Virtual outsiders: Concern for generation of boys isolated in online world of social media and porn

Under pressure to man up, young males are feeling increasingly isolated and resorting to online porn, says Áilín Quinlan.

OUR young men are in crisis.

Isolated by porn and social media, unable to express their feelings in a culture of ‘put up and man up’, some are resorting to self-harm or even suicide in a desperate bid to escape their inner turmoil.

Experts believe that the issues many young men face today have their roots in childhood and adolescence — in fact, many teenage boys are now showing acute symptoms of anxiety, according to psychologist, parenting expert and author Steve Biddulph, whose book Raising Boys is a world best-seller.

As many as one in five teens are requiring psychological help before reaching adulthood, he warns. 

Life has become faster and more competitive, and kids who are swamped with media — especially visual media — often decide that if they’re not good- looking, popular, and hugely talented, then they’re no good.

On top of that, Biddulph has observed a trend of “increased hurry” in families, stressed parents, and pressure to achieve, which, he believes, is leading to a problem of social isolation in boys.

Internationally, a 2014 study, ‘What are European countries doing to prevent intentional injury to children?’ showed that in general, male rates of suicide are higher in all age groups, with male rates in 15 to 19-year-olds nearly three times those of females.

Ireland is no exception. Here too, young men are experiencing significant problems.

Virtual outsiders: Concern for generation of boys isolated in online world of social media and porn

“A lot of young men are feeling quite isolated. 

"They comment on our site about feeling a sense of isolation and not being able to connect with each other,” says Naoise Kavanagh, online communications manager with www.Reachout.com , an online support group for young people between the ages of 12 and 25.

Young men increasingly have to cope with expectations of a kind that their fathers and grand-fathers didn’t have to deal with.

“Social media is a double-edged sword,” she says, adding that young men are also experiencing a “wave of expectations” about their body image and how they look.

“This is a new thing for young men. They are under a lot of pressure and they are worrying how to get a six-pack and what’s the right kind of work-out.”

The strong body, strong man, message is being pushed home by Hollywood with a steady stream of superhero movies. 

We’ve had Superman, Batman, and Iron Man. 

Currently, there’s Batman V Superman, with Captain America, and Guardians of the Galaxy due to be released later this year.

The statistics tell us there’s a serious problem. 

Virtual outsiders: Concern for generation of boys isolated in online world of social media and porn

The suicide rate for young males in Ireland is more than twice the European average at 5.12 per 100,000, according to the 2014 study, which looked at 27 EU member states, as well as Iceland and Norway. 

So what are we doing wrong?

“Young men are in a great deal of stress,” says Dr Tony Bates, CEO of Headstrong, who believes many feel isolated and believe they are not in control of their lives — or sadly, that they don’t have something in their lives that they’re good at doing.

“I don’t think they want to end their lives — they want to end their pain,” he adds.

Experts believe the problem begins early on in a culture which, while cognisant of the need to empower girls and give them permission to express their feelings, generally trains their brothers to shut up and not be a sissy.

We don’t actually cater for the emotional needs of boys at all, says Noël Janis-Norton, founder and director of The Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting Centre in London; author of several books including Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys; and a learning and behaviour specialist for more than 40 years.

Virtual outsiders: Concern for generation of boys isolated in online world of social media and porn

“Parents and teachers still expect boys to be brave, to hold their feelings in and not be upset,” she says. 

“Girls are given permission to have feelings and to express them, but boys are not.”

Even among parents who know this needs to change, she says, traditional views of masculinity can tend to prevail, usually because fathers have grown up in that context themselves.

On top of that, says Janis- Norton, boys are hard-wired differently to girls. 

They can be more impulsive, more easily distracted and experience a strong drive to be physically active. 

They have some 30% more muscle fibre than girls, which, she says, leaves other areas of their development less stimulated, such as impulse control.

Regardless of their biology, boys learn to put up a front from a young age.

Put it this way, says Irish psychologist and author of Love Rewired, David Kavanagh: “If a five-year-old boy falls off his bike, the parent’s more likely to tell him to get back up and stop crying.

“Girls the same age would still get the hugs and cuddles.

