Thursday, May 19, 2016

Disconnected Young Men

On May 10, I attended a talk given by Dr. Philip Zimbardo,author of Man Interrupted: Why Young Men Are Struggling & What We Can Do About It. Dr. Zimbardo is a psychologist and a professor emeritus at Stanford University. He is famous for his 1971 Stanford prison experiment, and has written various introductory psychology books, textbooks for college students, and other notable works, including The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life and The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy. He is also the founder and president of the Heroic Imagination Project, a a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that teaches people how to take effective action in challenging situations

According to Zimbardo, the new threat to young males (preteens to twenties) is their choice to live in virtual reality instead of social reality. Unfortunately, this is not a phase and they don't outgrow it. So many young men have chosen social isolation because they don't know how to resist the enchantment of computer and video games. 

Video games are a multi billion dollar industry. They are popular because they focus on male values -- aggression, competition, war, destruction. Seventy percent of all video games are played by men. In video and computer games, young men get to experience being the hero and the antihero without the conditions or permanence of real life, and without risking life or limb. Therefore, it's no wonder that many young men consider the thrill-paced worlds of online porn and video games far more exciting than anything they encounter on a daily basis in their real lives. Thanks to the Internet, pornography is available 24/7. Children as young as six years old are watching pornography. 

The young men who game to excess often avoid anything that undercuts their means of achieving validation because it is so woven into their identities. Therefore it is doubly threatening when their activities are being questioned because they themselves are being critiqued at the same time. Virtual actions and ego become interchangeable. Distraction and immersion into their preferred virtual space serves as a shield around them, pushing any ego-puncturing inconsistencies out of sight. 

Zimbardo explained that there's nothing wrong with video games if played in moderation (one to two hours a day). For example, video games can improve hand eye coordination. The problem is that kids are playing video games seven to ten hours a day and they are addictive because they're designed to be addictive. Video game producers are constantly making their games more unusual and exciting to combat habituation. The problem is virtual reality has become more rewarding than physical reality for many young men. Multiple problems are associated with excessive gaming including obesity, desensitization to violence, social anxiety, social phobia and shyness, greater impulsivity, depression, and decreased school performance.  Compared with teenagers who don't play video games, adolescent gamers spend about 30 percent less time reading and 34 percent less time doing homework. When we immerse ourselves in a stimulating visual environment where a lot of information is demanding our immediate attention, the cognitive load overburdens our working memory. Having a high cognitive load amplifies distracted mess, and makes it more difficult for the mind to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant data. Studies of gamers that play for long periods of time have shown a reduction of gray matter areas of their brains, including parts of the frontal lobe, striatum, and insult -- areas that carry out executive functions like planning, prioritizing, organizing, empathy, and impulse control.  Surprisingly, it takes only a week of playing violent video games to depress activity in portions of the brain responsible for emotional control. Zimbardo provided the following statistics:
  • 47% of men who are heavy media users get fair to poor grades
  • 33% of men who are moderate media users get fair to poor grades
  • 23% of men who are light media users get fair to poor grades

Not all aspects of real life are laid out in a discernible pattern as is found in computer and video games. As gamification becomes more integrated into everyday life, creatures of habit will look for similar patterns elsewhere, likely becoming lost or losing motivation when the path does not appear before them. According to Zimbardo, our current generation is conceivably the less prepared generation for real world navigation, decision making, and problem solving. 

Let's face it. Earning rewards and achieving status in a virtual world is much easier than achieving those things in real life so our young men are paying the price of social isolation in the real world because their artificial worlds are so much more enticing and rewarding. One reason why young men may feel entitled to things these days is because very few of them actually participate in the process of building or maintaining the things they take for granted. Just as it is necessary to humanize a person to have empathy, in order to fully appreciate any given thing there needs to be a sense of the efforts and resources that went into making it. Nowadays, many young men have no sense of awe. They have become disconnected from the physical reality around them. Young men no longer have the patience or desire to lean how to build the foundations of success, nor are they inclined to expose themselves to what they perceive as ridicule if they were to fail along the way.  

Why are video and computer games so enticing? Zimbardo explained that when you play these games, you receive a score and the more you practice, the better you get, which motivates you to play even more in order to earn a higher score. Video and computer games offer virtual rewards at regular intervals, often after a certain level has been reached or a specific skills has been mastered. This schedule of reinforcement fits in perfectly with the kind of operant conditioning used by psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1940s to motivate pigeons to press a lever endlessly for extra food in his specially designed "Skinner Box." Behavior that is positively reinforced tends to be repeated, especially if it comes at variable rates, and in video games, after the required amount of effort and skill has been made, the reward is guaranteed. 

Some games are designed to give rewards sporadically along the way to the goal. Similar to the bait-and-switch technique, these games reward behavior only some of the time in order to keep a person engaged. Throwing in the occasional punishment -- like taking away hard-to-come-by weapons -- is another way to effectively control a player's behavior as well as motivate them to improve their skills so they don't make the same mistakes again.

The late Maressa Orzack, who was a clinical psychologist and assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, determined that the process of character development and reward systems within video games are a facet of operant conditioning, and are deliberately being incorporated into the games by their sophisticated designers. 

Why are so many young men playing video and computer games excessively? According to Zimbardo, socially isolated young men have fewer outlets for expression. Games are fun, visually dynamic and they provide young men with opportunities to form virtual communities. The goals of the game are clear and simple, and there are guaranteed rewards -- unlike real life.  

