Is the Internet Driving Pornography Addiction Among School-Aged Kids?

PHOTO: A boy surfs the internet in a dark room.
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Nathan Haug is an upstanding high school student, on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout. He has a high GPA, serves on the student council and swims competitively, but Haug had a secret he kept hidden from his family and friends during his early teen years -- he suffered from an addiction to online pornography.

This 17-year-old from Alpine, Utah, is one of eight children, and one of the oldest still living at home. He said his habit of looking at pornography on the Internet started when he was around 12 or 13 years old.

"It was kind of there, uninterrupted," he said. "I became almost numb to it. It became such a part of, pretty much my daily routine. It was automatic."

And Haug is far from alone. There is still little research on how many U.S. kids are addicted to online pornography, but a University of New Hampshire study reports exposure begins young, for some, as young as 8 years old.

Of course, pornography isn't new. But it's a quantum leap from a world where pornography came in magazines and on tape, to where it's available on our smartphones and tablets -- or at the click of a mouse.

Haug said he would view pornography late at night on his family's computer, when everyone else was asleep; he became good at covering his tracks.

"It got to deleting specific searches and cleaning up my messes afterwards to the point where I timed it masterfully," he said. "I'd give myself time to look at it or watch it and then I'd plan ahead of time the... time it took to completely clean the history. Sometimes I'd even search things afterwards just to make it look like someone didn't just clean it."

His private habit didn't fit into the rest of his lifestyle. Aside from being a lifeguard at the local pool and on the local club team, Haug was also active in the Mormon church, and he said the addiction hurt him.

"I felt like every day I was just incomplete, like there was just a whole chunk of me missing, like a hole in my gut," he said. "It just represented the part-- the things I was going to do and wanted to do that, because of my addiction, I wasn't able to."

Haug said he held himself back -- not fully participating in church activities or getting to know other people honestly -- because he was "trapped" by his addiction and silently suffering alone.

"Instead of lying about the actual act, it was putting on a front, putting on a mask," he said. "I convinced myself that I had to take care of the problem on my own, and I didn't think I could approach someone and get help."

The warning signs for those who become addicted may include depression, poor school performance, self-isolation and lying, which is what Haug's parents noticed, even if they didn't realize why.

"We couldn't quite figure out why because as far as we could see there wasn't anything amiss in his life," Judy Haug said. "It seemed silly to me. I would catch him in a lie. ... It just, it seemed unnecessary, but I could tell it had become a habit."

While the American Psychological Association has not yet classified pornography as a listed addiction, some professionals working in the field are treating it as such. Psychotherapist Matt Bulkley in Saint George, Utah, treats teenagers exclusively, some of whom have committed sexual offenses and some who are just hooked.

"A lot of times the pornography becomes a coping style," Bulkley said. "It becomes a way that they deal with negative emotions in their life, pornography provides a euphoria. It provides a high, of sorts."

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