Children as young as 9 are becoming hooked on online pornography leading to ­addiction, unhealthy relationships and rising levels of sexual abuse. It is the stark ­reality of a world with easy access to x-rated material on myriad digital devices and is setting a generation up for serious problems in later life. Experts say New Zealand is ill-prepared for treating the rising numbers of boys and sometimes girls needing help and that we need to prepare for a "tsunami" of damaged young people.

Richie Hardcore recalls watching his first pornographic video when he was 10.

He saw it with a group of older kids at his mate's house and he has never forgotten the impact.

"It was an incredibly powerful and exciting thing," he says. "I didn't really understand what was going on but I liked it."

Now 36, Hardcore is an anti-sexual violence campaigner who admits his early glimpses of porn set him on a rocky path.


"By my early 20s I knew something wasn't right about the amount of stuff I was viewing. I began to think it was unhealthy. It was influencing my sexual tastes and what I saw as being appealing."

He watched for hours at a time, often on his own, and started to be late for morning appointments.

Hardcore, from Auckland, realised his early sexual relationships were more about sex than intimacy - he didn't see it as being an emotional connection with a partner.

"Relationships are much nicer now because I am not simply trying to recreate what I see online, which was making me really uncomfortable with myself as a person."

It might seem an extreme case - but is it? Addiction, unhealthy relationships and rising levels of sexual abuse in youth is the reality of easy access to pornographic material on myriad digital devices, according to many sex experts.

Parents are worried children are accessing more than just educational material during school hours and behind closed doors at home. Telecommunications provider Slingshot found 75 per cent of Kiwi parents are concerned their kids have access to online pornography.

Clinical psychologist Nigel Latta is also dedicating an episode of his upcoming TV series The Hard Stuff to the issue of children and the dangers of online porn.

Sexual health therapists have told the Herald on Sunday that kids as young as 9 - mainly boys - are becoming hooked on porn, leading to serious problems later in life.


And they warn the country is facing an unprecedented rush of young people struggling due to porn addiction.

The addict brain always wants more.

Auckland-based counsellor and author Bridget Wilson specialises in working with people with sexual addiction.

She warns New Zealand is ill-prepared for treating the rising numbers of young males presenting with problems as there are not nearly enough trained professionals to deal with the issue.

"The human brain doesn't mature until we're in our mid-20s, so introducing any mood-altering process like porn is damaging and arrests development of the brain," she says. "The earlier this happens, the more damaging.

"You wouldn't give a 6-year-old alcohol, so why allow them access to porn? This is already happening, folks, so prepare for a tsunami of damaged people."

Wilson says it is not porn that is the main problem, it is the mind.

"The addict brain always wants more, hence the need for more hard-core images.

"So in the US, for instance, kids are presenting for treatment for sexual addiction in their early 20s and the same is starting to happen here.

"At this stage they've been accessing hard-core pornography for half their lives and they can't function on many levels - can't talk to female peers, can't function sexually when presented with the 'real' thing - that is, not a porn star - and they have no ability to be sociable."

Louise von Maltitz. Photo / Supplied
Louise von Maltitz. Photo / Supplied

Over on Auckland's North Shore, sex therapist Louise von Maltitz agrees.

She has heard of kids starting to watch porn at 9 and is seeing the consequences of this behaviour when these children reach adolescence and beyond.

Von Maltitz cites evidence that high-speed internet pornography addiction rewires the brain in a significant and extreme way.

This phenomenon, where sex causes the production of reward chemicals in the brain, has been described by researchers to be equivalent to the addiction to cocaine.

"When the individual is involved in activities that they enjoy, a certain part of the brain 'lights up' - similar to lights on a Christmas tree," she says.

"This is caused by the hormone called dopamine and causes the porn user to want more and to want it immediately.

"I describe this as like the brakes of a car failing or the equivalent of a person devoid of willpower.

"Parents and caregivers are not aware of the devastating impact that porn addiction is having on our young people today and we urgently require a mass media onslaught and education around this issue."

It is a fast-growing problem with youngsters the world over. The Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls Report released last year states: "The growing ubiquity of mobile devices means those targeted or indirectly implicated are getting younger and younger - with children as young as 5 or 6 now exposed to cyber bullying and online pornography - sometimes of the most extreme kind."

And a major study at the University of Sydney in 2012 showed that for men who were frequent users of porn, 43 per cent were first exposed to it between the ages of 11 and 13.