According to Zimbardo, shyness has become a self-imposed psychological prison. When I was a young child, I wanted nothing more than to shed the shackles of my self-imposed shyness. What is different today is that shyness among young men is less about a fear of rejection and more about fundamental social awkwardness -- not knowing what to do, when, where or how when faced with a social situation. They have never learned the basic rules of social communication. 

Many young men today are choosing social isolation. They don't care about what other people think of them and they are not afraid of rejection. They don't want to be part of the social community. Instead, they would rather be left alone so they can do their own thing.  The disadvantage of playing video games, especially a lot of exciting video games, is that it can make other people and real life seem boring and not worthwhile in comparison. Compared with gamers that play with others in the room, lone gamers are less likely to seek information about politics or current events, raise money for charity, or be committed to civic participation. A gamer's enemy today is social obligation: responsibilities, time management, dealing with real people, and taking real risks. 

When my son entered middle school, we noticed how he gradually drifted into the artificial world of video and computer games. He used to look forward to our Sunday family dinners at CPK (California Pizza Kitchen), but once he became hooked on computer and video games, gaming became far more important to him than family meals. Instead of eating in our dining room, he started eating all of his meals in front of a video or computer game. In vain, I tried to get rid of all of his computer and video games, but his father thought I was being too draconian and allowed him to continue playing his beloved games for as long as he wanted. 

Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California and author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, predicts that the average young person will spend 10,000 hours gaming by the time he reaches age 21. To put this figure into context, it takes the average university student half that time -- 4,800 hours -- to earn a bachelor's degree. The average young man spends 13 hours per week playing computer and video games versus five hours per week for the average young woman. Young women primarily play games on smartphones and tablets; games that are short such as Words With Friends and nonviolent, whereas guys are playing immersive first-person shooter games on consoles or computers that require a keyboard and mouse and have a much longer time commitment.

Some journalists are trying to convince people that women are just as into gaming as guys, but it's misleading. The 10,000 hours figure is the average of young men and young women, and since guys play almost triple the amount, the hours spent gaming by age 21 is probably more like 14,400 hours for young men versus 5,600 hours for young women. Girls' interest in gaming generally tapers off by their teenage years whereas boys' interest increases.

Addiction to video and computer games has resulted in an unstable hierarchy of needs. If you recall from your introductory psychology class, in Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, there are five stages of growth in humans corresponding with different levels of needs. The bottom of the pyramid consists of our most fundamental needs which he called Physiological needs: food, water, sleep, shelter. The next level represents our Safety needs: employment or access to resources, health, freedom from fear. The third level contains Love/belonging needs: friendship, family, intimacy. The fourth level represents our Esteem needs: confidence, achievement, mutual respect with others. And the highest level is Self-actualization: morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, being able to accept negative facts about yourself, achieving one's full potential. 

The Internet and virtual reality has made everything in Maslow's hierarchy of needs irrelevant except the bottom two tiers. A person who is gaming all by himself may be able to achieve their esteem needs yet completely bypass a sense of belongingness and fail to address their need for love. Gamers may think they have "hacked Maslow," but it does not come without a major side effect: entitlement without the ability to relate to others. Games put you in a fictional mature situation, but without any of the consequences you would normally face in real life. You can feel powerful and 'experienced' without all of the failures leading up to real-life success in those areas. Furthermore, self-actualization cannot be reached without the fulfillment of other needs, so a lack of intimacy and appreciation for others creates a distorted sense of potential and actualization that is not based in any shared social reality. The lack of relatable skills, especially social skills, can distort the ability to evaluate social competence and success.

Zimbardo also spent a fair amount of time during his talk discussing pornographic sites on the Internet, but I have decided to focus this discussion on violent non-sexual computer and video games. 

He concluded his talk by proposing solutions that the government, schools, parents, men and women can adopt to combat rampant computer and video game addiction among our young men. 

  • Create male mentorship programs
  • Support the role of the father (reform welfare system, enforce paternity leave)
  • Get more men in grade school teaching positions
  • Get junk food out of schools
  • Limit endocrine interrupters
  • Teach life skills: personal finance, how to apply for a job, job interview skills and other adult responsibilities
  • Teach sex education: biology and psychology of sex (most schools primarily focus on the biology of sex and ignore the psychological aspects)
  • Incorporate new technology by making learning more visual and interactive
  • Make education more entertaining
  • The Department of Education should offer technology classes for teachers
  • Quash grade inflation
  • Teach responsibility and resiliency (growth mindset versus fixed mindset)
  • Keep a weekly activity journal of all family members and include household chores, homework, playing computer and video games
  • Take technology out of your son's bedroom
  • Have regular family dinners with no cell phones or tablets allowed
  • Encourage your son to join Boy Scouts
  • Turn off the computer and video games
  • Learn how to dance and make female friends
  • Set long-term goals in the real world
  • Become future-oriented instead of present-hedonistic
  • Vote!
  • Exercise regularly outdoors in nature
Women (mothers and sisters)
  • Offer compassion, constructive criticism
  • Show boys how to communicate their feelings and values in a healthy way
  • Date a man as if you're investing in the stock market (look at his long-term potential)
Now that my son is in college, I'm hoping he doesn't have enough time to spend hours each day playing computer and video games. Since he no longer lives with me, I have no idea how he spends his free time. All I can do is cross my fingers and hope for the best now that I have an empty nest! 

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