People who engage with communities that promote abstinence from masturbation may be at a greater risk for depression and suicidal feelings, according to a new study.
The study aimed to explore the potential harms of the “Reboot” community, a group that claims abstaining from pornography and masturbation can literally reset the mind and body’s health. As such, conditions like erectile dysfunction, depression, and anxiety — which Reboot claims are caused by self-satisfaction — can be effectively cured by not engaging in such behaviors. NoFap is the largest group within the community, providing resources and support.
The term “NoFap“, which is now apparently a trademarked name and business, comes from the word “fap,” which is internet lingo for the sound of masturbating.
However, these boastful claims have never been verified scientifically, which got clinical scientist Nicole Prause thinking: if NoFap practices are so great for the brain and wellbeing, why haven’t we seen some hard evidence? So she and colleagues at Liberos, a sexual biotech company founded by Prause, decided to investigate, reaching out to NoFap members.
Their study eventually learned that, if anything, the Reboot movement is responsible for an increase in anxiety and depression, rather than helping to alleviate mental health problems as the community claims. Moreover, researchers found that community members are regularly exposed to toxic content that promote suicidal feelings and thoughts.
Your brain on NoFap
The researchers recruited 417 men who had heard of the Reboot community, of which 257 indicated 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 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.
“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 told PsyPost. “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 study found that individuals who were more engaged with NoFap forums were more likely to report feeling suicidal after a relapse. Participants who had visited NoFap forums also reported more depressive symptoms, anxiety, and erectile difficulties. Furthermore, those who more strongly identified as a pornography addict tended to have heightened levels of narcissism, anxiety, and erectile dysfunction.
The study also found that 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%). 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.
The researchers believe 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.
While the study’s findings are concerning, the researchers emphasize that their data is correlational and does not establish a cause-and-effect relationship. It’s important to note that individuals who choose to abstain from masturbation and pornography for personal or religious reasons may not necessarily experience negative mental health outcomes. However, the study’s authors caution against joining communities that promote abstinence from masturbation as a way to cure or alleviate mental health conditions. Instead, seeking professional help for underlying depression or anxiety may be a more effective approach.
“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.”
Most sexual health experts agree that masturbation is a healthy and important part of typical sexual development. There are many myths that claim masturbation can cause prostate cancer (false), is addictive (the American Psychological Association doesn’t recognize masturbation as an addiction), is not safe while pregnant (false), lowers sperm count (false, men don’t have a finite amount of sperm), lowers testosterone (false — the idea dates from Greek and Roman times, but has no scientific evidence to back it up), or that vibrators cause nerve damage (false).
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, there are many resources available for support. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
The new findings appeared in the journal Sexualities.