As mentioned in my previous posting to this site, all age groups are affected by the tech-connect boom and the nearly endless array of sexual stimulation it provides. Generally speaking, adolescents are no more or less vulnerable than adults to the escapist allure of digital sexuality. And while most young people are able to experiment with porn, video chat and friend finder apps without any lingering effects, just as most young people are able to experiment with alcohol and/or illicit drugs without becoming addicted, at least a few teens are getting lost in the online sexual wonderland – compulsively indulging sexual fantasies and behaviors via pornography, virtual sex games, sexting, video chat services, hookup apps and more.
It is difficult to know how many adolescents are being adversely affected by the anonymous and affordable access to sexuality provided by the Internet and related technologies, simply because credible research into adolescent sexuality is sparse at best. For starters, nobody wants to intentionally expose young people to sexually explicit imagery and acts just to see how that affects their emotional and psychological development. Plus, teens who seek sexual imagery and activity on their own tend to keep what they’re doing (or at least parts of what they are doing) a secret from parents, friends, authority figures, and most likely researchers, too. For the most part, the best research that we can hope for when it comes to adolescents and sexual addiction are after-the-fact studies of self-identified sex addicts, asking them when they starting using and why, and how their addiction developed and escalated. And even this research is probably a decade or more down the line because the online sexual explosion – the driving force behind nearly all current sexual addictions – only began in earnest a few years ago with the advent of smartphones, sexting, user-generated porn, free porn sites, video chat services, hookup apps and the like.
Nevertheless, there is no denying that some adolescents do end up addicted to online porn and other sexnologies. In fact, hardly a week goes by when I’m not contacted by phone or email about treatment for a sexually addicted adolescent. For the most part, the advice I give is relatively straightforward: Adolescent sex addicts typically respond to the same treatment modalities that have proven effective with adult sexual addicts – cognitive behavioral therapy (and/or other highly directive forms of therapy) coupled with psychoeducation, group therapy, social learning, and twelve step work. Unfortunately, at this time there are no specialized inpatient facilities for adolescent sexual addicts, meaning 24/7 treatment environments, which are often incredibly effective with adults, are off the table. Even group therapy and twelve step involvement can be complicated by an adolescent client’s age.
Making matters even more difficult is the fact that young people and their families are sometimes very uncomfortable when it comes to talking openly and honestly about sexual issues. One thing a therapist can do in such situations is to open up a nonjudgmental dialog about what is really happening in the child’s life, both in-person and online. This may require sessions with the parents/family first, without the identified addict, helping these supporters to work through their own issues about pornography and sexuality before confronting the adolescent.
It is important that everyone involved in the adolescent’s treatment process understands that the teen may not be sexually addicted. The simple truth is that teens naturally experiment with sexual fantasy and behaviors. Sometimes they even do so in problematic ways with negative consequences. For an addiction diagnosis, however, the activity must be obsessive in nature, out of control (the individual engages in it compulsively and can’t stop, even if he or she really tries), and causing directly related life problems (relationship issues, trouble in school, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, etc.)
If an adolescent does qualify as sexually addicted, he or she should be confronted in a loving way, with family members presenting factual information in terms of what behaviors concern them and why. “For the last six months, you have locked yourself in your room every night for at least three hours, and you don’t respond if we knock on the door. Your grades have fallen off a cliff. You have lost touch with your friends. There are thousands of porn images on your phone, and you’ve gotten trouble at school for looking at them while other people can see what you’re doing.” Etc.
Once confronted, the adolescent will hopefully respond in positive ways, indicating a willingness to comply with treatment. Even if the teen denies what is happening and refuses to participate in the process of getting well, parents and siblings need not cosign his or her behavior. One thing parents can do is install filtering and accountability software on the child’s digital devices. These programs can help to shield young people from inappropriate images and interactions. (Annually updated reviews of these products can be found on my website.) Of note: Even the best filtering and accountability software products are not foolproof. A determined, resourceful and tech-savvy teenager can eventually find ways to circumvent any restriction. Or they can access the internet at the library, on friend’s devices or on devices they purchase and use in secret. As such, these products should not be viewed as enforcers of compliance; instead, they should be looked at as tools of parenting that can help a troubled teen avoid problematic websites and apps.
Before parents install a filtering and accountability software on a sex addicted adolescent’s digital devices, the child should be told that they are doing this. Parents can explain that they are using blocking and monitoring software not to embarrass the teen, but because they care about what he or she does online, and they want to ensure his or her safety.
Most of all, parents need to fully understand that they can’t get well for their child. Ultimately, the decision to change problematic behaviors is up to the addict. Of course, an open-ended, honest, nonjudgmental parent-child dialog is always helpful – if the teen will participate. Peer support is also incredibly helpful for recovering adolescent sexual addicts, if and when such support can be found.
As a therapist, if you are not comfortable treating an adolescent with sexual issues (addictive or otherwise), it is best to refer your client to someone who is. Unfortunately, there are very few therapists trained in the treatment of adolescent sexuality. The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health and the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals are usually the best sources for referrals.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is the author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.