Porn & video games have caused boys’ sexual identity crisis says Zimbardo

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“I’M here to alarm,” said renowned Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo in an interview with New Scientist this weekend. His latest study, fully deconstructed in his new book Man (Dis)connected, is an exploration into Zimbardo’s concerning claim that technology is ‘sabotaging what it means to be a male.’

Media coverage is proclaiming this new study to have brought forward a male ‘sexual identity crisis’, and came to this conclusion through the in-depth look into the lives of 20,000 young people (75% male) and their relationships with video games and pornography. It is these two specific types of activity which Zimbardo is concentrating on throughout his study.

Philip Zimbardo is well known for his creation of the Stanford Prison Experiment, carried out in America in 1971. Zimbardo set up a jail-like scenario, where students were made into either prisoners or prison guards. This psycho-social experiment was called off after it had declined to a result of physical torture of prisoners (which pretty much summed up the hypothesis altogether!)

This study into the technological sabotage of the ‘man’, carried out by Zimbardo himself and Nikita D Coulombe, explored the relationship and behaviour which connects young men to video games and pornography, and the effect this is having on them as an individual in various life areas, such as education and relationships. Zimbardo & Coulombe concentrated on the individuals who were spending time in social isolation with access to both video games and pornography, undertaking both in ‘excess’.

“Our focus is on young men who play video games to excess, and do it in social isolation – they are alone in their room.
“Now, with freely available pornography, which is unique in history, they are combining playing video games, and as a break, watching on average, two hours of pornography a week.”

There has been lengthy arguments put forth by others in the field of psychology regarding the addictive nature of these such activities, and Zimbardo indeed believes that these ‘addictions’ to pornography or video games ‘begins to change brain function. It begins to change the reward centre of the brain, and produces a kind of excitement and addiction.’

“What I’m saying is- boys brains are becoming digitally rewired.”

The problem with video games
This masculinity crisis is, as the BBC says, leaving [them] bored at school, disinterested in human contact, and opting out of society. Having said this however, evidence from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), who studied the computer use of 15-year-olds in relation to their school performance, demonstrated gaming can be effective cognitive training tools.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operations and Development (OECD) has said however that frequent gaming can replace other important educational activities such as homework. Interestingly, the PISA research showed that:

“If a teenager plays a single-player video game between once a month and almost every day, they have been found to perform better on average in maths, science, reading and problem solving than children who play single-player games every day, and even those who rarely or never play video games at all.”

When interviewed by the BBC, a valid point was raised to Zimbardo, asking his opinion on the decreasingly levels of alcohol & drug use in young men, not to mention lower levels of aggression, which was once a main concern of video gaming. His reply was that these behaviours were on the decrease because the young men are instead alone in their rooms, without actual face-to-face communication and drinking ‘more Coca-Cola’; which he linked to the increasing levels of obesity.

Pornography addiction as real as substance addiction?
Pornography cannot escape its critics in relation to this study, as there is a wealth of evidence that supports the idea that those addicted to porn have similar brain activity to those addicted to illicit substances and alcohol. Carried out by Cambridge University scholars, the study revealed, through MRI scans, that brain pattern was mirrored between various ‘addictions’ [below].

IMAGE: Brain scans of compulsive pronography users compared to healthy volunteers. [serogenix.com]

IMAGE: Brain scans of compulsive pronography users compared to healthy volunteers. [serogenix.com]

Dr Valerie Voon, honourary consultant neuropsychiatrist told the Sunday Times the study found greater activity in the area in the brain named ventral striatum (the reward centre) which is involved in processing reward, motivation and pleasure. This can be directly linked back to Zimbardo’s belief that brain function in men, partly through pornography, is being altered.

Gender differences
Zimbardo also touches on a gender difference, which is indeed quite poignant in this study, partly down to the fact that girls are much less effected and ‘tempted’ by video gaming and pornography. He believes that while girls are becoming increasingly successful in the real world, boys are ‘retreating into cyberspace, seeking online the security and validation they cant get anywhere else.’ This ideology is not new, and has been linked with male self-esteem and fashion trends such as the ‘lumbersexual’ which could be deconstructed as a male retaliation to the very few spaces in society left that women are not welcome in. In short, men aren’t so ‘manly’ anymore.

This branches off into another two facets of the research. The first in the demographics and statistics which say with many children growing up with no father figure, boys (much more so than girls) are suffering with their abilities to motivate themselves to perform, Zimbardo believes that a mother’s love is unconditional- you can do wrong and she will still love you. After all, you did grown inside of her! But a father’s love is different- it has to be earned and done through a desire to be accepted and loved by your dad. He says the ‘central source of extrinsic motivation is gone now for almost one out of every two kids.’

The second facet is that with girls doing much better at school and achieving more, boys are feeling as though they are falling behind and ‘they are bored at school, increasingly have no father figures to motivate them, don’t have the skills to form real romantic relationships.’ These, however, are not required in online gaming and the watching of porn, and so perhaps this is why boys are ‘retreating’ to them?

Is he right?
It’s a tricky one to call, this one. In his interview with the BBC, Zimbardo is very strong and secure in his research, and that each claim can be reinforced with evidence. He has many reasonable beliefs and parts to his research, and it can be reasoned that due to less and less ‘masculine’ spaces in society, perhaps some boys feel the most manly place they can be accepted is alone with online games and pornography.

There is no doubt that these two activities have been severely examined in their behavioural effects on people, but would they warrant a ‘masculine sexual identity crisis’? I’m unsure.

Zimbardo’s solutions
First and foremost, he tells us we need to accept that this is happening. We need to accept this is a problem, and by doing that, we’re on our way to combating the ‘crisis’. He says parents need to be aware of the hours of day children and young people are spending alone playing video games and perhaps reconsider their approach to gaming in bedroom with no time constraints.

He calls for more sexual education in schools. This would entail more than just the physiological processes, but the communication, passion, emotion, feelings and other more emotional connections to sex and not just the biological logistics. He believes that pornography, like many other critics, represents an unrealistic portrayal of sexual relations, and needs some realism injected in at a school level to develop the more emotional skills needed in relationships.

Finally, Zimbardo believes there are not enough male ‘mentors’ for young men today. With absent fathers on the increase, it seems as though boys are finding their mentors in unrealistic porn scenes and online battle games than from a exemplary male other.

Bibliography  & further reading

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