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.