Boys

Man (Dis)connected: Has Technology Sabotaged What It Means To Be Male?

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Lecture date: Sun, 17th Apr, 2016
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Estimated 12 min read

“Man (Dis)connected: how technology has sabotaged what it means to be male” is the title of a book by the 82 year old emeritus prof of  psychology at Stanford University, Philip Zimbardo (famed for the Stanford prison experiment, where students put in the roles of prisoners and guards developed mutual stereotypically brutal relations). It generated controversy and much media attention on publication, and hence seemed ripe for consideration by the Ethical Society.

He argues that boys are in a mess. They are retreating into cyberspace in their bedrooms, seeking online the security and validation they can’t get elsewhere. One third of them in the US (one quarter in UK), and the majority of African-Americans, are raised in absent father homes, and he thinks, lack father-figures to motivate them. They are bored at school: a consequence, he believes, of schools setting particular store by skills that girls are good at: fine motor tuning rather than physical activity. Hence, he thinks, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is 5 times more commonly diagnosed in boys. In higher education, “men are opting out, and girls are opting in” – with lower drop out rates, and achieving
better degrees.

Zimbardo claims “Boys have never been self-reflective. They are focussed on doing & acting; girls on being and feeling.” He argues that immersion in an online world, particularly the male juvenile appeal of gaming (playing interactive computer games) and pornography, means that boys increasingly don’t have the skills to form real romantic relationships: they never learn basic social skills, still less how to try their luck with girls. Apparently in the USA, emotionally immature young men who are unable to commit to relationships or address economic responsibilities are termed ‘moodles’ (man-poodles). This stereotype – one he terms the infantilised jerk – has become a stock juvenile lead in US films, typically co-starring with success-oriented women with their feet on the ground: a reversal of roles. This exposure, he thinks, reflects and reinforces behaviour in real life.

Is this a crisis, or a caricature? Does the particular fare of the internet reinforce the condition? Have boys always been such? Do boys simply mature later? And does it even make sense to ask what it means to be male? Is there such a template? If it does, is it a role, a set of competences that either sex could have, or something deeper?
THE DEMISE OF GUYS
The genesis of the book was a short polemical work in 2013 by Zimbardo and his young assistant, Nikita Couloumbe, The Demise of Guys, based on their intuition and personal observation. Man (Dis)connected expands on this following a multiple choice survey canvassing views and possible solutions, to which 20,000 Americans (three-quarters male; more than half between 18 to 34, some younger) responded: plus a shorter one with 67 UK students. I will come to deficiencies in this later.

Most of his claimed causes seem wide of the mark. Warring, disengaged or dysfunctional parents are just as likely to drive kids up to their rooms as single parents. And not just boys. Both sexes display boredom at schools. Primary schools have been staffed by women for many decades. Zimbardo in the chapter on gaming cites children at nursery school able to manipulate tablets, but unable to play and physically  socialise. That might imply that the underlying problem, if there is one, is far earlier. Schools always have been about fine motor tuning skills, like learning to write. Competences in using mobile phones and computer keyboards require them. Zimbardo, I suspect, is still thinking of the
world of his own young adulthood, when only girls were taught to be typists, and boys didn’t have to be, and consequently weren’t good at it. It seems to have escaped him that a prerequisite of participating in online gaming or chatting are the fine motor skills he thinks boys inherently lack.
IN HIGHER EDUCATION, “MEN ARE OPTING OUT AND GIRLS ARE OPTING IN”
We would have to factor in the numbers of each sex that are qualified to realistically apply to university before seeing this as men actually opting out. It is true that Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of UCAS, recently urged university admissions teams to target white males because in the UK women are would have to factor in the numbers of each sex that are qualified to realistically apply to university before seeing this as men actually opting out. It is true that Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of UCAS, recently urged university admissions teams
to target white males because in the UK women are 35% more likely to go to university than men; and 50% more likely to do so if both come from so-called ‘disadvantaged’ areas. What is largely missing from Zimbardo’s thesis is the effect of opportunities and prospects for women that an earlier cohort lacked, in a glutted graduate market. Higher education doesn’t deliver what it used to when Zimbardo had tenure, and in the UK has become prohibitively expensive. It will make sense for many lads to think in terms of earlier non-graduate employment, e.g. in traditional trades sectors (most of which require ‘fine motor skills’ in operating or servicing machinery). ‘Opting out’ is not necessarily copping out.

