Those areas will continue to grow while unused connections will be pruned back until youths are about 25 years old. Parts of the dopamine circuitry are some of the last things to finish forming.
Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain in response to pleasurable activities, whether it is running, playing chess, eating a favorite food, shooting up heroin or watching pornography. After an enjoyable activity, the brain makes a mental note that it felt good, so it should repeat it, explained Peter Kalivas, professor and chairman of the Department of Neuroscience at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
After a few encounters with the same stimuli, the brain no longer produces as much dopamine. But drugs — and pornography, many believe — are so damaging because they produce large amounts of dopamine every time. Each shot of heroin or drink of alcohol cues the brain to absorb all it can about its surroundings. Pretty soon the user's entire world becomes linked with, and reminiscent of, drug use.
"That's thought to be how we get addicted, and whether that happens with biological things like sexual stimuli [or] highly palatable foods, you can become addicted to those other behaviors," Kalivas said.
Teens are at great risk for addiction — defined broadly by Kalivas as compulsive relapse and inability to regulate behavior — because their brains are still developing and unlike adults, are not "biologically mature enough to "exert cognitive control required to suppress sexual cravings, thoughts and behaviors elicited by pornographic content," according to a 2012 review of the latest research on the impact of Internet pornography on adolescents.
The inability to say "no" can have life-long impacts.
Madras has been studying the impact of drugs on the adolescent brain and preliminary data show that the risk of having an addiction as an adult is up to six times greater when adolescents begin using drugs or alcohol before the age of 14 than if they initiated drug or alcohol use after the age of 18.
While Madras can't authoritatively generalize her findings to pornography, she believes it might be possible that viewing pornography may have a similar impact on the brain — there's just more research needed.
How to change behavior
Kurt was 9 when he stumbled across pornography on his home computer while looking for music.
After that, he started hunting for it.
By the age of 12, he was looking at pornography three to four times a week. By 14, it was multiple times a day.
He went to Oxbow Academy — an inpatient treatment center in central Utah for boys who struggle with pornography — for almost 20 months and finished high school there.
Kurt, not his real name, learned how to handle his stress and anger and created a life plan that doesn't involve pornography or objectifying women. He's planning to attend Snow College where he wants to study computer programming. He's come so far, but he still knows he's not "cured."
"No matter how well you do at Oxbow, you'll have struggles for the rest of your life," he said. "(You have to) keep yourself in alignment all the time."
Such alignment is crucial for teens like Justin and Kurt — and even those who think their pornography issues aren't that bad, because recovery means retraining the brain by creating new non-pornography-related pathways, and then staying on those new paths.
While it's difficult, it is possible, thanks to the neuroplasticity or regenerative abilities of the human brain, especially in adolescence, said Kalivas.
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