David Kavanagh
David Kavanagh

“This a huge problem because if boys are not able to have feelings, and girls are being steered in a different direction, you get men who are disconnected from healthy relationships.”

As a result, says Kavanagh, a man may not have a frame of reference to understand what a woman is talking about when she’s trying to describe her feelings about something. 

“The same emotions in him may have been suppressed or repressed in the way he was parented or schooled.”

The inability to form healthy relationships can adversely affect the way young men interact with the world as a whole, and therefore negatively affect the way they perceive themselves.

Furthermore, Kavanagh warns, easy online access to pornography is now damaging boys from a young age.

Kavanagh says that if young boys are exposed to pornography powerful chemical reactions in the brain can overwhelm the child’s perception of himself.

A child can become “very sexualised” from age nine or 10, warns Kavanagh, who has worked with young men who became addicted to porn from a young age.

Virtual outsiders: Concern for generation of boys isolated in online world of social media and porn

Such exposure is also affecting girls, who are being sexualised in the way they look and behave in response to boys’ demands, he believes.

A schoolteacher who hands a child a porn mag would “probably be sacked and put on a sex offenders’ register,” says Kavanagh, yet, he observes, some parents allow children access to similar content, often through ignorance or through unwillingness to face the fact that children are capable of accessing porn, either deliberately or unwittingly.

“Parents are closing their minds to the idea that children can and will access inappropriate material,” he says, adding that children equipped with smartphones can unwittingly end up accessing the most disturbing type of material through a simple Google search.

Parents are concerned about what their kids are viewing on the internet,” says Naoise Kavanagh, but she observes that often “they don’t seem to be doing anything about it”.

“They seem to accept that they don’t know anything about it, but they don’t try to understand it. 

"They don’t really seem to question their kids on what is attracting them to spend so much time online,” she says, adding that a special group was set up by ReachOut in 2014 to help parents educate themselves about social media.

Virtual outsiders: Concern for generation of boys isolated in online world of social media and porn

There’s no doubt that internet access can be a real problem for parents. 

One mum recounted how she was asked to spell out the name of her eight-year-old son’s favourite team Arsenal for a search online.

She had visitors on the day and was distracted for about 15 minutes. 

When she went to check up on her son he didn’t want her to look at the screen because the search engine had prioritised the first four letters of his favourite team and he was looking at pages of shocking pornography. 

She was gutted and felt she had let her son down by not putting parental controls on the home computer.

David Kavanagh says he knows men who became suicidal because of the way pornography came to dominate their lives, leaving them without the confidence or know-how to talk to women or form normal relationships.

AS screen-fixated teenagers and young men, they failed to construct the building blocks of normal relationships.

“When people should have been out developing their social skills of interaction with women they’re in front of a screen.”

However he warns, normal sexual behaviour “just won’t cut it” when, for example, he says, a youth has been spending his time watching extreme porn. 

Virtual outsiders: Concern for generation of boys isolated in online world of social media and porn

“Kids are retreating to their bedrooms and getting snapchats of a 12-year-old’s penis.

“Sixty years ago we thought cigarettes were OK but now we know they are linked with cancer. Porn is the cancer of sexuality in Ireland,” warns Kavanagh, whose website is www.pornaddiction.ie 

Technology is a huge issue for both genders, says Janis-Norton: “As regards tech, boys are more likely to get lost in competition and in more aggressive online games, whereas for girls it is social media.

“Studies have shown that online porn is very violent and misogynistic and gives boys the idea that girls should want whatever boys want — and enjoy violence.

“Research tells us that exposure to porn leads to addiction and to problems with real-life relationships,” she adds.

Biddulph also points to the growing Japanese phenomenon of “shut-in” boys — hikikomori, which, he warns, is occurring in the west now too, affecting large numbers of young people.

“Teen boys are especially prone to this because computer gaming and the internet, including internet pornography, can easily come to replace real-life interaction.

Virtual outsiders: Concern for generation of boys isolated in online world of social media and porn

“Very quickly they fall behind in actual people skills, lose confidence, and can no longer relate to real girls.”

Also, there’s the combined effect of the violence that is so casually depicted in movies and games and the degrading way people are depicted in pornography, says Biddulph, pointing out that research shows that about 85% of porn now depicts violent or abusive behaviour, almost always towards women.

