Some people watch pornography to explore sexuality, enhance intimacy, or relieve stress. But have you ever wondered if this activity may also lead to symptoms of depression?

There are many reasons why people consume pornographic content. These can go from enhancing intimacy with a sexual partner to self-exploration to even boredom.

In fact, even if it often is a stigmatized and controversial topic, watching pornography has been associated with certain health benefits.

A study published in Sociology, for example, found that watching pornography can provide educational value to some people. Another study out of Carnegie Mellon University indicated that watching porn curbs the stress response in adult males.

The mental health impact of watching porn is not limited to this, though.

Other research has found a link between pornography use and an increase in symptoms of depression.

Here’s what the research — and experts — have to say.

In the scientific community, a large part of the conversation about watching pornography focuses on its effects on the brain’s reward system.

Watching any type of pornography activates the production of dopamine — a “feel good” chemical that prompts feelings of pleasure and well-being.

It may be surprising, then, to see that some research suggests viewing pornography is also linked to depression.

Studies on the topic are limited, inconclusive, and conflicting. However, the existing ones suggest that pornography consumption and depression have a complex relationship.

Here’s some recent research:

  • A 2019 study found that porn consumption increased the risk of depression in adults. However, the rise was dependent on whether the viewer considered pornography “problematic.” (We’ll dive into this distinction shortly.)
  • A 2018 study on adolescents found that watching porn may be associated with symptoms of depression. That said, the study’s authors conclude that viewing pornography could be just one reason among many affecting young people’s mental health.
  • Other research shows that many adults who periodically view pornography report no negative effects on their mental health or relationships.

Despite these findings, the bottom line is that there’s not enough data to conclude watching pornography negatively impacts mental health or causes depression.

Still, you may be asking, what if I already live with depression? Can pornography use worsen my symptoms?

“Pornography does not inherently worsen depression,” says Paul Greene, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the director of the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

“However,” he adds, “if it prevents someone with depression from maintaining relationships or doing other mood-boosting activities — like exercise or socializing — then it can indirectly worsen depression.”

Experts have found that in some cases watching pornography may lead to:

  • high feelings of distress
  • anxiety episodes or generalized anxiety
  • emotional avoidance and detachment
  • irritability and anger

However, new research shows that it may not be porn itself that causes these effects, but the viewer’s perception. In other words, the mental health impact is linked to whether someone believes they have a porn addiction (even if that’s not the case) or that they’re doing something they shouldn’t.

For example, if you believe you shouldn’t be watching porn but yet you cannot stop doing so, you may be more prone to experiencing symptoms of psychological distress.

This may be particularly true if watching pornography conflicts with your religious, spiritual, and ethical beliefs.

The possible impact of pornography consumption on mental health also varies by gender.

For example, a 2018 study examined the link between attachment styles and pornography use. It found that men associated higher pornography use with higher relationship satisfaction. The opposite, however, was true of the women in the study.

It’s important to note that most of the research on pornography consumption has focused on young, white, heterosexual men. What data we have on women remains somewhat unclear. LGBTQ+ folks have, thus far, been largely left out of the equation, and there are not many studies that consider the intersectionality of cultures and races.

Compulsive pornography consumption — what’s known as “problematic porn use” (or PPU) — is defined as an inability to control impulses when it comes to viewing pornography. It’s often considered within the study of sex addiction, compulsive sexual behavior disorder, or hypersexuality.

But while rumors abound across the internet (and beyond), there’s no overwhelming evidence to suggest depression can lead to compulsive porn watching.

That said, some research suggests people may view pornography more often when they have depression. This may be particularly true for males.

For example, a 2017 study discovered that males with depression may consider pornography use as a coping aid.

This corresponds with what some experts have to say.

“Common symptoms of depression include isolation, escapism, and bingeing behavior,” says certified clinical sexologist Kyle Zrenchick, PhD, LMFT. “Thus, people can see a marked increase of pornography consumption during periods of depression.”

Addiction expert Sean Duane, LCSW, adds to this by saying, “The risk factors associated with compulsive online pornography viewing include existing addictive behaviors, as well as patterns or a history of isolation, anxiety, and/or depression.”

While compulsive porn viewing has been recognized in clinical settings, it is not identified as a mental health condition.

Again, experts instead suggest that watching porn can sometimes become a compulsive behavior. As with any compulsive behavior, this may lead to challenges.

But what is compulsive or “problematic?” And what is “occasional” pornography consumption?

It comes down to your feelings about the matter — and whether you think you have control over your viewing habits. It’s also related to the levels of distress this activity causes you.

“The critical distinction between the occasional viewing of porn and compulsive viewing is not the question of how much or how often one views it, but rather the question of control,” says Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, therapist and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center. “If a person is unable to stop watching porn, even though they want to and perhaps have tried to, this is a problem of compulsion and is cause for concern. This is true even if they don’t view it very often.”

“On the other hand, someone can watch porn daily and it is not necessarily a problem,” Bilek adds. “So long as they’re in control of what, when, and how often they’re indulging.”

Zrenchick agrees. “There is no universal, standard definition as to what makes viewing pornography — or any digital media, for that matter — problematic,” he says. “Instead, it comes down to one’s personal definition.”

Duane suggests that the line between occasional pornography viewing and compulsive or “problematic” pornography consumption may include:

  • losing track of time online while viewing pornography
  • increased isolation or choosing porn over socializing
  • dismissing friends, loved ones, spouses, or partners to watch porn
  • feelings of euphoria while viewing pornography, followed by guilt
  • having difficulty completing obligatory tasks, such as work, parenting, and school, in order to view pornography
  • avoiding new physical relationships or avoiding physical contact with your significant other

“To be clear, there is nothing wrong with watching pornography,” says Alphonso Nathan, therapist, author, and vice president of Brightside Counseling. “But when it becomes an obsession and interferes with your daily living, it may be an issue.”

In many instances, when it becomes an obsession it can also lead you to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Depression is considered one of the most common mental health conditions in the United States, affecting approximately 7.1% of adults in the general population.

Research shows that pornography consumption has become widespread as well, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the connection between the two — while complex — remains hazy at best. Some research suggests a correlation between pornography consumption and depression symptoms. Studies on the topic, however, are limited and inconclusive. What’s more, it’s undecided if depression can lead to compulsive porn watching.

It mostly comes down to how you feel about your usage and pornography in general.

If you think that your viewing of pornography may be disrupting your daily life or causing you psychological distress — or if you believe that you may have depression — please know that help is available. A trusted mental health professional, as well as support groups, can be an excellent first step towards finding clarity — and treatment.

These resources may help: