the teenage years, brains are still developing. If a teenager views Internet pornography, it can deform the pleasure centers of their brain, making it much more difficult to recover than older males who didn't grow up with the Internet. Dr. Weber says she sees teens and adults with erectile dysfunction because of Internet pornography, but that ED medications don't help, because they treat the organ, not the brain, where the problem lies.
Having an Internet pornography addiction so young also has serious implications for society as a whole. "Boys show more interest in deviant and illegal pornography and are more likely to act out than older adults," says Dr. Weber. She also warns that such an addiction can have a powerful and negative effect on families and marriages, with the addict not being able to show emotion with physical affection, including sex, and the addict is much more likely to be unfaithful to their spouse.
As Internet pornography uses more disturbing images to keep addicts viewing. Dr. Weber says the FBI is noticing an increase in violent sex crimes and child pornography, as well as sex trafficking—now an estimated $32 billion industry worldwide. "There are more sex slaves today worldwide then there have been in the history of mankind," said Dr. Weber.