The Compelling Science Behind Good Pictures Bad Pictures
When I began researching how pornography harms children, I based my writing on published science–neuroscience, social science and psychological research. I used that information to support the concepts taught in Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids.
But does new research still back up everything in Good Pictures Bad Pictures?
Recently, I hired a research expert to find out. He went chapter by chapter, concept by concept and reviewed the most recent studies. The good news is that current studies continue to validate the info in Good Pictures Bad Pictures. To download a PDF of this article with even more research attached, go here.
Good Pictures Bad Pictures is the world’s foremost resource for starting protective conversations with young kids on the topic of pornography. These books give children 1) an age-appropriate definition of pornography, 2) a warning of its dangers and how porn harms the brain, and 3) a plan for rejecting it.
Our search uncovered dozens of new studies, but for today’s purposes, let’s highlight the research that backs up these three crucial concepts in Good Pictures Bad Pictures (plus one bonus about sexting):
- Pornography rewires the brain in negative ways and can lead to developing an addiction.
- Using porn can decrease self-control and erode executive functioning.
- Porn normalizes and fuels sexual violence and promotes objectification of self and others.
And not to worry, I’ve explained all of these studies in plain English–no PhD needed!
#1. Pornography is a “super stimulus” that rewires the brain in negative ways which can lead to developing an addiction
Good Pictures Bad Pictures teaches children that pornography can hurt the brain and become an actual addiction–not to scare them but to tell them the truth. Kids learn that:
“Pornography tricks the brain into releasing a big dose of chemicals...The scary thing about a pornography addiction is that the brain is tricked into making too much of its own drug!” Good Pictures Bad Pictures, 2nd Edition, p. 28
Pornography is a powerful “super-stimulus” for the brain. That means porn can easily activate and then hijack the brain’s reward system. This system is crucial to our survival (our brains consult the reward system constantly as we make decisions throughout the day), but when drugs or behaviors hijack the reward system and create intense cravings, that’s when addictions can develop.
According to research experts, pornography is unique in its ability to activate the brain’s reward system because it is a “particularly strong natural reward.” Natural rewards include food, sex and social interactions–stimuli that cause the brain to release dopamine and other feel good neurochemicals.
Sesen Nigash et al observed that “[t]he constant novelty and primacy of sexual stimuli as particularly strong natural rewards make internet pornography a unique activator of the brain’s reward system…It is therefore important to treat pornography as a unique stimulus in reward, impulsivity, and addiction studies.”
Which means that no one should underestimate the power of porn, especially if they are studying addiction.
Then there’s the unending supply of novel porn films available on the internet. Why is this important? The brain loves novelty and releases dopamine to motivate us to keep finding new stuff. For the most part, that’s a good thing. But not when it comes to the super stimulus of unending porn or social media feeds. That’s why social media can funnel you into hours of scrolling. Every time you see something new, you get a little burst of dopamine.
An addiction develops and worsens as the user finds more and more novel material to consume. The brain gets drunk on dopamine! “Give me another reel, another TikTok, another short!” When it comes to novel pornography, a super stimulus, the dopamine released keeps users intently focused on searching for more and more sexual stimuli.
One researcher used the power of functional MRI’s (fMRI) imaging to show how pornography exploits our brain's love of novelty. Using this technology, scientists can see how different parts of the brain engage and light up with different stimuli.
Dr. Valerie Voon, who did fMRI studies on porn-addicted people at Cambridge University, demonstrated that the reward systems of porn-addicted subjects lit up when shown pornography the same way drug users’ reward systems lit up when shown images of drugs.
In another study, Dr. Voon commented that “the seemingly endless supply of novel sexual images available online helps feed their addiction, making it more and more difficult to escape.”
Let’s pull it together–porn can rewire the brain and create an addiction
Pornography is a uniquely powerful stimulus that hijacks the brain’s reward system. The fact that there is an unending supply of novel or new pornography online keeps the brain gushing out dopamine to seek more and more, feeding an addiction to porn that is free, anonymous and available 24/7.
#2. Using porn can decrease self-control and erode executive functioning (in the thinking brain), even when it has not yet become compulsive or addictive
Porn is a super stimulus that stunts the ability to delay gratification. As kids mature, they normally increase in their ability to delay gratification. This ability is crucial in developing skills–for example, playing sports or learning a musical instrument, writing or being able to focus for longer periods of time on a project. It’s well established that the ability to wait for rewards sets kids up for a more successful life.
But using pornography stunts this important development and trains the brain to demand instant sexual rewards. Scientists call this inability to wait “delay discounting”--in other words, the discounting or decreasing of one’s ability to delay gratification.
A study by Sesen Negash entitled Trading Later Rewards for Current Pleasure: Pornography Consumption and Delay Discounting in the Journal of Sex Research reports:
“Internet pornography is a sexual reward that contributes to delay discounting differently than other natural rewards do, even when use is not compulsive or addictive. This research makes an important contribution, demonstrating that the effect goes beyond temporary arousal.”
In Good Pictures Bad Pictures, kids learn about the thinking brain and how it can get stronger when they make healthy choices, like turning away from pornography. Here’s how I say it in Good Pictures Bad Pictures:
“Every time you decide to make a good choice, your thinking brain becomes stronger so it can protect you from things like addiction. It’s almost like exercising a muscle–the more you work at it, the stronger it gets.”
