It is completely natural for adolescent boys to think about sex, but the modern practice of pairing pornography with video gaming is leading to psychological and physical maladaptation among our youth. During this point in a boy’s development, reproduction becomes a top (if not the top) priority. From a purely naturalistic point of view, our genes push us to such desires in order to pass these said genes on to the next generation. From a Christian point of view, this is the way that children are brought into the world. God has attached these natural, sensual pleasures to procreation not only as incentive to reproduce, but also as a reward for reproducing. The problem is, because of Original Sin mixed with near universal access to Internet pornography, many of today’s young men will lose their souls due to sins of the flesh. Too many of them, for the same reason, are poorly socialized psychologically and even show structural changes to the brain itself.
No Catholic parent needs to be told of the dangers of sin (at least I hope not). However, with the advent of the Internet, which only the current generation of young men has grown up with, the occasion for sin is closer to all of us than ever before. It has been my experience that most young Catholic men have unrestricted access to the Internet, certainly at home, and often at school. Now, even our cell phones have access to the Internet, and all of the dangers associated with it.
I have only ever heard a few priests preach about the dangers of the Internet from the pulpit, and each one of these sermons has been about the dangers to the soul. While supernatural reasons are certainly most important in my view, they need not be the sole reason to limit our sons’ Internet usage. In fact, Dr. Philip Zimbardo,[i] psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, studied the lives of 20,000 young people (75% of them men) and their relationship with video games and pornography, and discovered that these were causing young men to become social recluses.
Dr. Zimbardo’s work focused on gaming and viewing Internet pornography. He found that these men were playing video games alone in their rooms, and, as a break, watching an average of two hours of pornography per day. All of this gaming—amounting to five hours per day—is in Dr. Zimbardo’s opinion excessive, and is creating social isolation.
One mother in attendance at a talk given by Dr. Zimbardo stated that her son played video games for 15 hours per day, and when she confronted him about it, he did not think it was a problem. Is there any calculus by which allowing one’s child to play 15 hours of video games every day can be considered responsible parenting?
Dr. Zimbardo goes on to say that video gaming and watching Internet pornography is a new kind of addiction: it is an activity addiction. Excess consumption of these activities has produced a psychological change in mindset: young men would rather be playing video games than doing anything else. He says that when they are engaged in another activity, they can only think about returning to gaming. When they are with a girl, they would rather be watching pornography, because they never get rejected.
All of which has led to a crisis of masculinity.
Lest one think that Dr. Zimbardo is a moral crusader against gaming and Internet pornography, he admits that he does not think video games or pornography are bad. He never plays video games and hardly ever watches pornography, not because of morality, but because he simply does not have time.
While Dr. Zimbardo may not consider the moral or supernatural reasons for avoiding such habits, his view highlights the medical reasons that are highly under-appreciated. In his view, these activities are dangerous once they occupy a more central role in a man’s life. When this occurs, brain function begins to change. There are changes in the reward centers in the brain such that these areas “light up” (demonstrate increased activity) during video gaming or viewing pornography in the same way that they “light up” when exposed to other triggers of addiction. Because of excessive time spent playing video games and watching pornography, boys’ brains are becoming “digitally rewired” in ways that are difficult to reverse.
The fact that pornography “rewires” the brain has been shown in a July 2014 study[ii] from the University of Cambridge. Researchers from the Department of Psychiatry noted that men both with and without compulsive sexual behaviors (what people might popularly call “sex addiction” or “porn addiction”) had increased activity of addiction centers in the brain when watching explicit videos. However, these areas had significantly more activity in men with compulsive sexual behaviors, and these findings are similar to those of other addiction studies for nicotine, cocaine, and alcohol. From this we can consider viewing pornography as an addiction, and one that needs to be treated as such.
Dr. Valerie Voon, head researcher of the study, also noted that the younger the patient, the higher level of activity in these addiction centers in response to pornography.[iii] This hits at the crux of the problem: adolescent boys must stay away from pornography!
We know that as boys grow, there are new and increased neuronal connections in the brain. The brain’s frontal lobe—which is the seat of personality, judgement, reasoning, problem solving, and rational decision making—is not fully developed until a person reaches their mid-twenties. This is why parents often have a difficult time motivating their adolescent sons, and why they are rebellious and unable to control their moods. More importantly, this is why parents have to be vigilant in raising their sons, not just in early childhood, but also much later in their development.
