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. []

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

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


AHS trailblazer redefines catwalk ideals

JAMIE BREWER, the 30-year-old theatrically trained actress who’s starred in 3/4 American Horror Story seasons, has become the first ever woman with Down Syndrome to walk the catwalk in New York Fashion Week. Well, in any fashion week for that matter.

The trailblazing advocate for disability rights and education, Jamie is passionate in her fight to raise awareness of all disabilities. Although she doesn’t believe Down Syndrome is a disability, she stands for those who are hit with disability stigmas in society. The actress spent years campaigning and successfully managing to have the word ‘retarded’ removed from the state legislation in Texas! What a girl!

“Young girls and even young women… [see me] and say ‘hey, if she can do it so can I!'”

Jamie walked for Carrie Hammer, a designer who launched her Role Models not Runway Models campaign last year, and when approached by Katie Driscoll, founder of ‘Changing the Face of Beauty’ encouraged Hammer to put a disabled model on the runway, she automatically thought of Jamie.

Hammer said of Jamie:

“She is an incredible actress and also an activist, and artist and writer who just happens to have Down Syndrome… but that doesn’t define her. She’s an incredible role model for many, many people.”

As Addie in Murder House, Nan in Coven and Marjorie in Freak Show, Jamie Brewer is an all round incredible person, and not because she has Down Syndrome. That doesn’t and shouldn’t define her. She’s doing things that others can, and her ‘disability’ is not a factor in her success.
It just so happens to make her an even more impressive person though. She battles for education, acceptance, equality and diversity, and who can say those aren’t all honourable battles?

Good job, Jamie. You’re wonderful and we don’t doubt we’ll see you even more this coming year!

AHS Asylum truths #10: Unethical biological experimentation throughout the 1900s

ONE of the key sideline stories of American Horror Story: Asylum was Dr Arden and his experimentation on TB, and eventually mentally ill, patients in the cause of engineering and bettering a new evolution of humankind; aiming for immortality and immunity. In fact, it was this dream of new evolution super creatures that persuaded Monsignor Timothy Howard to allow Dr Arden to continue.

Preying on the patients at Briarcliffe whom unfortunately had no family, ‘nobody to notice them missing’ as Sister Jude says when she thinks she’s uncovered him. Not only they were unfortunate however, as it seems his ubiquitous sadistic nature meant it was those who he simply disliked who got this treatment also, including Shelley and Spivey.

As the story lines progress throughout the series, I Am Anne Frank is the episode in which Nazi connections were made; initiating the idea of Dr Arden’s past. The infamous medical (and largely unethical!) trials carried out by the Nazi’s in WW2 are known for their horrendous and barbaric nature, and this is questionably correlated and loosely related to in Dr Arden’s storyline. It was not just eugenics which Nazi scientists were renowned for, but other various experiments in Ravensbrueck Women’s Concentration Camp.

These were some of the earliest known experiments to take place, and one is described here, where women’s legs were cut open and infected, packed with glass, dirt and splinters to ensure infection spread. This was to discover the best cures for injured German soldiers. This heinous experiment was undertaken by SS surgeon Karl Gebhardt.

Many experiments started with Walter Sonntag, the camp’s doctor. Described as a ‘sadistic brute’, he seemed to believe sex made better soldiers, and frequented brothels and raped inmates and Ravensbrueck prostitutes, and in fact tried to develop a cure for syphilis and gonorrhoea.

Perhaps totally coincidental, the personality and seemingly brutal and sadistic morals of Dr Arden seems to consistent with that of medically fascinated Nazi doctors. Creators of AHS: Asylum have definitely done their research into Nazi WW2 medical experiments and created a subtle link in the series, back with fact.


AHS Asylum truths #9: Mental illness institutionalisation in the 1950s

LANA Winters. Lana Banana. We welcome her character as a feisty journalist, a reporter willing to do anything to get her story. And, like she says herself in AHS: Asylum, she didn’t realise quite how much she was willing to do for that story. Or lose, in fact.

WARNING: A few photographs on this post that you may find distressing from 1960s mental institutions.

Ryan Murphy, one of the show’s producers, said in an interview that AHS: Asylum (and especially the finale) is a loose homage to Geraldo Rivera, a reporter in the early 1970s, who conducted a series of investigations onto Willowbrook State School.

The state-supported institution on Staten Island, New York City opened in 1947, was a place where children with ‘intellectual disabilities’ were placed. Interviews of family members whose children stayed at the ‘school’ reveal that at the time, institutionalisation was encouraged, and when people could not cope with disabled children, it seemed the best option.

