Teens, by nature, are curious about sex, often to an extreme. Thus, it can be difficult to separate normal adolescent sexual behaviors from addiction. That said, teens absolutely can be sex addicts. In fact, as the internet has provided increased access to sexual content and contacts, therapists have seen an equal if not larger increase in adolescent sexual addiction. Basically, kids now have access to all sorts of hyper-intense sexual stimulation that their parents were not exposed to, and at least a few of them are getting hooked.
In the last year or two, not a week has passed without me hearing from another therapist or a distraught parent asking for advice about dealing with a sexually compulsive minor. Typically, the first thing I have to talk about is the difference between normal teen behaviors and addiction. For instance, a boy who masturbates to pornography most nights of the week without a negative impact on his grades, his socialization, or any other important aspect of his life is probably not addicted, regardless of how his parents feel about his online behavior. If, however, he’s masturbating to porn for many hours per day, his grades have fallen off a cliff, and he is no longer interacting with peers in a healthy way, he may have an issue with sexual compulsivity.
In general, warning signs of adolescent sexual addiction include:
- Increasing amounts of time spent with porn, sexualized online chats, etc., often multiple hours per day
- Problems at school (grades, bad behavior, etc.)
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities and hobbies
- Social and emotional isolation
- Depression, anxiety, irritability, and the like
- Excessive interest (or a total lack of interest) in dating
- Secretive use of digital devices – wiping browser histories, clearing text and call logs, hiding social media accounts, etc.
- Lying and/or secrecy about where/when/how they spend their time
- Inappropriate sexual and/or romantic activity (aggression, age-inappropriate, incestuous, etc.)
Of course, several of these signs could be classified as normal when dealing with adolescents. What we’re really looking for is an ongoing obsession with sex, an inability to quit or cut back (which may look more like unwillingness), plus increasing life problems and consequences. If these issues consistently manifest over a period of six months or more, sexual addiction may be the culprit.
When it comes to adolescent sexual addiction, boys seem to be more vulnerable than girls. For the most part, young males are getting hooked on digital pornography. That said, as with alcohol and recreational drugs, most teens can experiment with porn and other forms of digital sexuality without becoming addicted or experiencing undue consequences. But some do get hooked, the same as some get hooked on addictive substances.
For evidence of this, we need look no further than the popular online forum, YourBrainOnPorn.com. On YBOP teen boys routinely post comments like:
- I started watching porn at ten and masturbating soon after, several times a day for the last three years until I tried to quit, mostly because of anxiety, depression, and feeling dead inside. The fact that I can’t seem to quit for more than a week just makes me feel worse. I don’t know what to do.
- I’m having weird fetishes and I don’t like where my sex life is going. But I can’t seem to stop. I quit for a day or two, but then I’m right back at it. I think I might be addicted.
Girls can also struggle with sexual addiction, though it doesn’t seem to occur as often, and typically they’re hooked on romance and relationships as opposed to purely sexual activities. As such, adolescent girls are less likely to get hooked on hardcore porn and more likely to get hooked on video chat, social media flirting, and dating/hookup websites. Otherwise the general warning signs, as listed above, are the same.
Sadly, adolescent sex addicts can develop serious long-term problems if their addictive issues are not addressed. Put very simply, the supernormal stimulus of porn (or any other form of hyper-intense sexuality) diverts normal teen development, resulting in delayed or nonexistent social skills when it comes to healthy dating, healthy sex, healthy relationships, and experiencing intimacy later in life. For instance, when a 14-year-old boy with no sexual or romantic experience is exposed to and becomes compulsive with hardcore porn, that’s what his view of adult relationships is likely to become, and this will almost certainly create problems down the line if/when he wants to have a real world romance.
Before concluding, I think it is important to reiterate the fact that most kids do not become sexually addicted. Moreover, online sexuality is in today’s increasingly digital universe a new normal part of adolescent sexual development. Parents (and clinicians) need to accept this fact, and also the fact that they can’t protect young people from accessing online sexual content and contacts. (Even filtering and monitoring software products are not infallible.) Therefore, as it is with drugs and alcohol and other potential dangers, the best thing adults can do, if they’re worried about an adolescent’s sexual behaviors (online or real world), is talk with their child in a nonjudgmental way about all aspects of teen sexuality, including porn, sexting, chat rooms, hookup apps, social media, and the like.
If an adolescent’s sexual behaviors seem obsessive and out of control, with increasing levels of negative consequences, it may be wise to seek assistance from an adolescent sexual addiction treatment specialist. Beyond that, however, teen sexuality, like other parent-child issues, is best handled with mutual boundary setting between adults and kids.
For more information about sexual addiction, check out my recently published books, Sex Addiction 101 and Sex Addiction 101, The Workbook. If you feel you need clinical assistance with sex addiction, therapist and treatment referrals can be found here and here. I also conduct an open-ended discussion about sex addiction at InTheRooms.com, Friday nights at 6 p.m. PST.