Wall Street Journal Purports to Explain 'Porn and the Teen Brain'

Wall Street Journal Purports to Explain 'Porn and the Teen Brain'

NEW YORK — The Wall Street Journal published a column over the weekend purporting to reveal “what porn does to teen brains.”

The article, by the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper’s “Family & Tech” reporter Julie Jargon, attempts to stake out a middle ground between “porn addiction” panic pieces that frequently appear in mainstream publications, and a more balanced approach that explains some of the actual science behind compulsive behavior in general.

The title of Jargon’s article, “What Porn Does to Teen Brains and How to Keep It Off Their Devices,” appears to reference debunked pseudoscience. While she stops short of endorsing such controversial views, Jargon does quote a 2014 study by Cambridge University researcher Valerie Voon that concluded, “When shown pornographic images, the men’s brain activity mirrored that of drug addicts who were shown photos of drugs.”

She seems to buy into the “addiction” argument, writing, “Imagine a 24-hour candy store where kids could gorge on sugar, without parents there to stop them ... what can such readily available porn do to kids’ brains?" and claiming that research shows “younger people’s brains are more wired for pleasure than adults, with higher spikes of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine released in anticipation of enjoyable activities ... Because of this, many researchers believe young people are more vulnerable to compulsive porn use, which can lead to unrealistic views on sex."

However, Jargon veers away from the standard “porn addiction” panic narrative by clearly stating that “psychologists say it’s important to talk to kids about porn without making them feel ashamed. Some exposure to it can be a natural part of development, they say, and porn shouldn’t be shunned in a way that creates a taboo. They do, however, recommend using tech guardrails to reduce the chances that younger kids see things they’re not ready to see.”

Jargon even quotes researcher Nicole Prause, who persuasively argues that “if we shut down conversations and say, ‘Don’t watch porn, and if you do, it’s an addiction and it will rot your brain,’ that’s terrifying ... It’s some of the messaging that’s making it worse.” 

A Study Hijacked by the 'Fight Porn Addiction' Industry

Jargon omitted key elements of the 2014 Valerie Voon study, which clearly illustrate its misuse by the lucrative “fight porn addiction” industry.

"The upshot of Voon’s study is that there could be a shared brain network associated with many compulsive disorders, regardless of whether they involve consumption of drugs or more 'natural' rewards such as sex," The Guardian’s science reporter Chris Chambers pointed out in 2014.

“Do these results mean that compulsive viewing of pornography is an addiction like dependence on cocaine or heroine?” Chambers asked. “No, and Voon is keen to emphasize this point in both the published article and the press release issued by Cambridge University. Addiction can’t be diagnosed with a brain scan.”

Noting that mainstream psychiatry still doesn’t know enough about compulsive sexual behavior to label it as an addiction, Chambers praised Voon for producing a nuanced report that explicitly discourages the kind of generalizations and fault causation regularly trotted out by anti-porn crusaders.

“Do the results tell us that online pornography itself is addictive like a drug?” Chambers asked. “No. Do they say anything at all about the non-compulsive viewing of pornography? No. Do they allow us to conclude that pornography ‘damages’ or ‘changes’ the brain in any harmful way? No.”

We cannot draw strong conclusions, he noted, from a single study that tested only a small number of men.

Nevertheless, another Rupert Murdoch publication, the New York Post, yesterday rehashed Jargon’s Wall Street Journal piece — but crucially re-inserted the kind of “porn addiction” propaganda that the financial daily shied away from.

“Children and teenagers who are exposed to pornography online are more likely to develop an addiction to smut than adults, according to researchers,” wrote the New York Post’s Ariel Zilber.

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