We made clear in Man Interrupted that excessive video game and porn use should be more researched and openly discussed. Hardcore pornography is one-click away, video games are designed to be addictive, and boys and young men themselves are increasingly asking for help because they don’t know how to regulate their own use of these and related technologies. 

However, even if they recognise their own struggle, because of the new difficulties facing young men in this changing, uncertain world, many are choosing to isolate themselves in a place where they have control over outcomes — where there is no fear of rejection and they are praised for their abilities.

Social Isolation

In the 1970’s and 1980’s when Phil pioneered the scientific study of shyness among adolescents and adults, about 40% of the U.S. population rated themselves as currently shy people. An equal percentage reported that they had been shy in the past but had overcome its negative impact. Fifteen percent more said that their shyness was situationally induced, such as on blind dates or having to perform in public. So only 5% or so were true-blue, never-ever shy. 

Over the past few generations, however, that percentage has been steadily rising to over 60 percent. The deep fear of social rejection has risen, in part, as a result of technology, which minimises direct, face-to-face social interaction. In one sense, online communication enables the very shy to make contact more easily with others, though we believe it then makes real life connection even more difficult. 

Aside from the steady increase in shyness, what is different today is that shyness among young men is less about a fear of rejection and more about fundamental social awkwardness — not knowing what to do, when, where or how. They don’t know the language of face contact, the nonverbal and verbal set of rules that enable a person to comfortably talk with and listen to somebody else and get them to respond back in kind. This lack of social skills surfaces most especially when around desirable girls and later women. 

The absence of such critical social skills, essential to navigating intimate social situations, encourages a strategy of retreat, going fail-safe. Females equal likely failure, while safe equals the retreat into online fantasy worlds that, with regular practice, become ever more familiar, predictable, and, in the case of video games, more controllable. 

As a result, a twisted sort of shyness has evolved as the digital self becomes less like the real-life operator. The ego is the playmaker; the character is the observer, as the external world shrinks to the size of Billy’s bedroom. In this way, we can say that shyness is both a cause of the problem as well as one of the consequences of excessive gaming and porn use.

Excessive Video Game Play and Porn Use

Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, estimates that the average young person will spend 10,000 hours gaming by the time they reach age 21. To put this figure in context, it takes the average college student half that time — 4,800 hours — to earn a bachelor’s degree.

There is no doubt that some gamers are women. Still, girls don’t play nearly to the extent that guys do — only five hours per week compared to 13 for young men. These problems continue beyond adolescence. A study published in the Journal of Leisure Research found that in 349 marriages where just one partner was a gamer, it was the husband 84% of the time. In the other couples where both spouses played but one person played more than the other, it was the husband 73% of the time.

Porn sites get billions of views every year. One in three boys is now considered a “heavy” porn user, “watching too many times to count,” according to University of Alberta researcher Sonya Thompson. A similar survey in the U.K. found that the average boy watches nearly two hours of porn every week. One in three of the “light” users spend less than an hour a week viewing porn, and four out of five of the heavy users watch more than 10 hours a week.

One consequence of watching many hours of online porn is teenage boys are beginning to treat their girlfriends like sex objects. According to one 16-year-old girl, “boys just want us to do all the stuff that they see porn stars do.” As a result, says Cindy Gallop, author of Make Love Not Porn, young men don’t know the difference between making love and re-enacting porn. In an online survey conducted by the University of East London, a fifth of boys between 16 and 20 years old said they were “dependent on porn as a stimulant for real sex.”

We think the negative effects of excessive, socially isolated porn use are worse for young people that have never had real-life sexual encounters. Why? They see sex as only physical performance, mechanical arrangements of body parts, without romance, emotion, intimacy, communication, negotiating, sharing, and even touching and kissing. Sex becomes an impersonal “thing,” and for men, a desirable sex partner becomes an object that they have no connection to afterward.

Addictive Technologies and Arousal Addiction

The addictiveness of video games and porn is a real concern for many reasons. As with all addictions, the activity becomes all-consuming and preferable to anything else in life — as every compulsive gambler or alcoholic will tell you. Video games and online porn, however, are different from drinking and drugs. We can think of them as “arousal addictions” — seeking out novelty in order to achieve or maintain a high level of arousal. 

The process of character development and reward systems within video games are a facet of operant conditioning, and are deliberately being incorporated into the games by their sophisticated designers. The problem, say Neils Clark and P. Shavaun Scott, authors of Game Addiction, is that a “person who is initially motivated by their own intrinsic reasons for achieving may become dependent on these outside rewards and actually lose their innate internal motivation to achieve things in life.”

In Boys Adrift, Leonard Sax points out that video games actually can affect the brain in ways that compromise motivation. The nucleus accumbens operates in conjunction with another area of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC); the nucleus accumbens is responsible for directing drive and motivation, and the DLPFC provides context for that drive:

A recent brain imaging study of boys between the ages of seven and fourteen years found that playing video games puts this system seriously out of kilter. It seems to shut off blood flow to the DLPFC… Playing these games engorges the nucleus accumbens with blood, while diverting blood away from the balancing area of the brain. The net result is that playing video games gives boys the reward associated with achieving a great objective, but without any connection to the real world, without any sense of a need to contextualize the story.

