Quality relationships and close social connections are associated with decreased mortality risk for all causes.1 Yet among teens, loneliness, isolation, despair, and depression appear to be increasing,2 along with rates of teen suicide.3 Concerns over these trends have led many to ask, “What’s changed?” Some factors seem to be tied to how technology has changed our world. Teen access to mobile devices is approaching 100%, and near constant connectivity is a reality of teen development.4 For at least some teens, disappearing into their devices may be linked to negative emotional, identity, and relationship health.5

Much has been said about how social media and gaming may contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness among teens and young adults. For some teens, a significant amount of screen time is also spent accessing pornography, which may also be a significant contributor to teen loneliness, isolation, and relationship void.6

Here, I describe recent research conducted with my colleagues.7 Our study suggests a close and painful partnership between pornography and loneliness for some users. From our survey of over 1,000 individuals around the world, we developed a statistical model that suggests an association between pornography use and loneliness, each increasing in tandem with the other. Each incremental increase in loneliness was associated with an increase in pornography use (by a factor of 0.16), and each incremental increase in pornography use predicted a significant increase in loneliness (by a factor of 0.20). While the magnitude of effects was small, they were statistically significant. Interlocking partnerships like this are worrisome since they represent an entrapment template associated with addiction—where the consequences of coping with loneliness through pornography use only increase loneliness, potentially locking the two in a self-fueling cycle.

If loneliness can lead to pornography use, and pornography use may bring about or intensify loneliness, these circular linkages may create a vicious cycle, pulling the user even further from health-promoting relationship connections. In the cultural context of emotionally-disconnected sexual hookups scripted by pornography, loneliness may deepen and become increasingly painful, yet in response, pornography use may only intensify.

While the gender gap in pornography use is closing, men still use pornography more than women, and married persons use pornography less than single persons. The fact that pornography use decreases after marriage may hint at a link between pornography, relational success, and loneliness. Are those who use pornography less likely to achieve relational success and marry? Or does relational success in marriage remove the loneliness trigger for pornography use—or both?

Conversely, pornography use in the context of relationships is associated with relationship distress and attachment disruption, leaving the pair bond vulnerable.8 Given the large and still-growing library of research linking attachment pair bond relationships to well-being, to the degree pornography use may undermine these relationships, it leaves both men and women less well off. In our digital-relational world, helping men and women learn how to be close and connected may be what we really need, and it’s possible this could result in fewer individuals resorting to pornography.

How loneliness and porn partner up

How might loneliness be a potential trigger for pornography use, and how might pornography use become a “fix” for loneliness? Building on our findings, we proposed a theoretical model for how this might occur. Pornography triggers the sexual system, providing a physical “feel-good” experience overshadowing negative feelings. Sexual arousal and climax offer a quick “feel-good” fix. Pornography also expands the sexual system’s escape through creating sexual anticipation, bringing a person “under the influence” of sexual arousal for as long as they care to be before acting out.

Additionally, the sexual system is biologically and neurologically tied to a relationship experience. The human sexual system is carefully designed to support both conception and bonding. First, there’s the physical pleasure of arousal, intercourse, and climax—the engine designed to ensure offspring. Then, after climax, partners experience the brain’s “love” plan for pair bonding, when oxytocin (or what researchers refer to as the “cuddle chemical”) is released, producing feelings of comfort, connection, and closeness.9 In the context of a caring attachment relationship, this release and “after-play” support emotional bonding.10

When pornography is used to trigger the sexual system, the biology of the sexual system produces a false relationship experience, offering temporary “relief” from lonely feelings, but soon enough, the user again faces a real-world relationship void. That emptiness may trigger loneliness. Additionally, porn invites the mental fantasy of a relationship experience. Thus, the mind fantasizes and biologically the sexual system tricks the brain into imagining it’s having a relationship experience and can thus mask loneliness—but only temporarily. In this way, pornography exploits the sexual system but only tricks the brain for a while. The user can’t escape the fact that when the experience is over, they’re still alone in an empty room. So, when sexual intoxication wears off, the experience may only end up excavating a deeper emptiness—a setup for a vicious cycle. We hypothesize that this experience could create the potential for getting trapped in the short-term, feel-good escape of pornography joined with long-term loneliness.