Australian sex educator Liz Walker. Photo / Supplied
Australian sex educator Liz Walker. Photo / Supplied

Brisbane sexologist Liz Walker is delivering her Counteracting Porn Culture workshops to parents and youth professionals in Auckland and Wellington this month.

The Australian Psychological Society recently spoke out over concerns about emerging evidence of serious negative impacts for children under 12 who access pornography, largely in terms of increased sexual abuse by young children on other children.

Walker - who recently divulged to the Sydney Morning Herald that at 6 she was exposed to graphic porn on the school bus, leading to early sexualised behaviour and promiscuity - believes it is time New Zealand woke up to the issue.

"I feel like I have been shouting about this for years and only now are significant numbers of people listening," she says.

"It is time we had a mature and open discussion about the harmful effects of online porn.

"Boys are developing warped attitudes towards relationships, some are developing erectile problems and girls think they have to perform like porn actresses or can get turned off sex completely because of some of the things boys are asking them to do.

"Before the internet appeared erectile dysfunction in males under 40 was reported as being about 2-5 per cent, now that figure has jumped to between 27 and 33 per cent.

"We have reached the tipping point of denial. People simply can't ignore it any more."

In South Auckland, clinical psychologist Barry Kirker has male offenders as young as 15 being referred to him by the courts because they have been accessing illegal porn on the dark web.

Girls think they have to perform like porn actresses or can get turned off sex completely.

"These are not bright boys or computer experts so someone is showing them how to do this," he says. "Younger kids tend to first come across porn via older children but when they become young teens their obsession with sexually explicit material can become obvious and leads to imbalanced lives and emotional problems.

"There is no doubt more kids are getting hooked into this at an earlier age and coming to the attention of the authorities."

Most experts agree education is the most effective solution but it is often a difficult subject for parents to discuss with children.

The Ministry of Education says policing the internet is complex and children accessing porn at school is a concern.

"This isn't an easy area for either schools or parents," says Lisa Rodgers, the ministry's head of early learning and student achievement.

"We all have to do our bit, to talk about what is okay and what isn't, and what is healthy and what isn't.

"We know that schools work hard to keep kids safe, and to discuss these difficult issues.

"What we're doing in the education system is asking schools to talk to students about normal, healthy relationships, as part of sexuality education.

"This is in contrast to the distorted view of relationships depicted in pornography."

Rodgers says the ministry's sexuality education guidelines include how to listen to and respect others' wishes, and how to be assertive in a relationship. It also includes how sexuality is represented in social media and mass media.

"What we're also doing is making sure that students have a safe online environment while they're at school.

"Online learning is a growing part of our education system, and schools have access to the N4L Managed Network, which offers content filtering. We also fund Netsafe to provide schools with information on online safety and security."

Auckland psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald said the watchful eye of parents is vital in stopping the internet becoming the new sex educator.

"The number one problem is the amount and ease of access to online porn," he says.

"It is a difficult conversation but we have to find ways of supervising their online time, including access to devices, and at what age.

"As parents, it is up to us to know what our kids are up to, and to encourage and relate to them in a way which enables them to talk with us about things they find online that may be upsetting or uncomfortable.

"It is up to us to create a good basic understanding of the complex emotional issues involved in sexual relationships and protect our young people."

• For details of Liz Walker's Counteracting Porn workshops, go to:

Warning signs to look for

Behavioural changes

• Your child withdraws from the family and his friends, is depressed, and abandons formerly enjoyed pursuits.

• Your teen now notices bodies instead of focusing on relationships.

• You notice a loss of respect from your son for girls and women.

• Your child receives phone calls, mail, gifts, or packages from people you don't know.

• You have a high phone bill with unfamiliar numbers.

• Tolerance for sexually explicit movies will change.

• Dating patterns may change, and ideas of appropriateness become more liberal.

• Your child suddenly spends a lot of time in libraries or places with internet access away from the home.

• A common thread of anger and impatience develops.

Computer use

• Spending large amounts of time online, especially at night.

• Turning the computer monitor off or quickly changing the screen when you come in the room.

• Locking the door when working on the computer.

• Lying about computer use.

• Using an online account belonging to someone else.

• Pornography and inappropriate pictures on your child's computer. A small problem suggests there may be a much larger problem.

• Erasing the search history.