Sunday, December 16, 2012

Home Alone in Everytown: The isolation of young males

Not just Newton, Connecticut, not just the USA, but the whole world is grieving right now over the loss of innocents, both adults and children. My town’s paper had the headline about the elementary school mass killing. I could barely see the print through my tears as I read about the grizzly tragic incident and President Obama’s first response.

Just one response has been to focus on the instrument of destruction, the semi-automatic weapons in the hands of the “deranged.” The statistics are certainly telling and compelling. There are over 10,000 shootings in America a year and only a few dozen in other modern industrial countries combined.

Police reports don’t begin to “explain” the causes of such extreme behavior. And they should not be expected to. In one print story, there were brief references to 20-year-old Adam Alanza being on medication, that he was smart but socially awkward and that there had been some tension in his family background.

Millions are on medications; some experiencing serious side effects and others for whom there are serious consequences for withdrawal. Many people are socially awkward and experience major family relationship shake-ups or estrangement.

One place most may not yet be looking for answers and I contend it is a place where we are still hiding our heads like ostriches in the sand, is what is happening to boys and young men in the US.

There is a new book out by one of the world’s most famous social psychologists and someone whose studies I was tested on in my undergraduate years.
 Professor Emeritus Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in Stanford, California and his psychologist partner Nikita Duncan have just authored a new book that puts forth the idea that the United States is losing an entire generation of young men to video games and pornography. They express their concerns for the future of America’s boys soon-to-be-men in a book called The Demise of Guys: Why Boys are Struggling and What We Can Do About It.

 They write that by the time an American boy hits the age of 21 years, he has probably played an average of about 10,000 hours of video games, which equals 14 months of his entire life, day and night, mostly by himself. The book also points out that the typical U.S. teen boy also watches an average of about 50 pornography video clips every week these days. The effects of those activities are not good, says Zimbardo, who puts forth that “the boys' brains are being digitally rewired for change, novelty, excitement, and constant arousal. Video games and porn are categorized as arousal addictions where variety and the surprise factor constantly feed the attraction.

 Boys are 30 percent more likely to drop out of high school than girls, two-thirds of current special-ed students are male, and girls outperform boys’ at all educational levels, from grade school to graduate school. Other studies show U.S. college males also display rising levels of the fear of intimacy with the females in their lives.
Zimbardo says the real problem is that American boys are “flaming out academically and wiping out socially with girls and sexually with women."

Video games impair the users' ability to deal with reality, and porn creates “a cycle of isolation and indulging in it correlates with depression and poor physical health.” (e.g. obesity and associated health problems continue to rise for boys age 6-19 while leveling off for the rest of the population)
Though gamers and porn fans in the U.S. today might take exception to these conclusions most people would agree with Zimbardo’s premise that “spending one's time making fake love and fake war does not produce a real man.”

Zimbardo does outline ways that we can begin to remediate this social epidemic for boys and young men.
There are others who have made it their life’s work to help boys out of isolation and into a genuine manhood that connects boys to their best and highest selves and to everyone else. In the simplest terms, from isolation to connection.

Earl Hipp, author of Man Making: Men Helping Boys On Their Journey to Manhood,
has provided a realistic guide on how to get involved with groups or create one-on one relationships. He talks about both the psychological barriers around that involvement and ways to overcome those to enjoy the considerable benefits of being more involved in boy’s and young men’s lives. He also has a blog that is thoughtful and informative.

It may be that if we are to help protect the innocents, we must lose our widespread innocence about the deeper problems that no amount of security apparatus and measures or even removal of semi-automatic weapons from our society will cure.

Are there boys and young men in your family or circle that need more human contact and the sense they are cared for and belong to everyone one of us in the human family? This may be a first step for all of us to deal with the problems of boys trying to become men in Everytown. Young men who do not shoot because we asked a lot of questions first.

Randy Crutcher was director of a state-funded men's center and founded the 22 year old Northcoast Men's Gathering for men and boys. He has seen first hand what a difference a village makes in helping to raise its boys. 


  1. Just in from Tim in Tucson:

    I would add to the video games and porn all the other socialization that boys/men get: don't be vulnerable, don't acknowledge hurt/sadness/loneliness, and being aggressive/violent is a sign of manhood.

  2. Thanks for your very informative post. I am left with one question. Boys in other developed countries have the same access to video games and porn. What is it about American culture that leads large numbers of our young boys to overdose on them?

    1. Just a few factors could include the fact that parents in the US work longer hours with less time off than in comparable industrial modern societies, so US boys are home alone more. And there may be some variability in access to social and mental health services as well as cultural integrity that holds families, neighborhoods and communities together. There may also be cultural differences in parenting styles.

  3. Thanks Randy, for another thought-provoking post.

    This is a highly complex issue; it's not just guns, and it's not just social
    isolation - though both of those are obvious factors to be considered. In
    the interest of broadening the perspective, here's yet another take on the
    topic: one mother's experience with her son's mental illness,

    Don in Arcata, CA

  4. And from Richard in Murphys, CA

    There’s another book out on the challenges and struggles facing boys and young men in our society, called Boys Adrift, by Hugo Sax. I think I’m going to read Demise of Guys, as the Sax book seemed awfully generalized. You are correct that gaming and porn contribute to the downward spiral of our young men. When I sub at Columbia for the “opportunity” and junior high classes, I hear a lot of talk among the boys about what they’ve been able to get away with at home about these subjects.

    As for Newtown, it was bound to happen that our reluctance to restrict the types of guns people can own would come back to haunt us: another dysfunctional young man gets his hands on weapons designed to shoot a lot of bullets finds his way into a public, populated place full of innocents. HOWEVER, as hunters and target shooters, we’ve had guns in our houses through two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, etc., and although we’ve had public killings before, the last decade has seen a significant increase in this kind of irrational killing. The Newtown guy is another who fits Zimbardo’s profile. I hope, as a nation of rational people, that we can change how we address the needs of our young men, and the lunacy of making human killing weapons so available. Had to get this off my chest. Thanks.


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