Let’s begin with what should be an obvious point: there is no exclusive, causative correlation between viewing pornography and poor mental health. Meaning there are many individuals who do not view pornography and have mental health struggles. Further, it would be entirely inappropriate to work backwards from a mental health struggle to deduce that it is caused by the viewing of pornography.
The question this post poses – how does viewing pornography impact someone’s mental health? – is a contributive question, not a causative one. We want to consider, does the habit of viewing pornography add to or detract from the quality of someone’s mental health?
A second clarification is also needed. This post is not trying to make a moral argument (implying that pornography is wrong because it has a negative impact on mental health). Wrongness is determined by whether an action aligns with God’s character and design. That is a more important, but separate, issue from the question of this article. An action can be immoral and have no negative mental health effects. As far as we know, taking the Lord’s name in vain (violating the third of the Ten Commandments; Exodus 20:7) does not have any negative mental health effects.
An intended benefit from this reflection is the realization that God’s abstain for lust-based entertainment (Matthew 5:27-30) is an act of love; a means of protection intended to promote our flourishing, not a means of punishment to deprive us from something good. Too often the view we have of God as we think about pornography is as Him being against us and our joy instead of for us and our flourishing.
Now to the title of this post: What are six ways that pornography affects our mental health? Each of the affects below is a common “side effect,” if you will, of viewing pornography that has a negative influence on mental health. The degree of impact each point has on a given individual will vary from person to person for a variety of reasons.
No one feels as if viewing pornography is noble. Yes, there are teenagers who believe viewing pornography is “grown up” and may brag about it, or older individuals who view it as “necessary” or “common” and downplay the unrest in their soul. But no one feels like they have done a “virtuous-honoring thing” when they finish viewing pornography.
The result is a sense of guilt – an innate sense that what was done was bad. Guilt is produces a decline in mental health and the physiological changes from guilt in the brain can be neurologically demonstrated.
For a highly habituated activity like viewing pornography the options are clear: (a) turn off or dull the conscience to remove the sense of guilt, or (b) abstain from the guilt-provoking activity. The first option only further contributes to other choices that would further deteriorate mental health.
2. Social Distance / Shame
The first point has to do with a sense of distance in our relationship with God. This point emphasizes the impact on our social relationships.
A common experience of viewing pornography is carrying a secret. Secrets create distance. We are left wondering “what would you think of me if you knew.” The result is that even our closest friendships begin to feel superficial or fake.
The depth and quality of our friendships are a significant factor in our mental health. Activities that lower the quality or number of our friendships have a negative influence on our mental health.
3. Crude-Depersonalizing Socialization
People (i.e., actors or models) in pornography are not people to the viewer; they are a collection of features or objects of satisfaction. In a pornographic world people are not heard, assisted, and love. People are evaluated, ranked, and consumed. When hours are spent immersed in this world, these values begin to seep in.
The logic is pretty clear, “If that is what I’m doing with everyone else, it must be what everyone else is doing with me. If I don’t rank, I don’t matter. I must associate with people who rank higher than I do, in order to improve my rank. Life is a sport and there are far more losers than winners.”
The result is that it becomes increasingly difficult to see individuals as people with innate value. Instead, people are a collection of assets (height, weight, complexion, humor, power, etc…) each of which can be added together to determine their value. Living under this pressure and/or treating people this way has negative impact on one’s mental health.
4. Avoiding Unpleasant Emotions
One of the primary motives for viewing pornography is to reduce or relieve stress. A passive approach to stress management results in an under-developed capacity for managing unpleasant emotions. The less equipped we are to withstand unpleasant emotions, the more overwhelming each experience of anxiety, depression, or other distress becomes.
Add to this the idyllic narratives that are pervasive in pornographic material (the viewer always identifying with the central, pursued character) and the person who regularly views pornography is further conditioned to believe that the day-to-day, normal conflict in life and relationships are unbearable.
One important measure of mental health is our capacity to be resilient in the midst of unpleasant emotions or circumstances. Pornography detracts from this capacity both by serving as an escape from healthily processing unpleasant emotions and reinforcing the belief that these stresses should not exist.
5. Hyper-Multi-Sensory Stimulation
Mindfulness – the ability to willfully focus one’s attention during adverse circumstances – is a significant contributor to mental health. Pornography is nearly the complete opposite of mindfulness.
Pornography uses sound, site, and tactile sensation to pull an individual from their actual world into an artificial, fantasy world. Combining multiple senses with an enticing narrative makes it increasingly difficult for less stimulating activities (which is most of life) to hold an individual’s attention.
If the previous point was about unpleasant emotions, this point goes further; now merely unstimulating activities are increasingly difficult to meaningfully engage for an extended period of time.
Consider how much of basic life management (i.e., budgeting, staying on schedule, honoring commitments, asking good questions in a mundane conversation, etc…) become difficult when we condition ourselves to avoid unpleasant emotions and mundane tasks. Then consider how doing a poor job at basic life management tasks negatively impacts one’s mental health.
6. Time Lost to Constructive Activities
The final point is more about what pornography prevents (indirect impact) that what it does (direct impact). Time spent viewing pornography is time not spent doing something more constructive (i.e., investing in hobby, talking to a friend, exercise, reading a book, etc…).
The more we invest in things that are meaningful and substantive the better our mental health will be. Pornography robs many people of their hours in their week when they would invest in these constructive pursuits and gives them nothing in return.
The more we engage in pornography the less time we have for good mental health habits.
Based on these observations it would make sense that an individual wanting to be a good steward of his/her mental health would abstain from viewing pornography. As you read through this list, the question you should ask yourself is, “When I have viewed pornography which of these affects have been most pronounced in my life?” The answer to this question should add to your motivation to honor God not only by abstaining from pornography but pursuing those things that would contribute to your purity AND your mental health.
This article was originally posted at Covenant Eyes on May 10, 2018.
If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Pornography” post which address other facets of this subject.
A recommendation for anyone struggling with pornography is to install internet accountability software on all of your electronic devices. An excellent provider of this software is Covenant Eyes. Their ministry provides a many articles, for which I am a frequent contributor, for you continued growth and encouragement