Yet, even with great parents and other role models present, it is still hard for young men to feel adequate in society. I have felt this, and so have other young men I have spoken to. It is a sense that we are unimportant to society, and often times even detrimental to it. Dr. Zimbardo notes a phenomenon I have also become aware of: the American media portray men as stupid, lazy slobs, undesirable to women and yet only motivated by sex. The media have such a tight control over the lives of American youth, it is no surprise that they will soak in the messages of our secular culture.
It is the responsibility of parents and those educating our boys to teach them how to behave properly in society, and instill in them the virtues proper to Catholic living. Video games (and television along with them) can be antithetical to these virtues. Pornography will actively destroy them. For this reason, it is absolutely necessary for parents to limit and supervise the time boys are spending on the Internet, playing video games, and watching television, so that more time can be devoted to cultivating virtue, prayer, and positive interactions with other people. Content and activities that are not objectively sinful can, but they must be strictly monitored.[iv] There are too many opportunities for the Devil to get at the minds of young men. To ignore these dangers is to imperil the souls of our children.
If boys do not find a sense of worth in masculinity, they will not practice it. We cannot hope to restore Christian civilization if our Catholic men are missing from the fight. The current reality is that most boys and young men do not have good male role models. Fathers have been increasingly absent from the lives of their sons. We have few male teachers in our elementary, middle, and high schools, times when most of the patterning of the brain is occurring. If our sons do not have the example of good and holy men from a young age, a naturally good patterning may not occur. They may end up shutting themselves in their rooms to play video games and watch pornography. They may be absent from society, if not physically, then certainly mentally and emotionally. Absent will be good husbands and good fathers, and certainly good priests. If we do not have good and holy priests, what becomes of our future?
This is terribly tragic for Catholic women too. There are so few devout and well-raised Catholic men for them to marry. The men of our day cannot attend to the emotional needs their potential wives. They cannot communicate with them effectively or support them properly. The Catholic gentleman is nearly dead, because, alone in their rooms, boys do not learn Catholic virtues by example, nor can they practice them in everyday living. I noted in the beginning that is perfectly natural for boys to think about sex. However, if a boy is properly socialized, he will know when sex is appropriate and what is it for. Sex will certainly pass on his genes, but if he is educated and trained well in authentic masculinity, he will pass on more than his genes: he will pass on his virtue and his Catholic Faith.
Good prelates of the Church have been warning us about the masculinity crisis. A secular professor is sounding the alarm now too. It’s past time for us to wake up and do something about it!
[i] For further reading, see Bolton, Doug. “Porn and video game addiction leading to ‘masculinity crisis’, says Stanford psychologist.” The Guardian 9 May 2015. Web; and the BBC interview with Dr. Zimbardo, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02qyfc7.
[ii] Voon V, Mole TB, Banca P, Porter L, Morris L, Mitchell S, et al. (2014) Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviours. PLoS ONE 9(7): e102419. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102419
[iii] “Brain Activity in Sex Addiction Mirrors That of Drug Addiction.” University of Cambridge. 11 July 2014. Web. 3 June 2015.
[iv] There are a few services that parents may use to protect their children from explicit Internet sites, such as Covenant Eyes or K9 Web Protection. These may also be recommended for those having trouble guarding their own Internet browsing. However, I do not believe that these can be used apart from good parenting, including having the conversation about what is appropriate to search on the Internet and also limiting the amount of time on the Internet. Parents should also be aware that children can access the Internet via an X-Box or PSIII, which will not have the filters placed on computers or cell phones.
Trent Augustine received a B.S. in Physiology from Marquette University in 2010 and a M.A. from Loyola University Chicago in 2013. He is currently a medical student at Loyola University Chicago. Despite the difficulties of living the faith in an environment hostile to the Church, it is his hope to bring another authentic Catholic voice to the medical profession.
See also “Boys Adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men.”, Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D. (c) 2007.
Another factor in all this, as I see it, is that most of us live in tiny little neighborhoods with our nice little 6 ft block walls with little to no back yard. After a child finishes school for the day he’s supposed to do – what? Go into the tiny backyard and throw the ball accidentally into the neighbor’s yard again because the houses are so crammed in? TV, internet, video games: they’re all something for the children to do because there is nothing else for them to do in our honey comb neighborhoods. The more faith conscious parents will at least get rid of the TV, severely (and I mean severely) limit internet activity (and that with the presence of a parent nearby) and restrict video games to the level of a legitimate recreation and not an obsession.
