Greater engagement with anti-masturbation groups linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal feelings

People who are more engaged in communities that push for abstinence from masturbation tend to feel more suicidal after a perceived ‘relapse’, according to new research published in the journal Sexualities.

The authors of the new study sought to investigate potential harms associated with the so-called “Reboot” community, who believe they can reset their bodies to a healthier state by abstaining from pornography and masturbation. Members of this mostly online community believe that masturbation has harmful effects and that abstaining from it can help relieve conditions such as erectile dysfunction and mental health issues.

The biggest group making these claims and selling treatments is called NoFap. The community provides resources and support for those seeking to refrain from these behaviors and offers various challenges and goals to help people track their progress.

“As a clinician-scientist, we are responsible for testing treatment requests; Reboot coaches have long claimed to be able to cure erectile dysfunction, porn addiction, and even suicidality. Many qualitative studies have suggested that these claims are not true, but they have not yet been tested quantitatively,” said study author Nicole Prause of Liberos.

The researchers used online advertisements to recruit a sample of 417 men who had heard of Reboot. Of the entire sample, 257 men indicated that they had personally tried to “reboot”. Participants completed assessments of religiosity, depressive symptoms, anxiety, narcissism, belief in conspiracy theories, erectile functioning, pornography use, and openness to casual sex .

Participants who had attempted a “Reboot” answered how many times they had relapsed. Those who had relapsed at least once were asked to rate their emotional reaction to their most recent relapse. Of these participants, 28.9% reported feeling suicidal, with 12 of them feeling “extremely” suicidal. The study found that the more involved a participant was in NoFap forums, the more they reported feeling suicidal after a relapse.

Participants who had visited the NoFap forums were asked to rate how they felt about the statements “NoFap has helped me” and “NoFap is a source of accurate scientific information”. Researchers found that people with more anxiety and erectile difficulties were more likely to endorse the statement “NoFap helped me.” Additionally, participants who reported more engagement in NoFap forums also reported more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and erectile difficulties.

“If you or someone you know is concerned about their porn viewing, the abstinence and reboot communities are not good options for support. Rather, focusing on the depression or anxiety that typically underlies these concerns will likely be more helpful,” Prause told PsyPost.

The researchers also asked participants to rate how often they noticed ten different issues on online forums. Visitors to NoFap forums said they saw content that was often trolling (88%), misogynistic (73.7%), intimidating (49.1%), anti-LGBT (42.9%), or anti-Semitic (32. 0%). Additionally, a significant number of participants reported being told to harm or kill themselves (23.5%), witnessing threats to harm others (21.1%), and witnessing doxing other people (17.1%) on forums.

“We were very surprised at the volume of homicidal content, with roughly 1 in 5 NoFap visitors reporting seeing threats to hurt or kill someone,” Prause said. “There is simply no place for such violent statements in a support group. We finally submitted a second article just to try to understand why this group seemed to be so violent (under review).

The researchers also found that those who identified more strongly as porn addicts tended to have increased levels of narcissism, anxiety, and erectile dysfunction.

“Another research group advised us to add ‘narcissism’ as a predictor of porn addict identity, and that ended up being our main predictor,” Prause said. “Over the next few years, expect to see several papers from our lab and others about the problem with Reboot/NoFap followers thinking they are uniquely gifted and just poor victims of a conspiratorial porn cabal. “

But the results come with an important caveat. The correlational nature of the data leaves the direction of the observed relationships uncertain at this time. Researchers believe, based on other work, that greater engagement with “Reboot” communities leads to greater anxiety and other negative outcomes. However, they cannot yet rule out the possibility that those with more mental health symptoms are more likely to seek out these communities.

“We have another study modeling NoFap followers over time that appears to support participants’ attributions that NoFap actually caused these negative outcomes,” Prause said.

“These groups specifically recruit young people and do not ask for parental consent,” added the researcher. “If you have a child who might be worried about their sexuality, as most are, make sure they know not to post information about their personal sexuality to strangers on the internet, as this can result in sexual coercion and other serious boundary violations.”

The study, “Iatrogenic Effects of Reboot/NoFap on Public Health: A Pre-Registered Survey Study,” was authored by Nicole Prause and James Binnie.

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