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Porn and video games: more hysteria about ‘rewiring brains’

11 May 2015

11:00 PM

11 May 2015

11:00 PM

Here we go again. What effect do you think watching porn and video games have on young men? Yup, they rewire the brain.

It’s such a clumsy metaphor – the brain isn’t ‘wired’ in any meaningful sense – that you’d think psychologists and neuroscientists would run a mile from it. Unless, of course they’re Baroness Greenfield, who is a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. She was director of the Royal Institution until her post was abolished in 2010, ‘amid claims that there was almost no other way to get rid of her’ (thank you, Wikipedia).

Susan Greenfield’s evidence-light claims about the neurological dangers of digital technology have exposed her to much mockery in the scientific community – I recommend this Guardian article that offers a ‘handy guide to writing your own Susan Greenfield article that will be indistinguishable from the real thing’.


Now the Independent has run a piece under the headline: ‘Porn and video game addiction leading to ‘masculinity crisis’, says Stanford prison experiment psychologist’. Step forward Phillip Zimbardo, whose experiment asked students to play the roles of guards and prisoners and had to be cut short because the ‘guards’ were turning into sadists. That was in 1971. Just saying.

Anyway, Zimbardo identifies World of Warcraft (it’s always World of Warcraft) as an ‘addictive’ video game. He’s also alarmed that, thanks to watching pornography, ‘young boys who should be virile are now having a problem getting an erection. This he attributes to porn-induced erectile dysfunction, or PIED, which the Indy admits is a ‘disputed phenomenon’.

You bet it’s disputed. The article links to, but does not quote, a post by the clinical psychologist Dr David Ley in Psychology Today. He points out that ‘a review of Pubmed, the largest online database of medical literature, reveals that there is not a single published study linking pornography and erectile dysfunction’. He adds:

It is frankly surprising to many of us that one quarter to one third of young men may experience erectile dysfunction. But, I think that the surprise about these rates is likely tied to the fact that throughout history, this wasn’t something that was researched, or disclosed by young men. So, any report of ED in young men is surprising, because we have long believed that this just doesn’t happen to young men.

Do read the whole of Ley’s piece. I’m not saying some young men don’t have trouble getting it up because they’ve watched too much porn, and that the ultra-realistic nature of digital pornography can’t mess up boys’ sexual encounters with real, imperfect and not insatiably submissive girls. Also, both porn and war games can turn into addictions – in the loose sense of the word, which is the only satisfactory one, since addiction is not a disease.

I once wrote a book about addiction in which – I can’t be bothered to check – I may have been naive enough to use the same imagery as Lady Greenfield. But it makes me wince to read Prof Zimbardo, as quoted in the Independent: ‘What I’m saying is – boys’ brains are becoming digitally rewired‘ (my despairing emphasis). This is the sort of dumbing-down we expect of tabloid ‘medical correspondents’, not an emeritus professor of Stanford University.

 

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