“Boys have never been self-reflective. They are focussed on doing & acting; girls on being and feeling”. Zimbardo has an image of boys as Tom
Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Of course many still spend their daylight hours playing football – if they are good at it, and can find somewhere to play. And increasing numbers of girls do too, given the opportunity. And the boys who aren’t in the gang playing games are as like as not to be mordantly self-reflective. If we are to base our response on intuitions, the most obvious one is that it is the young men who are not focussed on doing & acting who end up watching porn rather than chasing girls – assuming of course that they are heterosexual.

“The male juvenile appeal of both gaming and pornography means that boys increasingly don’t have the skills to form real romantic relationships: they never learn basic social skills, still less how to ‘try their luck’ with girls.”

If one dare make a generalisation, not many boys – by which he means young men coming out of adolescence – have ever had the skills to “form real romantic relationships”, if indeed they are skill-based, at that age; they have barely acquired basic social skills, whatever they are. It makes one wince to think of one’s own adolescence: girls were untouchables on some other planet. So much depends on individual circumstance; whether you have sisters and their friends to talk to, whether you go to a co-educational school, etc., etc. Zimbardo says his co-author got interested in the issue because she had noticed her male (assumed post-grad) peers crowded round computer devices at parties, rather than conversing with girls. Is that so different from the huddle of boys keeping themselves to themselves on one side of the room, talking about football?

 

‘HOMO LUDENS OR PLAYING MAN’
Now to the nub of it. Zimbardo’s overall claim is that boys spend too much time in a virtual world – one that encompasses gaming as well as porn. He devotes a chapter to gaming addiction. He cites American statistics that young men spend an average of 13 hours a week gaming, and an estimated 10,000 hours before they are 21. Is it mere time on screen that he sees as the vice, preventing socialisation, or the screen contents? Zimbardo does give horror stories of regular teenage all-night sessions and their effects on school performance, but has said “For me, ‘excess’ is not the number of hours, it’s a psychological change in mind-set.” In the book, we get a recommendation: “We consider four or more
hours a day of playing video games alone to be excessive”. Indeed; but it could be said that whatever you do alone in your bedroom regularly for four hours plus of an evening is excessive. Reading the Bible, or cataloguing your stamp collection (not that kids have either now) would not prepare you for ‘real romantic relationships’, any more than teenage mags. Arguably, the problem lies in the paucity of sources of occupation downstairs, and of physical places elsewhere to engage; nothing new in that.

However, he develops a case. Massive multiplayer online games (MMOs) are especially absorbing because a player can become anybody in the virtual world, attaining looks, acceptance, wealth (in terms of game credits) and status that one can’t otherwise get. It is honed to wish-fulfilment. Eventual relationships, achieved despite gaming and fantasy addiction, are not necessarily curative: he cites ‘gamer widow’ support groups in the US, and correspondents’ tales of broken relationships.

Zimbardo’s claim that gaming is damaging has generated critical reviews in the media; it was predictably hammered in the Guardian by its Games editor Keith Stuart, who says: “52% of British gamers are women. The cliché of the teenage boy hunched alone over a console, competing in solitude against computer foes, is outdated. The rise of broadband connectivity has engendered a new culture of shared experiences and co-operative play. These days, a game lives and dies by its ability to attract and maintain a talkative and engaged community… they have become venues for social interaction rather than solitary confinement.”

Ideally, yes. As ever, one has to sup statistics with a long spoon: “52% of British gamers are women” may merely mean that almost all girls as well as boys have gamed: US statistics purport to show that they spend far less time a week doing so. But he is right to say that we can’t wish away technology, and that “thinking about games purely as an alien presence in the home that has to be feared and curtailed is the wrong mindset.”

The social interaction involved in MMOs and the like is primarily with other players online, and thus mediated by a screen; as is teenage internet dating. This last is not something Zimbardo discusses; a relationship on the basis of protracted online exchanges before (if ever) physically meeting the other person may well not prepare one for live encounters and actual needs.

