Every day, Daniel couldn't wait to get home from school so he could turn on his computer. Once it booted up, he typed "naked women" into Google, settled in and took his time to pick through the 5 million hits those two words brought to his screen.
Once in a while, he would turn around to make sure his mom, making dinner in the next room, couldn't see what he was looking at. With the coast clear, he turned back to enjoy the view, his mom none the wiser. The Internet blocker that his parents installed prevented him from viewing some pictures or videos, but not many. "I still had tons of choices," he said.
Scrolling through the photographs, he felt the familiar rush of pleasure and guilt. When his mom walked in, he flipped the screen to check his fantasy football standings or to respond to the instant-message boxes filled with friends' banter about teachers they didn't like, what would be on tomorrow's test and embarrassing stuff that happened at the lunch table. As soon as his mom left, he switched back to the porn -- just as he did every day from 3:30 until he went to bed around 11. Daniel said he was hooked.
"It was kind of like being an alcoholic, and you can't get enough drinks, and you want to keep drinking. I couldn't get enough of it, and I wanted to keep doing it, and it got worse, and I needed to see better stuff," said Daniel. First it was more skin. Then it was more sex. He watched as women were beaten as part of sex and had sex with animals.
Even after his parents caught him, he didn't stop.
"I knew I was probably going to get busted again, and I didn't care. It was like I craved it," he said. Daniel's grades dropped, and he stopped wanting to hang out with his friends. His mom, Jean, said he even asked if he could quit the football team. (Jean spoke to us on the condition that we did not use hers or Daniel's last name).
"All I wanted to do was look at pornography," said Daniel, 15, of Twinsburg.
Finding online porn
without even trying
Experts fear Daniel is not alone. Recently, many psychologists and sociologists report a surge in the number of young males displaying symptoms of obsessive compulsive behavior to Internet pornography, also known as I-porn. In the past, objections against pornography were primarily moral ones, raised by religious and political opponents who warned against the impact of pervasive pornography. Now, an additional wave of opposition is warning about the impact of pervasive porn, arguing it is transforming teenage sexuality and relationships -- for the worse.
Others, like psychologist Gary Brooks, go one step further, calling what he's seeing lately, addiction. Brooks defines addiction as "a compulsive inability to not do it and the need to continually reach new levels of eroticism."
"What used to get them excited no longer does it," said Brooks, author of "The Centerfold Syndrome" and a psychology professor at Baylor University. The upward trend is so new, there's no definitive data on the number of teens who may be affected or what their ability to maintain relationships in the future is. But with the ease of access and I-porn's ubiquity, experts think the addicted teens coming through their doors now are just the beginning.
In 2001, over 17 million youths between the ages of 12 and 17 used the Internet, representing 73 percent of those in that age bracket. [rmc: 2001 study by Pew Research and American Life Project : ]-NT%>On average, kids were on computers two to three hours per day. But four years later, James Samad, senior vice president for the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, says the number of teens using the Internet has grown, as has the time they spend on it. The more time spent, the more likely it is they will be exposed to porn, he said. In fact, one polling group reports 91 percent of the first exposure by a teen to pornography was during benign activities, such as research for school projects or surfing the Web for other information.
Fourteen-year-old Patrick, of Hudson, couldn't believe it the first time pictures of people having sex popped onto his computer screen. One minute he was researching the Internet for his history paper; the next, pornography. That first glimpse was all he needed. The ninth-grader said something in him clicked.
"It was like Wow.' It's weird and hard to explain, but it was like I just had to see more," he said. (His parents asked that his last name not be used.)
Before long, the free stuff didn't satisfy him. When an instant message from "jenluvssex" asked him to come see pictures from her Web cam, he clicked on it. After hitting " yes" when asked if he was 18 and then "yes" again when it asked if he was aware of the charges, he was on a paid site named "Hot Teen Sex." No credit card needed.
He came back to the site every day for a month. That is, until an $800 phone bill and $400 Web charge showed up in the mailbox. His parents banned him from the computer. But he couldn't stop.
"I knew the bill would come a month later, and I knew I'd get in trouble, but I just had to keep doing it," he said.
"Downloading porn on the Internet is like consuming cocaine. It's that addictive," said Samad.
Research on porn's effects
in its infancy
Vanessa Jensen, director of pediatric psychology at the Cleveland Clinic, said addiction to pornography does not have the same physiological effect as an addiction to alcohol or drugs, where withdrawal affects you physically.
"Internet porn addiction is a behavior that when it becomes excessive, either in amount or degree, it affects other parts of your life," she said. Though research is in its infancy, she said psychologists are beginning to understand there may be brain changes associated with viewing highly stimulating sexual images.