Boys that play video games and use porn have it even worse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that “regular porn users are more likely to report depression and poor physical health than non-users are… The reason is that porn may start a cycle of isolation… Porn may become a substitute for healthy face-to-face interactions, social or sexual.”

Gary Wilson, author of Your Brain on Porn, explains that because dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter that turns on the reward circuit, the more aroused you are sexually, the higher your dopamine level. The higher your dopamine, the more you crave something. If you’re a guy, you very well could experience erectile dysfunction. Even if you are aroused at first because of your partner’s newness, over time you might find that they no longer turn you on. 

Dopamine is also the basis for the motivation to achieve your goals, and in the context of sex, it’s central to sexual desire. Dopamine skyrockets with novelty, so with every new sexual partner or sex scene, you are getting another surge of dopamine. If your dopamine starts to decline, you just click on something else to boost yourself back up. And with Internet porn, there is always something new, exciting, or shocking. Watch enough porn and your reward circuitry will essentially get burned out because it has been overstimulated by your dopamine system and thus become less responsive. 

Eventually, the porn pathway in your brain becomes so strong that you are no longer sensitive to normal or usual stimuli, such as sex with a real person. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that for a lot of young men, especially those on college campuses, modern dating in the real-world has turned into a minefield. 

One young man from our survey shared: 

In a post-feminism generation, gender roles are unclear. Men in their late 20s to early 30s today were raised to be sensitive and caring, and to hide any aggressive impulses, but find this gets them nowhere. Women in their 20s to early 30s talk about feminine empowerment but are still only sexually attracted to overt displays of strength and aggression. Sensitivity, politeness, and asking what a woman wants are extreme turn-offs because they are perceived as weakness.

Not only is being a new kind of man a turn-off, it also keeps me from making the first move because I learned to worry about forcing myself onto the object of my desire, to not be crass or slimy, to not use pick-up lines, etc. But there are no clearly defined rules for what I should be doing, just a set of things that I shouldn’t do — all the things that would elicit results… I’ll just go play video games, thanks.

Solutions

There’s no question that virtual worlds are increasingly becoming more integrated into children’s lives and many parents feel rightfully concerned about how much time their child spends gaming or on social media. If your son is spending excessive amounts of time on his phone, computer, or gaming console, consider reducing access to those devices or make him earn the right to use them. Better yet, offer incentives for him to create and achieve real-life goals. 

Consider getting a metered mobile phone plan that has limited voice and texting. A nationwide survey found that 75% of teens are on a mobile phone plan that allows unlimited texting while only 13% of teens pay per message. Those with the unlimited plan send and receive seven times the amount of texts per day than teens on more limited plans, and 14 times the number of texts per day than teens who pay per message.

Move your son’s computer or laptop into a main area of the house versus his bedroom. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) found that when parents always enforce rules about how late smartphones and mobile phones can be used, their children got nearly an hour more sleep every night. The NSF also found that parents were two to three times more effective at enforcing those rules when they also removed electronic devices from their own bedrooms.

For gaming consoles, it is important for parents not just to remove it or force their son to go cold turkey. “If a game really is the only place where a teen can feel in control, rewarded, and happy, then simply taking all of that away could be devastating for him,” says Neils Clark. A planned withdrawal program must be made so that time playing video games is reduced over time while other rewarding activities are introduced. Victoria Dunckley outlines a solid plan for parents to realistically reduce their children’s screen time in her book, Reset Your Child’s Brain.

When it comes to sex education, every parent is going to have their own idea of what their child should be aware of and when. Unfortunately, schools and parents are generally doing little to offset the potential harmful impacts of online porn.

We would like to suggest the resources Fight the New Drug and Your Brain on Porn for both parents and teens. These sites take a science-based approach to explaining the addictive nature of online porn as well as the social and sexual effects from overuse. We predict that in the years to come, as awareness increases, parents will treat video games more like junk food and society will treat high-speed Internet porn more like cigarettes.

Boys themselves need to work on developing positive habits that benefit them. When U.S. Navy Admiral and U.S. Special Operations Commander William H. McRaven delivered the commencement address at the University of Texas several years ago, the first piece of advice he gave to the new graduates was to make their bed. Though it was “a simple task — mundane at best,” and even “seemed a little ridiculous at the time… the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.” He added: 

Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

Finally, the solution that we think would have the biggest impact that doesn’t involve institutions, the media, or the government is for more adult men to organise and spend time volunteering and mentoring the younger men in their communities. Parents who are not spending enough time with their boys need to step up their involvement, while helicopter parents who micromanage their child’s development need to give them more space to roam, make mistakes, and discover their resiliency. 

If we want young men to be active citizens that contribute later in life, we must invest in them first, starting now!

This blog post has been republished from the blog of the Institute for Family Studies.

Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo is internationally recognized as the "voice and face of contemporary psychology" through his widely viewed PBS-TV series, ‘Discovering Psychology’, his media appearances, best-selling...

Nikita Coulombe

Nikita Coulombe co-wrote ‘Demise of Guys’ and ‘Man Interrupted’ with Philip Zimbardo. She later helped launch the documentary film, ‘The Red Pill’, directed by Cassie Jaye, and provided research...