We know how important it is for kids to learn how to wait for rewards and to overcome their desire for instant gratification. Anything, including pornography, that threatens the developing thinking brain should be avoided at all costs.
Let’s summarize–porn can hurt the thinking brain by reducing self-control
Using porn, even when it is not yet compulsive or addictive, still has a measurable effect on the brain and its ability to delay gratification. In other words, the sexual reward associated with viewing porn is unique in that it decreases the thinking brain’s ability to delay gratification–even if the use of porn has not yet become an addiction.
#3. Porn promotes objectification, negative views of women, sexually violent attitudes and causes sexually aggressive behaviors
Good Pictures Bad Pictures teaches kids that pornography changes the way you see people. Here’s how I say it in the book:
“[P]ornography teaches that a person’s body is an object to use instead of a whole person who deserves to be treated with love and respect…A lot of pornography shows people being mean and acting like it’s fun.”
Pornography teaches viewers to see others, especially women, as sexual objects that can be used and abused for one’s own pleasure. Research backs this up completely.
In fact, a review of 135 studies found that viewing porn is associated with a range of negative consequences, including:
- higher levels of body dissatisfaction,
- greater self-objectification,
- greater support of sexist beliefs and of adversarial sexual beliefs, and
- greater tolerance of sexual violence towards women.
And this is the kicker: “Experimental exposure to this content [pornography] leads both women and men to have a diminished view of women’s competence, morality, and humanity.”
Is that what you’re dreaming of for your son or daughter? I didn’t think so.
Another study from 2016, concluded that:
“Frequent exposure to… pornography predicted more objectified cognitions about women, which, in turn, predicted stronger attitudes supportive of violence against women.”
And a 2022 multinational review of studies by Bridges and Sun shows that there is good evidence that porn causes these sexually violent attitudes towards women because porn use preceded and actively shaped subsequent notions of women as sex objects.
Related: Pornography Makes People into Things
Correlation vs causation–it’s a big deal
Lots of studies can show a correlation between one thing and another. For example, there is a positive correlation between (A) ice cream sales and (B) drownings, but you can’t assume that A causes B–that eating more ice cream causes more drownings. That’s why we have to be very careful when doing and interpreting research. The holy grail of research is the ability to demonstrate causation: A causes B. In the above multi-national study, the researchers make the bold claim that porn causes violent attitudes towards women.
Do these attitudes lead to increased sexually aggressive behavior? Yes. Studies, even statistically stronger meta-analysis (combining many studies and analyzing them) show that using porn increases sexual aggression.
In a comprehensive report on the harms of pornography on children, submitted to the government of Australia, Dr. Michael Flood explained, “A new meta-analysis of pornography use and actual sexual aggression again demonstrates, reliably, indeed undeniably, that pornography use increases the likelihood of perpetrating sexual aggression. This meta-analysis – of 22 studies, from seven countries, comprising over 20,000 participants –finds consistent evidence that pornography consumption is associated with acts of sexual aggression, in both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies.”
Let’s wrap it up–pornography use can and does lead to sexual violence
Studies show that porn promotes the inhumane objectification of people’s bodies along with greater tolerance of sexual violence towards women. Porn changes attitudes and behaviors, with meta-studies showing a causal link between porn consumption and increased sexual aggression.
#4. BONUS! Pornography is associated with increased sexting and sexual risk for kids
Good Pictures Bad Pictures teaches kids that sharing nudes is unsafe:
“Every part of our body is good, including our private parts, but taking pictures of them and showing them to others is not good. It’s important for your safety to keep private parts private.”
One study reported that “the dangers [of sexting] are very real, and range from embarrassment to sexual exploitation, and even death from suicide.”
“Studies have also shown that youth involved in sexting are significantly more likely to be engaged in sexual activity, including risky behaviors such as multiple sexual partners and having unprotected sex, and that sexting-involved teens were more likely to report alcohol and drug usage, as well as more likely to report they had been forced to have sex, been assaulted by a peer, and contemplated suicide.” (Dake, et al. 2012)
Finally, a 2021 study that looked at pornography, sexism, sexting and cyberstalking in adolescents reported that kids who consume pornography are more likely to hold sexist attitudes. Experts have long decried that pornography teaches sexist, misogynistic attitudes towards women.
This study demonstrated that the more porn participants consumed, the more sexting they engaged in and the more sexist attitudes they held.
Final thoughts on sexting
Studies show that youth who sext engage in riskier sexual behaviors and hold more sexist behaviors. If you want your kids to grow up with healthy sexual attitudes and behaviors, help them decide not to engage in sexting.
Good Pictures Bad Pictures is firmly based on compelling scientific evidence that using porn is harmful
Children who use porn may experience a decrease in self-control and the ability to delay gratification–a weakening of the thinking brain. Studies using fMRI technology demonstrated that consuming porn can hijack the brain’s reward system and lead to an addiction. Finally, pornography causes sexually violent attitudes and increased sexual aggression by those who view it.
These assertions are introduced in Good Pictures Bad Pictures in age appropriate ways, but they serve to encourage parents to take the harms of porn seriously enough to proactively teach their children to reject it.
To download a PDF of this article with even more research attached, go here.
Good Pictures Bad Pictures
"I really like the no-shame approach the author takes. It's so much more than just 'don't watch or look at porn.' It gave my children a real understanding about the brain and its natural response to pornography, how it can affect you if you look at it, and how to be prepared when you do come across it (since, let's face it... it's gonna happen at some point)." -Amazon Review by D.O.