Designed for 4000 capacity, by 1965 the walls contained more than 6000 children, suffering from a variety of illnesses, and not just ‘intellectual’ disabilities. It seemed to be a catch-all net for children who were abnormal, an eyesore on the family portrait; retarded kids.

Geraldo, much like Lana Winters, was appalled by the condition of Willowbrook, and commissioned a series of investigative reports which uncovered the abhorrent conditions these children were being forced to endure. This story made Rivera’s career. It was not simply the unsanitary conditions though, it was the physical, psychological, emotional and sexual abuse. It was the starvation and lack of wellbeing measures.  Ex-patients can recall the experiments of hepatitis which children were exposed to.

Perhaps the most striking form of abuse is this: Some of the residents were deliberately exposed to hepatitis. Experts estimate that close to 100 percent of residents would have tested positive for the disease. Some contracted hepatitis through unsanitary drinking water, others were injected directly. Still others, DeBello says, were fed hepatitis-contaminated faeces.

Pictures and videos speak louder than words. A lot louder…

Conditions At Willowbrook State School

I think that’s enough… You can clearly see that children and young adults were living in deplorable conditions, what the Senator Robert Kennedy labelled a ‘snake pit’. Interestingly enough, and whether this was just a very coincidental line, Kit Walker refers to Briarcliffe as the very same- a snake pit- in the penultimate episode of AHS: Asylum.

So, as you can see, it is not only the conditions of Briarcliffe can be likened to those of Willowbrook State School in the series, but the investigative role and character of Lana which can loosely be compared to Geraldo Rivera.

Further resources:

AHS Asylum truths #8: Madness linked to religion


– Sister Jude

THROUGHOUT history, we have sought explanation for ‘madness’. From Ancient Greece and the theory of the humours to the rise of psychiatry in more recent times, the reasoning for insanity has been one of contention and depending on socio-medical trends.

As we see in AHS: Asylum, the Catholic church purchase Briarcliffe following its closure as a TB hospital in 1950s, and from then on, it was in the Church’s duties to care for ‘lost souls’ as Sister Jude puts it.

We are going to concentrate on the impact religion had on beliefs of mental illness and lunacy, and for this, we need to return to the European Middle Ages, when Christians believed in possession by demonic forces (consequentially ending in madness),  for which required ritual exorcism. In fact, it was believed that more deeply embedded demons (usually found in elderly or eccentric women!?) required torture or in fact death to be cast out.

We initially see this belief in progress as young Jed is brought into Briarcliffe following devastatingly creepy and evil acts he has committed. Drawing inspiration from The Exorcist film, producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk believed this to be an important feature to include, after all, this was a common belief and treatment in Church-run insane asylums.

Christianity’s influence on mental health lasted centuries, and saw madness in terms of divine punishment- that required for the act of sin. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, when ‘insane asylums’ were coming into their own, the Christian Church had much to do with all humanitarian efforts throughout the world.
Mental health facilities were regularly funded, staffed and run by the Catholic clergy, in which their main recommendation for the cure and relief of mental illness was to pray and seek God’s forgiveness; attendance at church was deemed the most effective treatment.

Many stories in the Bible talked of ‘madness’, mainly explained by the Devil’s doing, such as the story of Saul, whom was calmed when he heard music being played. Moral treatment was seen as the way forward, and in this respect, meant that repenting and seeking to be a better Christian would assist in banishing those mental health problems. Well, let’s just say that wasn’t always the case!

As seen in AHS: Asylum, the ‘stairway to heaven’ as Sister Jude calls it, leads not to simple religious cures, but a whole lot more, that doesn’t seem to work too efficiently as treatment! In episode 1, she refers to madness as a ‘spiritual crisis’; a someone classical Christian thought pattern back in the 1960s and centuries prior, and that psychiatrists were no more than ‘charlatans’.

There are many religious reference and quotes throughout the series (too many to go through now), but it is clear in the production that producers wanted the religious element to be clear; reflecting realistic behaviour and beliefs in mental health at the time.

You could be my miracle, Leigh. If I could turn a man like you towards Christ… imagine the reforms I could make on a national scale. Not just mental health… Believe me, if I ascend to the highest ranks of the Church, I won’t back down from the fight… 

– Monsignor Timothy Howard

There is much more to the historical, winding relationship between madness and religion, of all denominations- not just Catholicism, but AHS: Asylum gives an easy to swallow chunk of the important role Christianity played in the timeline and development from madness, to insanity to mental illness.


AHS Asylum truths #7: The straitjacket

THE straitjacket. Or straight jacket. You choose.

