Although research on the effects of young people’s use of sexually explicit Internet material has grown steadily over the past years, knowledge on compulsive use of this type of online content among adolescents is largely lacking. Researchers and clinicians have pointed out that compulsive sex-related online behavior during adolescence may have serious and enduring implications throughout development. For example, many adult diagnosed sex addicts have reported that their acting out sexual behavior started in preadolescence or adolescence—often with an excessive interest in pornography (Cooper et al. 1999
; Sussman 2007
). Therefore, identifying the factors that are associated with a heightened vulnerability for developing tendencies of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material during adolescence is vital. The aim of this study was to investigate how factors from three distinct psychosocial domains (i.e., psychological well-being, sexual interests/behaviors, and impulsive-psychopathic personality) predicted symptoms of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material among adolescent boys.
Psychosocial Factors Predicting Boys’ Symptoms of Compulsive Use of Sexually Explicit Internet Material
As expected, most users of sexually explicit Internet material in our sample of Dutch male adolescents did not report any compulsive tendencies related to their use. Nonetheless, a small group of boys (i.e., between 4.2 and 11.2 %) did experience compulsive use symptoms on an occasional basis. Results of our cross-sectional analyses showed that lower levels of global self-esteem and higher levels of excessive sexual interest predicted boys’ symptoms of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material. Furthermore, longitudinal analyses indicated that higher levels of depressive feelings and, again, excessive sexual interest predicted relatively higher scores on boys’ symptoms of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material 6 months later, with the former being the most consistent predictor. Interestingly, global self-esteem and depression appeared as significant predictors in separate analyses. It should be noted, though, that these factors were strongly interrelated. Therefore, the non-significance of global self-esteem in the longitudinal analyses and the non-significance of depression in the concurrent analyses do not imply that these factors are unimportant predictors. Rather, low global self-esteem and depressive feelings may both be manifestations of a deeper rooted negative affective state. Impulsive and psychopathic personality traits, which were significantly associated with compulsive use symptoms in bivariate analyses, were no unique predictors when included in the multivariate regression models.
These findings support notions from the literature, as well as the hypothesis of this study, that different psychosocial domains are involved in the development of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material (e.g., Cooper et al. 1999
; Nower and Blaszczynski 2004
). First, consistent with assumptions of the Pathways Model (Nower and Blaszczynski 2004
) and findings among adult cybersex users (Cooper et al. 2004
), our results demonstrate that adolescent boys characterized by lower psychological well-being are at increased risk for progressing to problematic use of sexually explicit Internet material. Prior studies have repeatedly linked frequent and/or compulsive use of (online) sexual content to psychological distress (e.g., Cooper et al. 2004
; Delmonico and Griffin 2008
; Grubbs et al. 2015
; Sussman 2007
). Although their designs precluded an examination of the causal direction of this relation, many of these studies have suggested that individuals suffering from poor psychological well-being may use online sexual content as a coping mechanism or a way of relieving their dysphoria. Our longitudinal analyses offer preliminary support for this idea by showing that higher levels of depression predicted relative increases in boys’ symptoms of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material 6 months later. This finding may indicate that boys experiencing depressive or anxious feelings turn to this material in an attempt to escape from or diminish their negative affective states; yet, in doing so, they develop additional problems. However, it is also possible that poor psychological well-being and compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material are reciprocally related and reinforce each other over time. For example, compulsive users of sexually explicit Internet material may experience feelings of depression and diminished self-esteem as they notice the adverse consequences of their use, which, in turn, may lead to further increases in their use to cope with their emotional distress (Cooper et al. 1999
). More longitudinal research using cross-lagged panel designs is needed to establish the direction of these relations and inform treatment programs for both emotional problems and compulsive sex-related Internet use.
Second, our results indicate that adolescent boys with excessive sexual interest are at increased risk for developing tendencies of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material. The conceptualization of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material as a technological variant of hypersexual behavior or sex addiction has been a topic of debate (Griffith 2004
; Ross et al. 2012
), and although some studies indeed showed that self-reported high sexual desire was the strongest predictor of problematic use of such material (Svedin et al. 2011
; Twohig et al. 2009
), others found no relationship between this phenomenon and sexuality-related variables (Ross et al. 2012
). These inconsistent findings may be explained by Cooper et al.’s (1999
) theoretical distinction between emotionally-vulnerable (i.e., often no history of sexual problems) and sexually compulsive (i.e., characterized by sexual problems/acting out sexual behavior) subtypes of Internet users. That is, excessive sexual interest may be the underlying problem for some, but not all compulsive users of sexually explicit Internet material. Although the analytical design of our data did not allow us to empirically identify different subtypes, our results partly support the distinction proposed by Cooper et al. (1999
), by showing that both global self-esteem and excessive sexual interest remained significant concurrent predictors of symptoms of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material when jointly considered. It should be noted that in the longitudinal analyses the statistical significance of excessive sexual interest did disappear when modeled together with depression; however, this finding may likely be explained by the fact that prior symptoms of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material (at T1
) had already explained a considerable proportion of variance, leaving a smaller amount of variance to be explained by the psychosocial factors. Longitudinal and person-centered approaches, such as latent class growth analysis, would be useful to elucidate the processes involved in the development of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material in potentially distinct subtypes of young users. Knowledge on different subtypes of young compulsive users and their unique characteristics and etiology may guide health professionals by improving the early identification of at-risk youth and the development of tailored prevention and intervention efforts.
