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“Before you marry a person, you should first make them use a computer with slow internet service to see who they really are.”
– Will Ferrell  
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  Volume No. 16 Issue No. 2 February 2019  

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  Child pornography and the young brain
  By Lindsey Harrison

   Ten percent of people who visit pornography sites online are younger than 10 years old. The average age of a person’s first exposure to pornography is 11.
   
   The first statistic was cited in a study conducted by Bitdefender and posted online Sept. 20, 2016, at http://hotforsecurity.bitdefender.com. A “Huffington Post” article from Feb. 26, 2017, “Parenting in the Digital Age of Pornography,” referenced the second statistic.
   
   Dr. George Athey, a board certified child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist with Peak Vista Community Health Centers, said the pornography industry is one of the most lucrative industries on the internet, and the prevalence of pornographic material means kids are more likely than ever to be exposed to it, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
   
   “You can try typing in something innocuous like ‘whitehouse.com’ looking for information about the government, but it takes you to a porn site,” Athey said.
   
   He said even one exposure of online pornography is a big deal. “From about 11 to 15 years old, the teenage brain is developing in the very areas that make them the most sensitive to becoming addicted to things,” Athey said. “We do not want kids being turned on sexually and emotionally by sexual content at 11 years old.”
   
   According to a PowerPoint presentation by Dr. Jennifer Brown posted on the Utah Coalition Against Pornography’s website, when children are exposed to sexually explicit images, their bodies go into the “fight-or-flight” stress response. The stress response releases the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine and the hormones cortisol, norepinephrine and testosterone.
   
   In the presentation, Brown said, “Stress neurotransmitters and hormones inhibit the prefrontal cortex and stimulate the basal ganglia. With the basal ganglia in charge, the individual becomes more compulsive and driven by immediate gratification. They essentially become more like animals driven by reward stimulation.”
   
   Kim Boyd, Ph.D., director of community care for El Paso County Colorado School District 49 and licensed clinical and school psychologist, said the young developing brain is so susceptible to those surges that, when they view pornographic materials, it can actually change their brain.
   
   Once a kid’s brain is stimulated –- or turned on –- by sexual material like pornography, they cannot turn that off again, she said. “They become quickly addicted and then their addiction has them looking for more hardcore types of things,” Boyd said. “It is kind of like an opioid addiction. They find the content that they normally look for but it no longer works for them, and the normal thing to trigger a sexual response is not enough to trigger that anymore.”
   
   Athey said the brain changes with each exposure to an addictive stimulus such as pornography. Like drug addicts, pornography addicts are always trying to get that same “high” they got from that first exposure, and they never will. “It takes something more stimulating each time because the brain has changed and they cannot get the same feeling with the usual amount,” he said. “It always has to escalate.”
   
   On July 19, 2013, the “Journal of Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology” published an article, “Pornography addiction –- a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity,” that also discussed addiction. Pornography … alters a brain’s makeup at the synaptic level, which then manipulates future behavior, leading a person to engage in that addictive behavior again and again.
   
   Boyd said society has normalized the concept of viewing pornography to the point where kids begin to think everyone does this, which is not true. When it appears to be normal behavior for adults, kids begin to think it should be normal for them, too, she said.
   
   However, the content of most pornographic material is far from normal, Boyd said. “Porn depicts relationships in an absolutely distorted manner, and the relationships these kids have with both the same and opposite sexes can be seriously damaged,” she said. “After a child has run their way through viewing pornographic material, they may escalate to trying to act out these scenarios or situations and do not have the understanding and forethought to deal with those consequences.”
   
   Athey agreed that the normalization of inappropriate sexual activity has become a huge problem. He said most pornography out there is not normal sexuality; it is abuse of women. If that type of behavior is what kids learn at an early age, it negatively changes the way they view sex; and they are more likely to engage in abusive sexual behavior, he said.
   
   “I have run a program for kids who have been sexually abused; and, of those kids, many of them also then become sexual perpetrators,” Athey said. This can become a vicious cycle because sexual abusers are often being fueled by pornography, he said.
   
   According to a study conducted in 2010 by the Center for Innovative Public Health Research, while exposure to violent pornography does not necessarily cause sexual aggression, kids and teens who look at violent pornography are six times more likely to force someone to do something sexual, either online or in person, compared to kids and teens who had not been exposed to such material.
   
   Athey said this type of aggressive behavior can show up when a child pressures another to send sexual content via smartphone, which is known as sexting. “It is mainly girls who are kind of pressured into sending sexual pictures of themselves to somebody,” he said. “There is really an abuse potential in it because they are being pressured in a negative way to do things they should not do and know they should not do.”
   
   Sexting images are often used to blackmail the person in the photograph, or the images are sent to people other than the intended recipient, Athey said. However, many kids and teens do not know that sharing sexual content of a person under the age of 18 is illegal in Colorado, even if the person in the picture is the person sending the text, he said. Anyone found in possession of those images is in violation of the law because it is considered child pornography, Athey said.
   
   Matt Graff, a diversion officer with the El Paso County District Attorney’s office, said consequences for possession of pornography vary. “The offense can be considered a petty offense civil infraction all the way up to a felony in extraordinary circumstances,” Graff said. “Some of these kids do not have a clue that it is illegal.”
   
   Being charged with possession of child pornography has potentially life-long consequences, such as having to register with the state as a sex offender, but EPC has developed an educational diversion program that is used as a first line of response for someone caught sexting, Graff said. The program, which is held the first Monday of every month, addresses internet safety, sexting and cyber bullying; and features a presentation developed by the National Center for Exploited Children, he said.
   
   “It is ultimately up to the prosecutors if they want to charge someone with possession of child pornography,” Graff said. “When we can, however, the diversion program is what we want to do with these kids if we are not seeing other concerning circumstances.”
   
   Both Athey and Boyd agreed that parents who are concerned their child has been exposed to pornography or is involved in sexting should seek the help of a mental health professional.
   Information and resources to seek help for pornography addiction can be found online at various websites, including http://fightthenewdrug.org,
   
   The internet safety video through the NCMEC can be found at http:/missingkids.com.
  
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