Why So Many Boys Today Don’t Become Men

Doctor Leonard Sax, author of 'Boys Adrift', explains why video games, over medication, and lack of parental authority are making boys unmotivated.

brothers playing in garden
flickr / Michael LaMartin
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Boys being boys is okay unless they never become men. And Dr. Leonard Sax is one of the leading authorities on why certain adolescent males remain stunted. A physician and psychologist whose books, including Boys Adrift and The Collapse of Parenting, are brimming with insight and academic citations, he’s extremely concerned with the future of the American male. Sax sees a steep decline in the motivation of young men, which he blames on video games, over medication, and a rise in parents who don’t want to be true authority figures. Here, Sax explains his thinking as well as what moms and dads can do to make sure their parenting doesn’t add to the epidemic.

By what measures are boys stunted?

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We can see it when we look at how they’re doing academically. There’s a growing gender gap. In 1980, the National Endowment for the Arts surveyed American teenagers asking who reads for fun in their spare time. At that time, there was a small gender gap with girls more likely to do so. Recently they did the same survey and found the gender gap has become a chasm, and girls today are actually reading somewhat less than they did then. But across different regions, races — white, black, Latino — and income levels, boys are not reading at all. Affluent parents think they’re exempt, but that’s not the case.

In the U.S. last year university graduates were 57 percent female, and women are outnumbering men two-to-one in those who graduate with honors. Forty years ago men gravely outnumbered women graduating with honors. Girls substantially outnumber boys in taking advanced placement courses in most content areas. Today men are more likely to drop out of university as well.

Why is this happening?

Because boys are disengaging. They regard doing well as uncool and unmasculine.

You frequently mention video games as a large part of the problem. How do they factor into this?

Video games shift motivation. Scholars have found that beyond a threshold of six hours a week, there’s a negative correlation between video games and academic achievement. A kid who spends 20 hours a week playing video games does much worse than one who spends five hours a week.

That’s not shocking to hear. But what does this lead to? 

Displacement. It means you’re not doing other things like sleeping and studying. They’re motivated to get to the next stage of Grand Theft Auto, not do well in Spanish grammar. If that’s the crowd you hang with, then doing well in GTA will improve your status whereas getting an A in Spanish might actually lower your status.

So how should parents handle this?

Parents have to limit video games. It’s not reasonable to put that burden on your son. He can’t tell his friends he turned the game off because “Research shows that blah blah blah.” It has to be, ‘’My evil parent turned my device off after 40 minutes.” No more than 40 minutes a night on school nights or an hour on weekends. No games rated “M” for mature. No games where you get rewarded for killing people. No video games in the bedroom — no screens at all in the bedroom. Games should be in a public space because otherwise how will a parent enforce that? Most parents collapse in horror at the idea they should shut off the games. Many American parents are afraid of their kids. That idea is almost unknown outside the U.S.

You also emphasize the danger of overmedication in young boys.  

There’s been an explosion in prescribing amphetamine and methylphenidate to American kids. All these drugs when administered to juveniles damage the motivational center of the brain. I saw a 27-year-old guy who spent most of his time playing video games and looking at porn. He didn’t have a career or girlfriend. This is the new normal. This boy was on Ritalin from ages nine to 17. Can I say with certainty this is due to the meds? No. But we have very good research suggesting these substances damage motivation.

What can you point to? 

In America, kids are 14 times more likely to be on meds than in the United Kingdom, and the U.K. is an outlier in Europe. In all of France, there are fewer kids on medication for ADD than in Boston alone. Kids show up to school on medications and teachers say, “What a difference!” BZZZT! Wrong. They’re usually compensating for sleep deprivation. Most teenagers need nine hours. This is well known outside the U.S. but is totally ignored among American parents.

So, what’s one way parents can help boys?

They should not be afraid to do their job, overruling their kids if necessary. It’s not okay for kids to take their phone to bed. Take it away at 9 p.m. and give it back in the morning. British kids are just as likely as Americans to own phones but British kids are getting more sleep, not less like Americans, than 20 years ago. Why? British kids don’t have devices in their room.

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