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Solicitor's guide to internet porn

18 July 11

Internet pornography use by employees is a growing problem, and effectively a form of addiction which cannot be combated simply by workplace prohibitions

by Mary Sharpe

“Porn in the workplace on the rise”; “Tribunal upholds sacking for accessing porn at work”; “Porn threat to equality in the workplace”. Studies show that 25% of workers admit to watching porn in the workplace, and one third to sending it to others at work. Other research indicates that it adversely affects attitudes to the opposite sex. Given that porn has been around for a very long time, why is it hitting the headlines so often today?

The answer is that six years ago, limitless quantities of free, “shocking”, explicit videos became widely available to internet users with high-speed connections. The difference between Playboy of yesteryear or the occasional erotic DVD, and the internet today, is that the easy availability, constant novelty and ratcheting up of intense arousal afforded by hyperstimulating delivery and material a mere click away, can actually change how the brain functions. Our hunter-gatherer brains have simply not adapted to the sheer overwhelm of extreme stimuli available today. According to psychiatrist Norman Doidge, author of The Brain that Changes Itself, porn grows more shocking because today’s porn users tend to habituate to the material viewed. So the porn user needs something even more shocking to get aroused – which the porn industry continually delivers.

An addiction?

As stress levels increase in the workplace and society at large, many people seek recourse to cheap, escapist thrills, especially those considered harmless. Men and women alike are clicking onto internet porn. According to a 2010 study, 37% of college-age users say porn has interfered with their work or school; 54% reported that it resulted in social problems with friends, family or “significant other”; and 61% reported psychological/spiritual problems. In some brains, the changes brought about by extended use are consistent with addiction processes.

Mental health professionals are slow to agree on whether compulsive viewing constitutes an addiction. However, addiction researchers believe that excessive use of natural rewards, such as pathological overeating, pathological gambling and sexual addictions, as well as drug abuse, all dysregulate similar mechanisms and brain circuits. Certainly, the withdrawal symptoms of some porn users – headaches, insomnia, cravings, anxiety, depression, shaking, etc – are similar to those of substance abusers.

Ominously, a condition known as hypofrontality has been observed in sex addicts. This is a shrinking of the frontal lobes, where creativity, rational thinking and impulse control take place. No detailed research on the brain effects of prolonged use of internet porn has yet been done. However, recent studies highlight two more aspects of brain changes in internet addicts that support earlier findings of how addictive internet use can be.

Employment issues

The concern for employers and employees alike in these economically challenging times is how compulsive use affects performance at work.

Dysregulated brains can have an unwelcome impact on attention, concentration and sensitivity to other people. The ability to concentrate on details or complex material for any length of time is sometimes severely impaired. These effects have implications for solicitors both as advisers and as employers, as they may increase levels of professional negligence, absenteeism and sexual harassment issues in the workplace. Many of the brain changes that addicts suffer arise in the part of the brain called the “reward circuitry”. It affects learning, emotional response, creativity and motivation. Compulsive behaviour narrows the addict’s focus of attention unconsciously to getting the next fix and staying ahead of the debilitating withdrawal symptoms.

Studies show that attitudes to women undergo a change for the worse in the case of excess use of porn. Further, as habituation to hardcore material can leave some long-term users tempted by child porn, does this leave employers open to litigation?


Employers have various routes open to them.

First, some may take the zero tolerance approach: ban access to, and the passing around of, pornographic material in the office, put filters on computers, and institute dismissal proceedings for contraventions of office policy. This, however, does not address the effects of compulsive use outside the office, nor of an employee using his or her own smartphone during breaks. The neurochemical effects last a lot longer than viewing time. Threats and blame tend to reinforce the impulsive and compulsive use of banned activities. Besides, forbidden fruit tastes sweetest.

A second route is to recognise that internet porn use is an unintended consequence of modern day technology with its assault on the delicate balance of our brain. For millions of years, we lived in an environment characterised by scarcity of high-calorie foods and novel mates. Sex has been our genes’ top priority, and we evolved to focus our attention on it unless we actively seek to divert that attention into more productive areas of activity. We can ignore this phenomenon and hope it will go away. Or, we can be realistic about how serious a health and professional issue it may be, and be proactive about educating staff on its potential effects. Not everyone will be affected, nor affected to the same degree, but by all accounts, the phenomenon is accelerating.

What to do

An excellent free website, hosted by a science teacher, with a video that explains the science behind porn-related brain changes in easy-to-understand terms, is available at

The contract of employment includes an implied term of trust and confidence. If employees are educated about internet porn use as a potential hazard but ignore that instruction, employers will have taken reasonable care to deal with it and be in a stronger position in cases of litigation for unfair dismissal.

Filters on all office computers will not solve the problem, but send the right message.

Make sure HR staff and managing partners have good training workshops and policies in place.


Mary Sharpe is an experienced facilitator and mentor with over 25 years of professional practice as an advocate, solicitor, international civil servant and educator w:

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