Something I personally think that is a needed remedy for such a situation and is more conducive to a more healthy and natural lifestyle is move further out. Buy a cheaper home but with either a larger lot or preferably an acre or more. Manufactured homes help keeps the costs down and you get more land for your money. More land means more things for your kids to do – outside. Raise animals, plant gardens and fruit trees. Get the family outside and together for these activities. Having animals means chores – good old fashioned dirty, sweaty, smelly chores! Just what we need to remedy our emasculation and prevent it in our children. Video games then take the back seat and become a reward or incentive and not a ‘necessity’ because there is nothing else to do.
This is the path we have taken and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My daughters enjoy archery on our own land, my son gets to tote around a Red Rider BB gun and dispatch nuisance animals like ground squirrels. There is a sense of wonder at the growing watermelons in the garden and anticipation towards the day they get to eat them. There’s just so many opportunities for showing responsibility and family togetherness it’s unreal. And in a lot of cases all this might just mean adding as little as 20 minutes to your commute.
Thank you Mr. Auguston what a holy man you are, and this article is very needed. We are indeed in a crisis, and as the mother of sons it has been an uphill battle for over 15 years explaining to teachers “yes we can campaign and raise money for Ipads in our Catholic elementary schools, it will make us look hip like tax payer funded schools, but what a Pandora’s box”. Will pray for your success in Medical School. God Bless!
I think this article touches upon an important issue. However, if I may point out, it seems to miss the forest for the trees.
The truth of the matter is, one does not have to go on the internet to see pornography or be tempted to see it (keeping aside the gaming issue for a bit). What many would have considered pornography in the past is now publicly displayed in the form of images in shopping malls, magazine covers etc. But it does not stop there. We have women in general who dress in a sexually enticing manner which many in the past would have considered a form of pornography too. We see that everywhere from the beaches to our very Churches. So pornography today is not just on the internet. Men are swimming in it constantly. They just happen to take another “natural” step when they take to the internet to watch pornography, or engage in premarital sex etc.
As for whether this can be solved by “socialization”, the answer is probably a resounding NO. Teenagers are simply prone to seek to satisfy their sexual urges at that age. So the issue is that they have plenty of sexual stimulation bombarding them in society.
The sad truth today is that if one were to practice guarding ones eyes and fleeing sources of temptation, there is not a whole lot one can look at or be at in society. But I feel that it is what we must introduce to our children.
Among other things that St. Alphonsus Liguori advises as a remedy against bad thoughts, I would like to draw your attention to the following:-
“The Prophet Isaiah says that to be Freed-from Bad Thoughts, we must Take-away the Evil of our Thoughts. “Take away the Evil of your Devices” – Isaiah 1:16. What does he Mean-by Taking-away theEvil of our Devices? He means that we should Take-away the Occasions-of Evil Thoughts, AvoidDangerous Occasions, and Keep-at a Distance-from Bad Company. I knew a Young Man who was an Angel; but in Consequence-of a Word which he Heard-from a Bad Companion, he had an EvilThought, and Consented-to it. He was of Opinion, that this was the only Grievous Sin which he Committed-in his Whole Life; for he afterwards became a Religious, and, after some Years, Died aHoly Death. Thus, it is also Necessary-to Abstain-from Reading Books that are Obscene, or otherwiseBad. You must, moreover, avoid Dances-with Females, and Profane Comedies; at least when the Dances or Comedies are Immodest……”
“Above all, in-order-to Avoid Bad Thoughts, Men must Abstain-from looking-at Women, and Females must be Careful, not to look-at Men. I repeat the Words-of Job, which I have frequently-Quoted, “I made a Covenant with my Eyes, that I would not so much as Think upon a Virgin” – Job 31:1. He says that he made a Covenant-with his Eyes that he would not Think. What have the Eyes to do withThinking? The Eyes do not Think; the Mind alone Thinks. But he had Reason to say, that he made a Covenant-with his Eyes that he would not Think on Women; for Saint Bernard says, that through theEyes, the Darts-of, Impure Love, which Kills the Soul, enter-into the Mind. “Per oculos intrat in mentem sagitta impuri amoris”. Hence, the Holy Ghost says, “Turn away thy Face from a Woman dressed up, and Gaze not about upon another’s Beauty – Ecclesiasticus 9:8. It is always Dangerous to Look-at Young Persons, Elegantly-dressed; and to Look-at them Purposely, and without a Just Cause, is at-least a Venial Sin…”
All of this applies to more than just teenagers. If St. Alphonsus was right in the remedies he prescribes, then one can see why our society has degraded to the level it is at right now.
