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

PHOTO: A boy surfs the internet in a dark room.PlayGetty Images
WATCH Generation XXX: Teens Addicted to Porn?

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."

Bulkley estimated that in the next five to 10 years, as the next generation moves into adolescence, online pornography addiction will become an epidemic.

Some studies show that seven out of 10 teens have been accidentally exposed to pornography online. Boys are more likely to view it, but more girls are getting hooked too. Breanne Saldivar, a 22-year-old from Austin, Texas, said she was addicted to looking at pornography on the Internet during all of her high school years.

"It tore me up on the inside that I could be talking to someone one moment and know this thing that's going on in my life," she said. "I started to isolate myself, because I hated what I was doing. I hated that I couldn't stop."

Like Haug, Saldivar said she first looked at pornography online around age 12 or 13, but within a few years, she was hooked and didn't understand why.

"I had no idea it was addictive," she said. "I would say that this is something that was not just me. I knew tons of students who were in my grade, my peers, who were struggling with the same thing."

Saldivar and Haug now work with a group called "Fight the New Drug," which is formulating a new kind of message on pornography. The group travels to schools across the country to teach students that finding images of sex a turn-on is not bad or weird, but normal, which is how it gets dangerous.

It's a discussion of brain chemistry: Viewing pornography is like pushing a button in the brain that releases four pleasure-inducing chemicals -- so you feel good. But here's the catch. The more chemicals released -- the more you want. It's a cycle, and it can get beyond your control. Your brain starts needing even-raunchier images to achieve the same high and it's hard to stop.

Clay Olson, one of the founders of Fight the New Drug, said he experienced pornography addiction in his own family. His message is to try to de-stigmatize the habit enough so that kids who are hooked will still seek help.

"After, pretty much, every assembly we do, I have probably two or three, sometimes four, different teenagers coming up to me and telling me their story of how they are currently addicted," Olson said.

Saldivar added, "All it takes is for someone to be vocal about a situation and that person who knows they're struggling and see it and say 'I am addicted, this is an addiction.'"

After finding the courage to talk with his father and a church leader, Nathan Haug got help and began a program the church designed. Almost a year later, Haug said he no longer feels trapped and is now putting himself out there to help other kids not feel so alone.

"I know there will be someone out there in my life, maybe I'll run into them, maybe I won't, and they'll have this attitude -- they'll maybe tease me," Haug said. "But it's not up to me to care, because, for all I know, they're suffering from the same problem."