I Spent Three Years Talking to Boys. Here’s What I Found.

The 20-year-old college student and gamer I met in Cedar City, Utah, didn’t seem particularly amused by his own joke that he was a cultural cliché. He lived in his grandma’s basement, and barely left the house except to go to classes. He spent the vast majority of his free time online — playing video games, watching porn and hanging out on Discord, the heavily male-skewed communication platform, where users gather in communities devoted to topics ranging from the innocuously nerdy to the utterly horrifying. By his own admission, he was brutally lonely.

During the pandemic, he was a moderator for a Discord community, at first mainly sorting out technical problems and weeding out trolls. But one night, an adolescent boy called him over voice chat, and started sharing how lonely and depressed he was. He spoke with the boy for an hour, trying to talk him down and give him hope. That call led to more like it. Over time, he developed a reputation as an unofficial therapist on the server. By the time he left Discord a year or so later, he’d had about 200 calls with different people, both men and women, who spoke of contemplating suicide.

But it was the boys who seemed the most desperately lonely and isolated. On the site, he said, he found “a lot more unhealthy men than unhealthy women.” He added: “With men, there is a huge thing about mental health and shame because you’re not supposed to be weak. You’re not supposed to be broken.” A male mental-health crisis was flying under the radar.

I have spent the last few years talking to boys as research for my new book, as well as raising my own three sons, and I have come to believe the conditions of modern boyhood are a recipe for loneliness. This is a new problem bumping up against an old one. All the old deficiencies and blind spots of male socialization are still in circulation — the same mass failure to teach boys relational skills and emotional intelligence, the same rigid masculinity norms and social prohibitions that push them away from intimacy and emotionality. But in screen-addicted, culture war-torn America, we have also added new ones.

The micro-generation that was just hitting puberty as the #Metoo movement exploded in 2017 is now of college (and voting) age. They have lived their whole adolescence not just in the digital era, with a glorious array of virtual options to avoid the angst of real-world socializing, but also in the shadow of a wider cultural reckoning around toxic masculinity.

We have spent the past half-decade wrestling with ideas of gender and privilege, attempting to challenge the old stereotypes and power structures. These conversations should have been an opportunity to throw out the old pressures and norms of manhood, and to help boys and men be more emotionally open and engaged. But in many ways this environment has apparently had the opposite effect — it has shut them down even further.

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