 

PORNOGRAPHY REARS ITS UGLY HEAD
It is plain to anyone who has had a relationship and is not blinded by hormones that pornography distorts the nature of women (not just ‘girls’) and relationships with them, because it is false and limiting in what it so mechanically projects. The simple case against it mattering as much as Zimbardo thinks it does is that young men have always secreted themselves in their bedrooms with whatever was available – ‘dirty’ books,
‘top shelf ’ mags – as their libido outrun their opportunities to otherwise exercise it. It’s just so much easier to access on the internet, and more compelling as an “ersatz” experience, when snapshots or the writtenword become actions on film.

To my mind (ignorant of the ways of social psychology surveys), Zimbardo’s questionnaire tended to beg the question, and was no more than an opinion poll of peers who may not have had problems themselves. E.g.: “Q. Do you think there is a strong relationship between excessive video game playing / porn watching and any of these areas of a romantic relationship?”, to which 77% of women from 18 to 34 chose ‘emotional immaturity or unavailability’ (62% of all respondents), and 58% of young men (a consistent percentage in age brackets to 17, 25 and 34) chose: ‘Lack of interest in pursuing or maintaining a romantic relationship / social isolation’. Further options were ‘decreased satisfaction in one’s own /partners’ sexual performance’, and just one negative pption: ‘I don’t think there is a strong relationship’, chosen by 14% overall.

However, as many testimonies in response to Zimbardo’s questionnaire showed, the danger is that porn can become addictive (not merely to young men), and can both insidiously normalise coercive sexual behaviour and a casual, commodified projection of what pleases both sexes, and what ‘getting it together’ is about. Here is an extract from a piece in the Guardian on 22 March by a young woman: “ChildLine reports receiving calls from young people every day, worried about how unlimited access to online pornography is influencing their perceptions of sex. One young teenage boy told them: “I’m always watching porn and some of it is quite aggressive. I didn’t think it was affecting me at first but I’ve started to view girls a bit differently recently and it’s making me worried.”

What has the UK Government done? Having been informed by research that reckons that 1.4 million under 18s have visited ‘adult’ sites, last month the government proposed that online pornography site providers could be fined up to (shock, horror) £250,000 if they don’t take action to (somehow) prevent under 18s viewing explicit material – a hopeless and impotent initiative. As the Guardian writer above says, “Internet blocks are not effective barriers to accessing porn. Instead of advocating abstinence – regarding sex or porn – teachers should accept that it is natural to be curious. It would be better to encourage critical thinking about pornography, and to discuss how porn might contrast with real sex – to ask why pornography never depicts participants checking how the other is feeling, or asking for their consent.”

But the real question is what has all this to do with Zimbardo’s supposed epidemic of drifting young men who are more unprepared than in the past for relationship, home and career making? Not a great deal, I think. Diminished job and housing prospects have altered the landscape far more than technology. Zimbardo’s supposed epidemic of drifting young men who are more unprepared than in the past for relationship, home and career making? Not a great deal, I think. Diminished job and housing prospects have altered the landscape far more than technology.
If you have the prospect of being stuck at your parents’ (particularly urban) home for far longer than a previous generation, is it no wonder that you no longer subscribe to the equivalent of the American dream, and then fall prey to internet consolation? What about other Western countries? Are boys failing to relate to girls in Southern Europe? Is Zimbardo’s immigrant Sicilian stereotype of the strong achieving (and dominant) male something to admire, or expect to be preserved? The whole world has the internet on tap. Muslim boys and girls have particular problems that the internet is painfully helping solve.

My talk greatly benefitted from sharing it with Llewelyn, a survivor of internet and other excesses and ‘opt-outs’ in his youth, who (about forty years younger than myself) made a convincing personal case with graphics that one can – albeit with savvy, charm, poise, etc. – come through, handsomely; in his case, I can well imagine, to a stellar job, relationship, etc. Bravo: the clear message is that one can be cool about all that stuff; after the event. Certainly our audience were of the opinion that Zimbardo was over-generalising.

And is there a one-sided epidemic? Another survey last month suggested that both sexes in the UK in the so-called millennial generation (now in their late twenties), lacked basic household competences to make or mend – even to the extent of knowing how to change a light bulb – to a much greater degree than their earlier cohort. Must girls call on Polish handymen for everything – including relationships?

Contemporary Ethical Issues, Thinking on Sunday

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Chris Bratcher is a former Chair and Treasurer of Conway Hall Ethical Society, and practised Sunday session talks giver and lecturer on a wide range of topics born of his academic philosophical discipline of Ethics and the Philosophy of Mind, and from his studies in Literature and Fine Arts.