Our results provide little empirical support for the role of impulsive and psychopathic personality traits in the development of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material among adolescent boys. A possible explanation for the lack of findings with respect to this domain is that using sexually explicit Internet material—generally a solitary behavior that occurs in privacy behind a screen—has relatively few immediate and concrete effects, such as monetary gains or losses (e.g., as a consequence of gambling), intoxication (e.g., as a consequence of substance use), or status gains (e.g., in peer contexts). As such, though sexually stimulating, sexually explicit Internet material may not offer the type of sensation or excitement that individuals high in impulsivity may specifically pursue. Instead, youth high in impulsivity or psychopathy may be more likely to seek opportunities to engage in offline sexual behavior with more possibilities for immediate gratification; an idea substantiated by our data showing significant positive associations between impulsivity and interpersonal psychopathic traits and boys’ experience with sexual behavior. In other words, it may be that Nower and Blaszczynski’s (2004
) antisocial-impulsivist pathway is one specific to “high gain/high loss” behaviors such as gambling, and does not apply to male adolescents’ use of sexually explicit Internet material.
The attempts in this study to elucidate the psychosocial factors involved in the development of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material among adolescent boys are preliminary, and the results must be interpreted with some caution. Our study examined the predictors of symptoms
of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material, rather than the characteristics of diagnosed compulsive users. It is possible that those with a full diagnosis are characterized by a different psychosocial profile. Moreover, we agree with other researchers (e.g., Sussman 2007
) that it is not always unequivocally clear when adolescents’ use of sexually explicit Internet material should be considered compulsive or problematic, and when it should not. Given their rapidly changing hormonal levels and accompanying increases in sexual interest and exploration (Savin-Williams and Diamond 2004
), experiences such as looking forward to the next time one can use sexually explicit Internet material, or finding it difficult to stop using such material, may be considered as being typical of the adolescent phase rather than symptoms of compulsive behavior (Sussman 2007
). On the other hand, sexually explicit Internet material that is being used to escape negative affective states, or use of sexually explicit Internet material resulting in adverse consequences, may be viewed as causes for concern during any stage of development. Moreover, even when the use of sexually explicit Internet material is not compulsive, it may nonetheless affect a range of sexual attitudes, emotions, and behaviors—particularly among adolescents who are in the process of exploring and developing their sexual self (for a review, see Owens et al. 2012
). As such, our results can be considered an important first step toward understanding the compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material among adolescent boys, and may form a starting point for more comprehensive research into the phenomenon.
Some limitations of this study warrant discussion. First, our study only examined short-term relationships (i.e., concurrent associations and associations over a 6-month interval) between psychosocial factors and boys’ symptoms of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material. It is therefore not clear whether psychological well-being and excessive sexual interest form risk factors for compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material later in adolescence or adulthood, or whether the relationships found in this study diminish as adolescents mature. Longitudinal research over longer time periods is needed to elucidate the stability of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material, as well as the role of distinct psychosocial domains in the onset and maintenance of compulsive use tendencies. Such studies should also look into the effects that compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material may have on later psychosocial functioning. Second, this study utilized self-report measures, which may be subject to response bias. Although self-report is still the most common method to collect data on sexuality, it is well-documented that adolescents may underreport their sexual interests and (online) behaviors, due to fear of embarrassment, disapproval, or social sanctions (Brener et al. 2003
). Third, our results are based on a convenience sample in the Netherlands that was recruited through schools. It may be that those youth suffering most from tendencies of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material were underrepresented in our sample, due to their higher likelihood of having school problems and/or other psychopathology in addition to their compulsive use of online sexual content (Sussman 2007
). Hence, the extent to which our results can be generalized to other populations of adolescents requires further investigation. Future studies should also investigate tendencies of compulsive use of sexually explicit Internet material and its associated psychosocial factors among adolescent girls, which was not possible in our study because of girls’ low self-reported use of this material.