Psychologist Brooks said teenage boys are particularly susceptible to porn's pull.
"They're already dealing with higher levels of physiological arousal, as well as a lack of comfort in intimacy in relationships anyway," Brooks said. He said psychologists know that when adult males have a steady diet of pornography, they begin to display an obsession with visual stimulation that makes it difficult for them to have a healthy relationship. It also prompts obsessive fetishes over body parts, the rating of women by size and shape and a fear of intimacy.
"There's an inability to get beyond centerfold images of women to have a real relationship," Brooks said.
In young males, Brooks has discovered in his practice, viewing porn teaches them to wall themselves off from too much emotional intimacy in sex and to sexualize all feelings of emotional and physical intimacy. Because their closest approximations of emotional intimacy and most intense exposure to sensual pleasure occur almost exclusively in the context of rapid-orgasm sexual activity, male adolescents learn to closely associate sex with intimacy. Many men are unable to be aroused without porn.
Kids aren't ready
to handle it'
When young men do not learn to distinguish the two sets of needs, they will be highly restricted in their capacity to develop and maintain relationships, Brooks said.
Daniel said he began to feel very uncomfortable around girls at school.
"I knew what they looked like without clothes on and wanted to have sex with them. I couldn't turn it off," he said.
Georgette Constantinou, a pediatric psychologist at Akron Children's Hospital, said viewing pornography at that age "puts boys into a constant hyper-sexualized state."
"Do you want someone who is like that baby-sitting your children or sitting next to your daughter in school?" she asked.
Some curiosity about sexuality and seeing the opposite sex naked is normal. But Brooks warned that "the nature of the sexual thinking and sexual arousal that goes with Internet pornography is unlike the normal sexual psychological cycle."
"Kids that age aren't ready to handle it psychologically because they're still in the developmental stage. They're still children," said Constantinou.
Daniel admitted he watched a video clip of a woman being murdered during sex. Patrick has watched people and animals together. Experts say such images can frighten, disgust and confuse kids.
Jensen said that often sex portrayed on the Internet is not consensual.
"Having a 14-year-old watch a 55-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl have sex, thinking that's acceptable to meet that man's needs, is very concerning," Jensen said.
"There are sounds and images that may seem like someone is emotional, when, of course, they're not. And a child doesn't have the context or maturity to make sense of all those things," said Jensen. She said children begin to think that's what sex is. And now they're seeing it at an earlier age than before.
"Your kids are seeing things they've never seen before, and whether he's masturbating or whatever he's doing, the thrills he's getting, he's got to be so confused about it. Why am I needing this?' Why do I want this so badly even when it's getting me in trouble?' " said Constantinou.
Social scientists have been unable to establish any cause-and-effect relationship between the simple viewing of pornography and negative attitudes about women or violence against women, said Michael Kimmel, professor of sociology at Stony Brook, State University of New York.
"But that doesn't mean we should stop trying to find that link because we know that obviously the things we see do have some impact on us," he said, pointing to numerous studies that link viewing violence with committing it.
But Kimmel said pornography addiction is not just a male problem. Net Trends reported that 47 percent of computer users going to explicit Web sites were 12- to 18-year-old females. Since children tend to learn sexual cues early, Kimmel said pornography trains boys to respond only to images shaped by porn stars while girls may learn that leather, submission and Brazilian bikini waxes are the keys to pleasing men.
"Looking at pornography excessively gives young men the distorted view that says, Women are so sexually voracious, so sexually aggressive, they're just constantly wanting sex, they want it all over the place, and you can't stop them,' " said Kimmel.
Watch for changes
in children, parents told
But how are parents to know? At school lunch tables, teens share secrets on how to get around the filters their parents have installed and swap their favorite sites. Constantinou advised parents to look for the following: Changes in your child's mood, excessive secretiveness, a drive or need to be on the computer.
"When it's starting to absorb their world and taking over their world, and it's more important to them than any relationship or any other person outside their home, it's gotten too big," Constantinou said.
Samad tells parents to use their intuition.
"If you have a feeling something's changed with your son or daughter, pursue it," he said. Daniel's parents have allowed him back on the computer in limited doses. Still, he admitted that every time he signs on, the draw to look at porn is overwhelming.
Patrick is still grounded from the computer. His parents disconnected their computer from the Internet. To do homework, Patrick has to do it on the school's computer.
"I still think about looking at porn every day," he said. Constantinou advises parents not to use the word "addicted."
"Addiction has this lifelong quality to it, and I don't want to pin that on a 14-year-old," she said. But then again, she said the trend is so new and research so scarce that it's impossible to know if it will be a lifelong problem or not.
Also contributing to this story was researcher Cheryl Diamond.
To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: