Understanding The Possible Connections Between Pornography And Depression: A Guide

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Pornography and masturbation can be common outlets for stress relief and recreation in many. However, sometimes it can feel like society has decided these things aren’t fit for discussion in the public sphere, despite the general prevalence of porn. Statistically, porn websites are thought to receive more monthly visits than other web companies (like Netflix, Twitter and Twitch.) This means that the expression and experiences are many may go invalidated, 

While many people can, and do view porn in a healthy, recreational manner, others may begin to form a negative relationship with it—which can sometimes exacerbate symptoms of depression or anxiety disorders in some. The stigma against discussing porn can then force these people to choose between the risk of social shame or healthy consumption that’s supported by a thriving therapeutic relationship. However, when these topics are examined in a non-biased, empirical way, many may find the validation they need to control their consumption or evaluate their relationship with porn in a healthy, supported context.  Below, we’ve put together a guide to possibly help give you a better understanding of what links between pornography and depression exist. We’ll also look at what it means to have a healthy relationship with pornography, how and why that relationship might become harmful to our mental health and what to do if you believe porn is creating barriers to intimacy in your life.

Can pornography use be healthy for some?

Having concerns about your porn habits?

Porn can provide some with a discreet, generally available outlet to engage and satiate their sexual desires. This is a subject that has been extensively explored by researchers around the world, many of whom have come to similar conclusions.

For example: In a 2016 study, researchers categorized porn users into three categories: recreational, distressed non-compulsive, and compulsive. We’ve summarized findings associated with each group below, noting the risk factors and notes that researchers made with each category of user. Understanding porn consumption from this empirical lens can empower viewers to make the viewing choices that are the most correct for their specific areas of need. 

Let’s look at each of these categories as we attempt to determine if pornography use can be healthy, in context:

  1. Recreational Porn Users: This study defined people who are recreational porn users as those who might have a more casual relationship with porn, generally having no problem moderating their consumption of sexual content. According to the study, this group makes up about 75% of porn users, who statistically averaged a watch time of about 24 minutes of porn per week. 

Psychologists found that the subjects in this group still self-reported high levels of satisfaction with their sex lives, did not report issues with their sexual partners (if they had them) and experienced little or no problems with sexual performance. In essence, these users—who are still regularly seeking out pornographic content—managed to maintain an equilibrium between their discreet and sex lives and were able to engage with pornographic content without experiencing significant mental health consequences.

  1. Distressed Non-compulsive Users: This was noted by researchers to be a significantly smaller demographic, statistically averaging around 12% of the profiles of porn users. Although these users actually self-reported less time viewing pornography than recreational users, that time was more heavily associated with feelings of depression or nervousness. 


These findings can validate the experiences of those who may view porn as a way to cope with specific stressors in their lives. For example: Someone struggling with sexual insecurity might seek out pornographic content to engage with something they perceive as desirable, but in the process lead themselves into negative thought patterns around porn and sex. People in this group self-reported numerically low rates of sexual satisfaction compared to recreational porn users.

However, we do want to note that members of this group were not considered to be compulsive users of pornography, meaning that they self-reported that they still feel in control of their porn usage.

  1. Compulsive Porn Users: This last group makes up about 11% of porn users and can be characterized by those whose relationship with porn has broken into the realm of addiction. For these users, the release of dopamine—a chemical that can serve as a trigger for the brain’s reward system—has become the primary motivator of their porn usage. However, much like other chemical dependencies, experiencing withdrawal can impact one’s physical and mental health. 

Per cited self-reports, people who use porn compulsively reported that they are not only sexually unsatisfied, but that they may be more likely to avoid sex with a partner. In other words, people who are experiencing a compulsive porn habit might not enjoy sex and may feel out of control of their desires.

How porn can affect depression

The study has generally shown two main points around porn use and mental health, suggesting that it is possible to use porn healthily and that our relationship with porn can be closely linked to our sexual satisfaction elsewhere in our lives. It is generally believed that porn and depression can be linked, for some. However, it’s worth noting that even if porn use may not directly cause depression, it can create an environment where symptoms of depression may arise. 

Additionally, our mindset when viewing porn can influence the effect it has on our mental health. For example: Porn users who feel that using porn is a shameful or immoral act may be more likely to experience depressive symptoms as a result. Likewise, users who approach porn use as a way to subvert feelings of loneliness or sexual dissatisfaction may find themselves experiencing negative feelings about porn usage.

How can online therapy help with porn habits and depression?

Even if using pornography isn’t necessarily a primary cause of depression for some, it can still  contribute to negative behaviors and thought patterns if used in an unhealthy way. If you’re concerned that your relationship with porn has become harmful to your mental health, finding a therapist can be one of the best options for addressing those feelings. 

Online therapy can be a helpful tool to help you to manage your feelings around porn use. People who use online therapy may appreciate the discretion it provides, as it can be difficult to discuss sexual experiences and needs in an in-person therapeutic setting. Online therapy also generally provides a higher level of flexibility when it comes to appointments, empowering you to seek support on your schedule. 

Is online therapy effective for porn addiction and depression? 

Regardless of whether you’re concerned about potential porn addiction, symptoms of depression or a mixture of both, speaking to a counselor online can be an easy and effective first step to take that can positively impact your mental health. 

Recent research suggests that counseling could support up to an 85% improvement in subjects who are experiencing addiction-adjacent porn usage, possibly yielding improved life quality and satisfaction through the use of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This is generally known as a technique that encourages patients to practice self-awareness, acknowledgement and acceptance, possibly limiting the effects of negative thought patterns. ACT has also been suggested to be as effective through online counseling services as it is in-person, which may make online therapy more appealing to some.

Takeaway

Porn can generally be used recreationally and responsibly—but, like other things in excess, it can also have a detrimental impact on our quality of life if it becomes a source of addiction. While porn use may not be considered by many to be a primary cause of depression, it’s not generally uncommon for compulsive porn use and symptoms of depression to arise in conjunction with one another. If you are concerned about your porn use, symptoms of depression or both, you may benefit from speaking with an online therapist. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.
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