A teenage boy picks up his mobile phone. They all have one these days, don’t they? By this age, he’s bound to have social media too. He selects his favourite app: TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, or perhaps BeReal.
The first video that pops up is a rant from provocateur Andrew Tate, or one of hundreds of others like him. Feminism has gone too far, the man barks. It’s time for men to take their masculinity back.
The next video is about a girl who has been harassed at school. She’s standing up for herself, for her rights. She’s demanding respect, and slowly, but surely, the world is starting to listen.
The boy takes in both messages, perhaps not consciously, but they enter into his psyche nonetheless, despite the contradiction.
He moves onto messages. He’s been added to a group chat. Some of his friends are making fun of a girl at school. Others are planning a fight. He doesn’t want to contribute; it doesn’t feel right. But he can’t leave the group either, they’ll all know. Maybe he’ll be targeted next. Maybe he’ll get called short, or ugly, or gay. And there’ll be nothing he can do because boys don’t snitch. And they certainly don’t cry.
Except they do. They cry. And they care.
“Boys can suffer from anxiety, depression and low self-esteem when bullying flies under the radar,” says child psychologist Deirdre Brandner. “And when they don’t seek help, their emotional health can deteriorate.”
The past 10 years have brought dramatic changes on every level, and according to Brandner, the power of marketing, pop culture and technology has had a particularly severe impact on boys.
“Boys are now more vulnerable to an increasingly overwhelming peer pressure. Eating issues are on the rise. The dynamics of engagement in the real world has shifted and as such lack of real challenges to boys drives them into unhealthy risk-taking and into the violent world of video games.
“Boys also have to respond to the messages they receive growing up in this highly sexualised climate. We know that there is an increase in primary school children accessing porn, and boys are now watching this material together. Porn gives them a new language, a new way of relating, which has inherent challenges.”
But while the world is rightly focused on gender-based violence, race, climate change and a whole host of other issues that desperately need our collective attention, who’s looking out for our boys?
“[Boys are receiving] totally mixed messages and it is something we as parents have to help them make sense of,” says Shane Warren, father of three teen boys, aged 13 (twins) and 14. Warren says while many of the issues faced by teen boys are inherently similar to those faced by generations gone by, the current cohort also faces global uncertainty and an avalanche of mixed messages, thrust upon them 24/7, thanks to the internet.
“Each boy has their own struggles, but I think the most common theme is where they fit within their peer network and how they may make dangerous decisions to not be their authentic self, just to fit in.”
Knowing how to fit in can be just as tricky, thanks to the continuous live feed of contradictory messaging regarding what it means to be a boy, and a man.
“Boys are taught from early years before school and at school to show ‘respect’. Touch is controversial or questionable, but we learn love through touch,” says educational consultant and author Susanne Gervay. “Caveats are placed on fathers who shower with their kids, boys or girls. As teens/ tweens, how can a boy approach a girl? There is so much confusion for boys.”
Gervay says puberty is a particularly difficult experience for boys in the modern age, especially when it comes to communicating with girls. “It can be a minefield and they are unprepared.”
Brandner agrees. “Many boys talk of the ‘confusing messages’ they are sent when it comes to expressing their romantic interest in a girl,” she says.
News reports frequently reflect appalling behaviour by some young boys. A case in point: recently a large cohort of boys were part of a private chat room that advocated racism, homophobia, misogyny, extreme sexual behaviours and more. Some boys were leaders. Others went along with it.
Conversely, studies have shown that most boys and young men support the #MeToo movement, and believe female empowerment is essential for girls and women.
So, what’s going on? “The role of social media results in an increase in sensitivity to the judgement of friends, fuels anxiety, and makes it harder to cope with the pressures of growing up, popularity, body image,” says Brandner. “The negative backlash that young men are trying to navigate can make them feel they can’t make the right choice.
“Studies are suggesting the emotional needs of boys in today’s younger generations are being ignored. Gender stereotypes are harmful to girls, but also put boys at risk.”
According to Brandner, boys often perceive themselves as being resented, both as the unfairly privileged sex and as obstacles on the path to gender justice for girls. “Some teens have felt that their voices have been silenced in conversations around gender and they struggle to navigate damaging perceptions about masculinity.”
Locked into silence
Gervay believes the modern climate has made it difficult for boys to come forward with their feelings and struggles. “There are so many social pressures for them to remain silent. When a girl rejects a boy, or he is bullied or targeted – [he feels] powerless.”
Mental health is another major issue, says Gervay. “Boys have the same emotional journey as girls, but are often locked into silence. Who can they talk to? How do they feel about death? Why are they here? Can they meet their parents’ expectations? Or should they follow their peer group? There are so many dilemmas as they confront identity crisis and choices they make.
“Some boys grow up with models of sexism, antisemitism, homophobia, racism, domestic abuse,” he says. “Other boys become increasingly aware of these issues. But how do boys react? Go along with their peer group? Walk away? Join in the abuse? Be silent? Ignore it? It is complicated as their search for identity is fragile and easily derailed.”
Gina Urlich is mother to a 15-year-old boy, and says social media makes it hard to properly monitor teenagers, and limits parents’ ability to instil strong values, due to the intense pull of the online world.
