People who are more engaged with communities that push 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 body to a healthier state by abstaining from pornography and masturbation. Members of this mostly online community think that masturbation has harmful effects and that abstaining from it can help alleviate conditions such as erectile dysfunction and mental health conditions.
The biggest group making these claims and selling treatments is called NoFap. The community provides resources and support for those looking to abstain from these behaviors and offers various challenges and goals to help people track their progress.
“As a clinical scientist, we are tasked to test treatment claims; Reboot coaches have long made claims of being able to cure erectile dysfunction, pornography addiction, and even suicidality. Many qualitative studies suggested these claims were not true, but these had not been tested quantitatively yet,” 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.” The 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 tried a “Reboot” answered how many times they had relapsed. Those who had relapsed at least once were asked to rate their emotional response to their most recent relapse. Out 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 with NoFap forums, the more suicidal they reported feeling after a relapse.
Participants who had visited NoFap forums were asked to rate how they felt about the statements “NoFap helped me” and “NoFap is a source for accurate scientific information.” The researchers found that those with greater anxiety and erectile difficulties were more likely to endorse the statement “NoFap helped me.” In addition, participants who reported more engagement in NoFap forums also reported more depressive symptoms, anxiety, and erectile difficulties.
“If you or someone you know is concerned about their pornography viewing, abstinence and Reboot communities are not good options for support. Rather, focusing on depression or anxiety that usually underlie such concerns is likely to be more helpful,” Prause told PsyPost.
The researchers also asked the participants to rate how often they noticed ten different problems in the online forums. Visitors to NoFap forums reported seeing content that was often trolling (88%), misogynistic (73.7%), bullying (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 hurt others (21.1%), and witnessing doxing of others (17.1%) on the forums.
“We were very surprised at the volume of homicidal content, with about 1 in 5 visitors to NoFap reporting viewing threats to harm or kill someone,” Prause said. “There is simply no place for such violent statements in a support group. We ultimately submitted a second paper just focused on trying to understand why this group appeared to be so violent (under review).”
The researchers also found that those who more strongly identified as a pornography addict tended to have heightened levels of narcissism, anxiety, and erectile dysfunction.
“Another research group tipped us to add ‘narcissism’ as a predictor of porn addict identity, and it ended up being our main predictor,” Prause said. “In the next few years expect to see several papers from our lab and others about the problem with Reboot/NoFap followers believing they are especially gifted and just poor victims of a conspiratorial porn cabal.”
But the findings come with an important caveat. The correlational nature of the data leaves the direction of the observed relationships unclear for now. The researchers believe, based on other work, that greater engagement with “Reboot” communities results in 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 modelling NoFap followers over time that appears to be supporting the participants’ attributions that NoFap is actually causing these negative outcomes,” Prause said.
“These groups are specifically recruiting youth and do not seek parental consent,” the researcher added. “If you have a child who might be worried about their sexuality, as most are, be sure they know not to post about their personal sexuality to strangers on the Internet, as this can lead to sexual coercion and other serious boundary violations.”
The study, “Iatrogenic effects of Reboot/NoFap on Public Health: A preregistered survey study“, was authored by Nicole Prause and James Binnie.