Huffpost Books
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Dr. Philip Zimbardo Headshot
Nikita Duncan Headshot

Why Society Is Failing Young Boys

Posted: Updated:

Have you noticed how guys are being portrayed in movies lately? Unless you've been living under a rock you've seen at least one of these: Knocked Up, Failure to Launch, Hall Pass, Old School, or the Jackass series.

All the leading male characters are presented as expendable losers usually incapable of taking responsibility for themselves, often plotting intricate but seldom realized plans to get laid, and generally running the opposite direction of any kind of commitment. Not only do they avoid the future, sometimes they attempt to re-live past glory in order to avoid living in the present. It seems these guys don't have much value to contribute to society beyond their ability to entertain the other male characters, and of course, the audience.

It might be that the media is just reflecting real-life trends: in record numbers guys are flaming out academically, wiping out with girls socially, and failing sexually with women later on. But what if the reverse is also true?

As entertaining as these movies can be, what are the effects these stereotypes of men have on the young guys growing up watching them? When we conducted a 20,000 person survey for our book, The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It, we wanted to find out the factors contributing to motivational and social problems in today's young men. The most popular response we got across the broad spectrum of answers - nearly two-thirds of participants agreed - it was because of conflicting messages from media, institutions, parents, and peers about what is acceptable and desirable male behavior.

This means guys aren't sure what it means to be a man, that the people that need to be showing them the way aren't available guides, and it's affecting their ability to succeed. Fathers especially have dropped the ball; America leads the industrialized world in fatherlessness. Forty percent of all children in America are born to single mothers; that rate is 50% for mothers under 30, and 70% for African-Americans. While moms are great at giving unconditional love regardless of their child's performance, dads motivate sons to try harder, not to give up, to work for success. But even for those with dads, the average school-age boy in America spends half an hour a week in one-to-one conversation with his father. Compare that with an average of 44 hours a week spent in front of a television or computer screen.

Without better male role models in real life, guys become confused about what constitutes acceptable male behavior. They don't recognize the images presented in video games, movies, television, and porn as caricatures. Recent research conducted by Maya Götz and Dafna Lemish revealed that boys are more vulnerable than girls to absorbing the messages of media. Girls will usually pick and choose what they like about a certain story and incorporate it into their daydreams, but boys, will imagine themselves in the position of their heroes and want to experience a story similar to the original version.

Boys aren't spending enough time with fathers or mentors who can show them the way they're supposed to behave as healthy men and it's no longer an isolated problem. This is the first time in American history that boys are having less education than their fathers. Many young men see their future as bleak and about 70% of them don't feel they'll be as capable as their peers in other first world countries.

In the 2006 PBS documentary, Raising Cain: Boys in Focus, we learned that shockingly, 85% of all stimulant medications are prescribed to American boys. This brain-behavior interaction is also impacted by the social variable of fatherhood. A 2010 study of over a million Swedish children ages 6 to 19 found that kids raised by single parents were 54% more likely to be on ADHD medication, and the National Center for Health Statistics reports that a child of unwed or divorced parents who lives only with their mother is 375% more likely to need professional treatment for emotional or behavioral problems.

There is now evidence for reciprocal causality for attention problems and impulsiveness, and video game playing. Researchers at Iowa State University and Singapore examined over 3,000 children and adolescents for a 3-year period and found that even when controlling for gender, age, race, SES, and earlier attention problems, kids who spend more time playing video games have a higher rate of attention problems. They also found that kids who are more impulsive or start out with more attention problems will then spend more time playing video games, thus leading to a higher likelihood of subsequent additional attention problems or impulsivity. Video gaming has also been associated with decreased school performance, desensitization to violence, and can influence how one learns and socializes due to a lack of balance between time spent gaming and engaging in other activities, like socializing with friends and girls.

Schools too, are increasingly becoming a place where men aren't present either as mentors or role models. According to the National Education Association the number of male teachers is approaching a 40-year low. With reading assignments with heroines, like Wuthering Heights, and the removal of recess and hands-on learning, it's becoming difficult for boys to find any subject in school that's interesting to them or that stimulates their imaginations.

Video games have become an enchanting alternative for guys' fantasies. Given the choice between traditional schoolwork and endlessly exciting and varied video games there's little contest. The average teenage guy plays about 13 hours of video games a week. This adds up to 676 hours a year, or the entire month of February. Jane McGonigal, Ph.D., Director of Games Research and Development at Palo Alto's Institute of the Future, estimates that the average young person will be spending 10,000 hours gaming by the age of 21. To put this in context, it takes the average college student half that time - 4,800 hours - to get a bachelor's degree.

Exacerbating the problem for boys and young men is the new availability, 24/7, of freely accessible Internet pornography. Excessive and isolated porn use has become a new form of arousal addiction in which one needs variety to avoid habituation, and the porn industry, like the video game industry, is ready and willing to offer an almost infinite array of variety in their content.

It's time for men to step up and take responsibility for our boys. It's time for moms not to be content that their son is "safe" up his room, doing whatever, but to engage him more fully in conversations, to encourage him to track his activities for a week, to have friends over, and be a more social animal. The current generation of boys and men need more real male role models, courageous, compassionate and heroic ones, and less modeled after the losers in Knocked Up, and with fewer Hall Passes.