Next, even if the user did not necessarily start out using porn out of loneliness, how might pornography use on its own lead to loneliness? Finding oneself alone after using pornography is reason enough to feel lonely. As well, while the promiscuity promoted by pornography may give the illusion of an extensive social life, it’s only sex, not connection. Recent scholarship suggests that pornography’s sexual scripts of eroticism, objectification, promiscuity, and misogyny (domination) are, on their face, fundamentally anti-relationship and anti-attachment and “conceptually linked to loneliness.”11 Pornography promotes an understanding of sexuality and relationships that is corrosive to connection because it doesn’t promote people, only parts. Hence, in the most intimate of circumstances, actual intimacy is elusive—because pornography doesn’t support or advocate emotional connection and whole relationships.

Pornography’s scripts mean it is hardly an aphrodisiac for real intimacy. Hence, pornography can’t pull off its relationship trick, either alone or in real-life relationships. If difficulties in forming stable, satisfying relationships increase for the porn user, retreat to the palliative pornography “fix” and sexual system trick may only increase. We suppose that heightened loneliness may be “treated” again with pornography.

Pornography and loneliness may become interlocked and trap users in a vicious cycle and addictive void, while relationship connection and meaning remain elusive. Such a model could explain our finding of a small but statistically significant bi-directional pornography-loneliness linkage. Pornography use and loneliness could partner up in this way, each prodding the other in a perpetual cycle fueled by a sexual practice that keeps real connection and shared attachment painfully out of reach. Pornography use and loneliness could in this way become interlocked partners in an addictive void, while relationship connection and meaning are lost. 

Pornography use that is regular and intensive, and which occurs in the absence of corrective “counter-scripts,” could lock in this pornography-loneliness partnership. The further the person entrenches this experiential pathway, the more elusive real relationship fulfillment could become. In the recent research conducted with my colleagues, we raise the possibility of pornography use compulsivity or addiction, pointing to how pornography use fits this entrapment template. The potentially habitual “fix” of pornography may consist in using it to relieve loneliness (or other troubling emotions). The sexual system’s combination of two very different rewards—intense sensual gratification during arousal and climax, followed by oxytocin’s relief and comfort during the resolution period—could be thought of like a combined cocaine-valium experience and “hook.”

All of these possibilities should be of concern regardless of a person’s stage in life. Nevertheless, we need to be keenly aware of the acute risk that pornography poses to adolescents. Its potential to mislead and misshape young people’s views of women and men, relationships, intimacy, and sexuality during their formative years is very real—making a pornography-loneliness partnership a threat to their overall sexual and relational well-being.

Further, when teens substitute sexting, sexualized Snapchat posting, and so forth for real-life relationship bids, these seem likely to further frustrate their relationship attempts. Even as porn hypes serial hooking up, it may seriously be getting in the way of young people preparing for and forming their most important, fulfilling, and intimate relationships in life that are critical to their well-being.

Young people need less exposure to porn and more positive coping skills, as well as relationship and sexual socialization for intimacy that parents, churches, and others can provide.12 Significantly, teens with a strong attachment to their parents and who are highly religious are less likely to use Internet devices in harmful ways, including to access porn.13

If there are indeed natural patterns for human well-being, perhaps it’s time to put forward the model of sexual health found in a complete understanding of the human sexual system—a system designed both to bring us together and bond us.14 The natural design of the sexual system points to the importance of real, enduring connection to our survival and well-being in life. Instead of allowing sexually-explicit media to train us and the next generation for self- and other-objectification—diminishing our wholeness and humanity in the process—it may be time to consider the real possibility that pornography use poses a very public health risk to our relationships.

Mark Butler is a Professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and a Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in couple therapy for recovery from behavioral and substance compulsivity or addiction. Republished with permission from the Institute for Family Studies blog.

Read the original article, with footnotes, at IFS.