The Trouble with Boys

As women have continued to progress and persevere, boys have retreated to virtual worlds, hindering their ability to express emotions and form relationships


Louis Herlihy

Illustration by Louis Herlihy

Since the dawn of time, women have a found a way to strive in a world constantly at odds against them. In recent memory, the #MeToo movement and the new-age feminist revolution have made great strides in unlocking new levels of equality for women, and setting examples for girls for empower themselves.

Though the progress is ever-growing by the year, there is still much work to do as we approach the turn of the decade. Adolescent boys, however, have struggled and retreated in terms of skills needed for intimacy and building relationships, and it’s getting worse.

The Rundown

Philip Zimbardo is an American psychologist and scientist, most well-known for his work in the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. In recent years, Zimbardo has returned to the spotlight in his latest work, “The Demise of Guys,” in which Zimbardo brings to light the struggle of young boys academically, socially, and sexually since the start of the media age.

He said the access to pornography and isolated media have shielded the platform for men to make connections.

“Boys are failing in school, they’re failing in business, they’re failing socially, and even failing sexually with women, they’re becoming obese. The point is they are creating nothing and are only consuming. If you play video games and watch porn, you are a consumer in the worst sense, and you end up creating nothing,” Zimbardo said in his TED Talk.

Zimbardo said men in the world today are held to a certain set of rules to not follow if you want to be a man, but have come up short in setting guidelines men should follow. He said the “old, traditional roles” don’t fit anymore, and not every man is a warrior or a breadwinner.

He said as women excel, constantly doing better, there are a new set of gender roles which need to addressed in order to adjust to a world now growing equal for women.

“Girls and women are excelling at levels that we have never imagined,” Zimbardo said. “The younger generation are the legacy, the pride of women’s liberation from the 70s and 80s. They create a new problem for boys, as women are doing better and better, boys are doing worse and worse.”

According to Zimbardo, boys are “opting out” of a confusing world so they can feel more comfortable in isolation, where there is no need for intimacy, no need for sociability, and no rejection. This, in turn, is making real life harder and harder for young boys to face.

Upbringing and Environment

Greg Phipps, senior lecturer and sociology program coordinator,has been teaching Masculinity & Society for 10 years at IU Southeast. For him, the problem lies in how we’ve brought up young boys in the home and in school. He said boys can have a hard time expressing emotions and building relationships because they are taught it isn’t manly to do so.

“From a young age, boys are taught to control their emotions. They hear messages like be tough and don’t cry,” Phipps said. “This causes ‘emotional constipation’ which is the inability to express feelings and ‘emotional incompetence’ which is the inability to deal with other people’s emotions. This makes it more difficult for men to have empathy for others. It also hampers men ability to communicate feelings and needs which are critical in intimate relationships.”

Academically, Phipps said young boys have role models in early life that aren’t particularly academic and want to differentiate themselves from things that appear feminine or uncool to them, such as reading, homework, and participation — all of which he said girls are better at than boys.

Phipps said young girls typically excel in language-based curriculum, which is heavily based in schools, particularly at a young age.

The point is they are creating nothing and are only consuming. If you [only] play video games and watch porn, you are a consumer in the worst sense, and you end up creating nothing.

— Philip Zimbardo, American psychologist and scientist

“Boys tend to be more physically active and this may make it harder for them to focus, and more likely to act-up out of boredom and get into trouble,” Phipps said. “Young boys are also taught, stand on your own two feet, solve problems for yourself, don’t ask for help — these are all signs of weakness. So if a boy fails to understand homework or something presented in class, he may be reluctant to ask for help.”

Zimbardo said the media has only inflated the issues boys have had, allowing them to retreat into and become trapped in a “present hedonistic time zone.” He said this state allows boys to remain in their fantasy world in which they solely focus on the now, accepting pleasure and avoiding pain. They aren’t future-oriented.

He adds young men are 25 percent more likely than young women to stay at home with parents rather than move out, and this “present hedonistic mode” keeps them from making plans, making contingencies, and setting an agenda for the future.

In order to start thinking about a solution, Zimbardo said it’s imperative to look at the statistics on the rise for households around the world. He said single mothers are growing globally, and as of 2015, 41 percent of mothers in the U.S are single mothers. He goes deeper, saying 50 percent of boys with mothers 30 years or younger have no father.

He said for young boys with fathers, on average, father’s spend 30 minutes a week talking to their son. He said that same boy sits in front of a screen for 44 hours on average per week, creating a different priority list for the millennial boy than a boy of a previous generation.

“The video game industry is a multi-million dollar industry. There are many different corporations who are competing with each other, and they’re competing for the minds and eyes and fingers of young men. And the pornography industry, which is a little newer of an business, is equally a multi-million dollar business,” Zimbardo said.

The accessibility of porn and online gaming is a major factor, according to Zimbardo. He said years ago, if one wanted access to porn, you’d have to drive to a store and risk being seen to acquire it. Now, it’s the click of a button, and totally free. He said there’s no storyline within pornography anymore, but just instant gratification that only highlights physical performance.

Women are taught to expect romance from fairy tales in growing up and young boys are avoiding it altogether, paving the way for problems with intimacy in relationships.

Finding a Solution

Zimbardo provides solutions for men and women to start practicing. For men, Zimbardo said to make an effort to tune out the virtual world and exercise in order to keep young men healthy. He also said men need to make an effort to set goals and think future-oriented rather than reside to the pleasures of the present.

For women, he encourages women to show compassion, offer constructive criticism, and provide support for struggling boys, rather than shun them for their ignorance. He said men need to be shown how to effectively communicate emotions and feelings.

For Phipps, he remains on page with Zimbardo, yet offers particularly advice regarding a key for academic success among boys uninterested in school.

“It all begins with how we socialize boys. We need to allow them to step outside the rigid box of masculinity, allow them to be in touch with and express their feelings,” Phipps said. “We need to reward academic success more so than athletic prowess. We need more male teachers to provide academic role models. We need fathers to be equally involved in their son’s academic life as they are in their son’s sporting events. Parents must monitor adolescent exposure to pornography and have discussions with their son about how real sex in no way resembles what happens in pornography.”