“It is really hard to monitor their every move online and there is an element of trust that comes into play,” says Urlich. “But I’m also conscious that their brain is not developed enough to always make responsible decisions. Platforms like TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram mean content is thrown at them from all angles.”
Urlich says social media has created an ‘always on’ environment for teenagers, which can make decision-making difficult. It can also make them question their own values. “They feel the pressure to keep up with the online world and a faux reality. We must remind our teens [and ourselves] that these squares of edited images are snapshots of people’s lives and not a full picture.”
The consequences, says Gervay, can be catastrophic. “As an educator, I recognise that during adolescence, the area of the brain responsible for reasoning, planning, and problem solving, is developing, which when coupled with the hormonal surge of puberty, alcohol, peer group pressure, personal and parental expectations, [and] identity crisis, it can lead to impulsive and negative behaviour especially when social media is the added dimension. Behaviours can occur that they often cannot go back from. It can have dangerous consequences.”
What you can do
But with the media largely leaving young boys out of the narrative, how can parents help? “Childhood has become more insular; we are doing less together and this was particularly evident during the pandemic and remains in the post COVID-19 world,” says Brandner.
“There is an increase in world stressors as we are all exposed to an avalanche of bad news. We know that the male teenager’s perception of the world causes them stress. It is adults that are responsible for changing the narrative and creating a healthier environment for boys to thrive. We as a society are the ones that created boyhood, not our boys.”
Warren believes after primary school, external contributors are the primary influences of our children’s sense of identity.
“Our early years are focused on teaching values and benchmarks to guide them in the years where social media, friends, schools etc will have greater influence,” he says.
“One thing I have to do constantly as a father is to check in with what messages my boys are taking away from all such mediums that are not within my control. This creates for interesting conversations and sometimes rather heavy dialogue, but it is a real part of their worlds and so I need to walk alongside that – challenging where necessary and celebrating when fit to do so.”
Brandner believes that society needs to start working just as hard to empower boys to be nurturing, understanding, sensitive, and creative.
“We have to give them the tools to cope with the painful emotions associated with relational aggression, and the social- emotional skills to rise above the negativity,” she says. “We need our boys to be their authentic selves and embrace their full range of emotions. We want them to be confident and capable. They (need to) know they can be anything they want to be.”
Know your child, know how to help: 7 tips for boys and teens struggling with mental health
While it’s easy to place all boys and young men into the ‘blue’ boy box and treat them as a homogenous bunch, author of Breaking the Gender Code and mum, Danielle Dobson says this way of operating can be limiting and disempowering.
“Similar to how we speak about treating women and girls when we lump them all in the ‘pink’ girl box,” Dobson says. “It’s important to treat individual boys as they would like to be treated. The only way as a parent that you would know this, is if you ask them.”
The key to helping your son navigate modern society, Dobson says, is getting to know him – really know him. Here’s what she suggests:
1. Ask rather than assume – find ways to ask your son what is happening and how he is travelling to get a deeper perspective of his world. Questions like, “Can you help me understand?”, “Why is x important to you?”, and “What is it about y that interests you?”
2. Focus on what’s strong rather than what’s wrong, with every conversation, thought and interaction. “It’s not easy but getting it right 50 per cent of the time is better than 0 per cent,” she says. “This isn’t about not addressing the problems and issues, but rather using your son’s strengths and the good parts of him to overcome the not so good bits.”
3. Leave your own ‘stuff’ out of the conversation – this can be your fears about your own shortcomings, historical and or ongoing problems with your own family, stresses of the day, or your preconceived ideas of the choices you think he should make.
4. Avoid words, actions, and experiences where your son feels shamed. “While this is not possible 100 per cent of the time, reducing it is key to developing a healthy self-image,” she says. “Consistent shaming is often the root of behaviours that range from disrespectful to criminal so if a boy/young man is unable to transform the pain of shame into something positive and grow from it, he will transfer the pain of shame onto others. Usually to someone or something he perceives as less powerful – women, children, animals, nature, ‘others’.”
5. Get to know his friends. “Friends are such a huge influence on teenage boys so knowing who they are spending their time with is crucial,” explains Dobson. We are the sum of the five people we spend the most time with, she says. “Invite them for dinners, family gatherings, weekends away, holidays and watch how they all interact. Sometimes you may have to do some ‘stealth noticing’.”
6. Model respectful relationships in the home: this extends to parents/ partnerships, grandparents, uncles/aunties, and people who support the family, such as cleaners and tutors. “Boys (and all children) are watching, absorbing and building their ‘code’ and ‘relationship algorithm’.”
7. Have open and honest conversations about pornography. “My kids (and I) are huge Marvel, Star Wars, DC and any other superhero-type- movie fans. So, I use these movies as a reference to talk about pornography,” Dobson says. “These movies have regular human actors playing people and gods who have been given superhuman powers and the movie makers use CGI and stunt men to make what they do look ‘real’ on camera. We all know that it is not possible in real life. This is exactly the same with pornography movies,” she explains. “So just as you wouldn’t jump out a window and expect to fly like Superman, expectations need to be adjusted when it comes to pornography movies and real sex lives.”