I would also like to point out, you mentioned that
We know that as boys grow, there are new and increased neuronal connections in the brain. The brain’s frontal lobe—which is the seat of personality, judgement, reasoning, problem solving, and rational decision making—is not fully developed until a person reaches their mid-twenties….Yet, even with great parents and other role models present, it is still hard for young men to feel adequate in society.
The unfortunate truth here is that there are probably very few parents (at least in North America) who even know what their child is doing after they are 17. We have a culture where schools and parents teach their children that they are the smartest persons in the world and set them out to some far away college when they graduate from high-school. So during the time it takes for them reach mid twenties, many of them have screwed up their life by developing bad habits, bad relationships etc. By the time they reach mid twenties, it can be harder to overcome these habits and bad relationships.
But yea, I just wanted to point out that you most likely have not seen “great parents” in this regard since our culture simply does not believe in tighter parental influence and control of life of children beyond 17.
“There are so few devout and well-raised Catholic men for them to marry.”
Ha! There are few devout and well-raised Catholic women to aspire to. And when you do meet them, you are competing with 50 other guys. Before you know it she is engaged, and not to you.
Women set the standard. And few women are setting that standard, hence the trend you see here.
My teenage years are well behind me. What began as a small flow years ago is now awash everywhere world-wide: women who dress to flaunt their figure, careless conversations, ubiquitous naked or near-naked figures, male and female, on TV and at malls, and movies that are simply pornographic. Throw in books, magazines and internet and you have quite a cesspool. Men, of course, and young men, more pointedly, are up against a powerful enemy in this world-wide satanic culture of perversion. In America especially the cunning tactic is to equate morality with legality (abortion being the most satanic example) and, thus, the youth are inundated with a never-ending stream of filth and perversion. To top all of this off, young men in particular are around young women almost non-stop. What harm in this? First, most young women do not adequately understand modesty. Second, domains of activity like sports demonstrate that the young women are “just like the boys” with more and more foolish emphasis on contact sports for the women (boxing, martial arts, etc.). Egalitarianism on steroids. I could list more ways in which young women are trained in this cultural morass to be like men. So, it is not difficult to understand why young men are seeking alternative ways to “be alone” or pursue what can be considered a domain of their own. Most gamers are male. That is perhaps due to the boys wanting to master a skill not shared by young women and a time away from young women, believe it or not. It was not uncommon to separate young men and young women, even in government schools, from about 12 to college. Of course, this was not absolute and did not preclude social contact between the men and women. It did place an emphasis on different roles and training for each sex (yes, I do not use the term “gender”-sounds like we are breeding cattle). The new order of unisex approaches to education, sports and virtually everything in this cultural cesspool tends to adversely affect young men. They are the ones who are being challenged by young women. The assertive young women are not a potential ally of the young men. She is his competition. Fitting that many young men retreat from this sordid process and form groups with other young men to, unfortunately in my estimation, play video games and possibly surf the internet. Male only activities are where young men learn to be real men. Women, as God intended, play a complementary role to men. That sentence will surely draw fire. So be it. As real manhood is stripped away from a culture you see the culture in which we currently live-abortion widely practiced and widely unquestioned, “slut” walks, pornography, women receiving the majority of undergraduate college degrees, divorce, promiscuity, binges of all kinds, and lots of unbridled selfishness. As women “progress”, read lose their feminine grace, they are altered severely enough to do untold damage to themselves, their children if they have any, and the men they “allow” into their increasingly self-centered lives. Nothing has really changed since the Garden of Eden.
Pornography is NOT “destroying” the brains of young (or old) men. The people pushing the “porn addiction” nonsense are not scientists and are not psychiatrists. They are moralizers attempting to use scientific language to foist a prudishness onto Christianity that is foreign to it. A Catholic who thinks that God has a problem with nudity needs to visit the Sistine Chapel.
I am a psychiatrist, and I know the difference between science and moralism. I am also a Christian who knows that God approves of erotica and that it is holy and good.