Together with the portrayal of life as a contest, he says, it all adds up to a harsh and lonely world very different from the caring communities in which former generations were reared. 

It throws into sharp relief the logic behind the old African saying that it takes a village to rear a child.

However, positive, warm, involved dads can be a big help. 

In fact, say experts, a significant element in raising a well-rounded boy is positive, quality, one-on-one time either with dad or with sensible male role-models.

“Boys know they will grow up to be like their dads and when the most important person in the world talks to them and takes time to be with them, it makes the boy so much more confident,” says Janis-Norton, adding that regular positive man-boy interaction is “the perfect vehicle for a dad to transmit values”.

Virtual outsiders: Concern for generation of boys isolated in online world of social media and porn

Boys need to have men in their lives who build their confidence, and teach them to respect girls, women, and themselves, adds Biddulph. 

“School needs to be a place where teachers are kind, focused, and boy-friendly, and a place where their needs for activity and space are acknowledged.”

And, yes, it may sound like a cliché, but sport is crucial. It matters to boys because they have so much testosterone, says Janis-Norton.

“They’re driven to use their bodies, the more exercise, activity, and movement boys get, the more willing they are to learn sensible, civilised behaviour.

“Exercise and activity reduce anxiety and many studies have shown that boys have more anxiety than girls. It also reduces their natural aggression.”

Look for whatever sport catches the boy’s interest, says Naoise Kavanagh, who adds that www.ReachOut.com regularly gets complaints from young rural men that if they’re not ‘into’ GAA there’s nothing else there for them. 

Virtual outsiders: Concern for generation of boys isolated in online world of social media and porn

“Team sports don’t suit everyone,” she says, but we must encourage young men to get involved in what they like, to challenges themselves.

“It does wonders for their self-esteem and self-confidence.”

10 top tips for parents

1. Encourage him to spend time with dad or a positive father figure.

“An engaged and caring dad really helps,” says psychologist Steve Biddulph. He believes a boy also needs to know men who are great in lots of different ways as he is growing up. “To be a good man, you have to know some”.

2. Nurture his tender feelings

“We want boys to grow into men who can be real and open-hearted.

“So when your son is sad, let him be sad, tell him it’s fine to cry.

“Many boys in the past turned their sorrow into anger and that turned into violence down the track,” says Biddulph.

3. Teach him respect

This is especially around physical gentleness and caring of others, says Biddulph, who warns that research shows that a boy who gets hit as punishment is twice as likely to hit his wife or partner as an adult.

4. Teach him household and normal DIY skills

“It’s essential that boys don’t get waited on,” warns Biddulph.

”The man of today needs to be self-reliant, and able to cook, clean and do his laundry.”

5. Do the rough and tumble stuff

Boys love to rumble and wrestle, especially with their dads:

“They learn to be safer by being more active and discovering their boundaries,” Biddulph explains.

Boys love and need lots of exercise, fresh air, and running about, he adds.

6. Balance his screen-time

“Some computer gaming is relaxing and fun, but boys especially need a lot of people time as they are prone to having poorer relationship skills,” says Biddulph.

“So have clear, firm time limits.

“Also, because of the terribly degrading pornography that is now out there, don’t have the internet or other devices in bedrooms or places you can’t monitor.

“And as he gets older, talk to him about how porn is not about love at all, and how caring sex is different to that. And better. “

7. Practise reflective listening

“Quite often it’s not easy to know that (children) are upset because the upset is masked by bad behaviour,” explains Janis-Norton.

With reflective listening, she says, the parent tentatively imagines what the young person is feeling and puts into words.

For example: ‘Maybe you are disappointed that you didn’t make the team?

8. Positive feedback

Notice positive things he does and make a point of mentioning it, says Janis-Norton.

9. Actively encourage him to do his academic best

“In boy culture there is a belief that it is not cool to do well at school,” says Janis-Norton.

“Parents, especially dads, need to show boys that they do appreciate and applaud effort,” she says.

10. Take charge

Take the lead and decide what happens in terms of sleep, exercise, nutrition and leisure time.

“Children and teenagers “don’t have the maturity to make wise decision,” warns Janis-Norton.


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