Invented in Paris in 1790, where it was referred to as the camisole de force, the straitjacket was considered a humane advance to the chains in use previously to restrain unruly and dangerous patients. Not only was this seen through Victorian-era art, such as A Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth but in literature at the time; describing scenes of, (excuse the phrase) bedlam, filth, confinement and madness.

William Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’: His depiction of Bedlam Hospital, London (1733)


Seen at various points throughout AHS: Asylum, these methods of restraint were rarely used for their proposed purpose, as we will discover further on…

The straitjacket was designed as a jacket with full-length sleeves, which a patient would wear and have each arm crossed over and fastened at the back, to ensure they could not cause self-harm or injure others. This cliched, classic epitome of insanity depictions was sadly a common and recurrent form of restraint, and in fact, it is this recurrent use which led to the demise of the jacket.

As asylums gained popularity and more patients were committed, the jacket became a common treatment to not only the most dangerous and violent patients, but for those whom they simply did not have the experience to deal with. Poorly trained staff and ill-equipped asylums quickly became inept and unable to properly care for patients, and abuse of this piece of equipment became rife. Abuse for punishing patients was most common, and became obvious that it was largely used as a penal application, rather than a therapeutic one.

Sadly, not only were these debilitating for those on whom they were unnecessarily placed, but they could cause physical complications with breathing, not to mention mental and emotional distress and confusion.

During the 20th century, medical advancements, coined as ‘chemical straitjackets’, such as thorazine were increasingly used to sedate patients who required it, and straitjackets fell into disrepute. Eventually discredited as barbaric, inhumane and dangerous, the era of the straitjacket was over, giving way to more holistic and actually therapeutic methods (even if this was only sedatives!)

Ironically, the straitjacket is now regarded as a form of bondage and fetishism, one of the many reasons supposedly ‘insane’ people would have originally been put in a straitjacket for!

AHS Asylum truths #6: Psychosexual behaviour

AS we’ve briefly touched upon in previous blog posts, psychosexual behaviours were looked upon as forms of ‘sexual deviancy’ for which was seen as a mental illness, ‘cured’ by a committal to state hospitals and insane asylums- Briarcliffe being a prime example.

‘Illnesses’ such as nymphomania, exhibitionism and chronic masturbation were grounds for the nuthouse, and AHS: Asylum exhibits this well in the guise of various characters. The first we will look at is Shelley, as played by guest actor Chloe Sevigny. We hear her story of life prior to Briarcliffe, and how her ‘proposterous diagnosis from a psychiatrist [of nymphomania]’ – says Sister Jude – is grounds for punishment, then treatment.
Now referred to in psychiatry hypersexuality, this diagnosis describes an individual who has extremely frequent or sudden increased urges for sexual activity. Jude, however, believes Shelley to simply be a victim of her own lust. In fact, she refers to her as a ‘sexual deviant’ when she goes missing in the storm part way through the series.
Hypersexuality has since been rethought, and has often been imagined as not a psychological condition, but actions of a person who simply doesn’t conform to social sexual expectations or conformities. In the same vain, it can be thought of as an obsessive compulsive disorder or addiction.
Shelley’s story of discovering sexual self-gratification from a young age, and her consequent continued sexual promiscuity unfolds, and we learnt that she is baffled by not only the fact she could be unfairly reprimanded and kept in Briarcliffe because of this, that men can love sex but when women do, they are regarded as sluts (hmmm, I’m not sure if this has changed…!)

Similarly to this, chronic masturbating (another ‘diagnosis’) seen in Briarcliffe represented through character Rudy. Back then, regarded as a mental disorder, can now be seen as a compulsion or addiction, as opposed to mental illness, even if the time/place is inappropriate.

Exhibitionism, paedophelia and (questionably) coprophilia [paraphilia involving sexual arousal and pleasure from faeces, so says] are seen in Spivey, the supporting character and occasionally seen patient whom we learn would um, pleasure himself in the view of children in the school playground. Exhibitionism (exposing genitals to strangers), paedophelia and voyeurism (a person sexually aroused whilst watching others, i.e. porn or a peeping tom!) were seen as sexual deviancies much like Shelley’s ‘nymphomania’, hence his subsequent placement in Briarcliffe. This builds up quite a picture of sexual actors against cultural ‘norms’ were automatically labelled mental health deficiencies, or perhaps in fact, simply sinful and requiring of repentance.

Sexual deviancy was aroundabout defined as unusual sexual behaviour. Now, of course paedophilia and exhibitionism are illegal and morally unacceptable, but just because someone chooses to undertake an ‘unusual’ sexual activity, doesn’t make you mentally unwell. Well, now of course we know and accept people’s preferences as part of them, but back then, people weren’t so accepting…