University of Notre Dame anthropologist Michael Jindra first noticed in the late 1990s that more and more, his students, particularly the young men, seemed less invested in their studies.
“It’s hard to describe. It just seemed like their heads were someplace else,” Jindra said. “More than in the past.”
Jindra talked to some of his struggling students and found various reasons for their academic performance, but one thing stood out: all-night video game marathons.
A theory took root that Jindra's been studying ever since — a cultural shift is under way, a kind of escapism where a growing number of young people, especially men, are becoming more invested in recreational pursuits to “escape” their traditional social roles, like being fathers or career-driven providers.
Jindra is quick to say it's just a theory and hasn’t been his foremost area of study. There's also no research that can establish causation of his idea, he says.
But Jindra may be on to something.
Increasingly, men are separating themselves from the traditional social expectations of manhood. More often than women, they are missing from their children’s lives, especially if they're poor, black or Latino. President Barack Obama, launching an initiative to help poor and minority boys thrive, cited that half of all African-American boys grow up without their father in the home.
In fact, the Maryland-based National Fatherhood Initiative reports on its website that 1 in 3 American children (about 24 million) live without their biological father in the home, putting them at a greater risk of poverty, emotional and behavioral problems, drug use and other challenges as they grow up.
Men are also falling in college enrollment and graduation. In 2014, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that in the 2009 academic year, more than half of all U.S. bachelor’s degrees went to women, compared with 30 percent in the early 1960s, creeping up to barely 40 percent by 1990. Also in 2014, Pew Research Center found a widening gender gap in college enrollment. In 1994, the center found that 63 percent of female high school graduates and 61 percent of male graduates enrolled in college. By 2012, that percentage didn’t change at all for male graduates, whereas the percentage of female graduates enrolled climbed to 71 percent.
Finally, work participation among men has fallen dramatically since the 1960s. A White House labor report released in June 2016 found that in 1964, 98 percent of college-educated men and 97 percent of those with a high school diploma or less participated in the American workforce. In 2015, the study found that those rates had slipped to 94 percent for college-educated men and less-educated men’s rates had fallen to 83 percent.
The report outlined economic reasons for the decline, like fewer jobs. But in a telling detail, the report found that unemployed men spent almost twice as much time on leisure activities and more than twice as much time watching television. It’s no coincidence, Jindra thinks, that this trend has intensified with the rampant growth and prevalence of digital media and entertainment.
Not everyone agrees with Jindra. Dartmouth College pediatrician James Sargent, who has studied media impacts on children, called the theory “a stretch," yet he said he shares Jindra’s concern that digital media robs people of time spent “in the real world.”
“My biggest issue is that digital media is such a big presence in the lives of all our young people that they fail to see enough of the real, natural world,” Sargent said.
But Jindra and other experts worry not just about young people losing connection with real life, but what that may mean for all levels of civil society in the future.
“On the small scale, you have time taken away from families and it could have implications on a number of levels,” Jindra said. “Even religion. Ideally, we’re taken out of ourselves to help others through our religion, but if we’re all doing our own thing and entertaining ourselves glued to a screen, something is lost in that.”
The reasons men choose to “escape” are varied, experts say, and Jindra’s theory of escaping into digital media may have little to do with the media itself.
Rather, experts say men may be turning to media because of society’s changing expectations and treatment of men in recent decades.
“Society has a hegemonic view of masculinity, and for men, there are no socially acceptable alternatives to being a warrior or a breadwinner,” said psychologist Nikita Coulombe, co-author of “Man Interrupted: Why Young Men are Struggling and What We Can Do About It.” “Men now have a set of rules about what they're not supposed to do, but have no direction — in the form of guidance from older males or from conversations with women — about what they should be doing.”
This lack of direction manifests itself differently for different men. For some, like the online group Men Going Their Own Way, the reaction to outdated masculine stereotypes and expectations is to reject them. The group states its founding principle is “ejecting silly preconceptions and cultural definitions about what a ‘man’ is.”
Organizers of the website did not respond to requests for comment, but in a discussion on the group’s Reddit page, some said they felt the rules of society were stacked against them simply for being men.
“I think most of us just want a fair system, but the system is not fair, it's anti-men,” one user wrote. “Why would a man have children if odds are he'll get a divorce and never get to see them? Why would a man work hard just to lose 50 percent of what he earns? Both of these rule out marriage.”
Others pointed to media depictions that portray men as bumbling idiots.
“We see it everywhere in media these days. Men are jokes, big hulking cavemen who wouldn’t know (anything) if it weren’t for these educated superwomen that continually enrich all our lives without any downside,” another wrote, pointing out that the system is also unfair to women. “A woman who chooses a traditional role as a stay-at-home mom is shamed for somehow letting down the sisterhood, but if she chooses to work there is a whole other crowd (usually women) looking to shame her for abandoning her kids. It's enough to drive a person crazy.”
Not all men react so consciously, though. Coulombe said these media depictions are part of a larger message that young men simply don’t matter.
“Many just have the sense that ‘it's not worth it’ to invest their time and energy back into the real world when society does not see investing in their development as ‘worth it,’" Coulombe said. “With fatherlessness rising, the vast majority of schoolteachers being women, and most fathers on TV being presented as deadbeat dads, what kind of future is a boy supposed to envision for himself?”
What they may envision instead is a world to escape into, particularly with gaming.
“Virtual worlds offer a space where they (men) won't be demonized simply for being male, where there is a clear sense of purpose and where there is structure for 'leveling up' and achieving goals,” Coulombe said. “They also offer instant gratification, status and guaranteed rewards, which can decrease motivation to achieve similar goals in the real world.”
A temptation ‘too strong’
When men choose to opt out of social behaviors, the activities that fill the time that would otherwise be occupied by a marriage or a family — say, video games, pornography or just binge-watching Netflix — can be destructive, experts say, and rewarding and addictive for some people.
“It easier than ever to get wrapped up in,” Jindra said. “The attraction of these technologies are just too strong for lots of people.”
Coulombe also said media likely affects boys more than girls.
“The average child currently spends 35 hours watching TV every week — nearly the same amount as a full-time job — and this doesn’t even include time on a computer or gaming console,” Coulombe said.“Contrast that with the 21 hours per week they spend with their parents. They are learning lessons from both sources. Boys and young men are arguably more influenced by media content than girls because they have fewer real life role models of their same sex.”
Digital media’s impact on boys will likely grow as platforms like virtual reality become widely available.
Coulombe pointed to a 2015 experiment at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction lab as an example. Researchers outfitted young children in virtual reality headsets and let them “swim” with realistic looking whales. A week later, about half the children reported that they believed they’d truly swam with whales.
That’s not so different from boys who seek to act out violent scenes in movies or video games, Coulombe said. The media influences the mind enough so that fantasy can become reality, at least in a child’s mind.
“As technology and animation become more lifelike, the blurrier the line between reality and virtual reality has become,” Coulombe said. “The vast majority of boys play video games yet the vast majority of boys don’t commit crimes. But we need to ask whether their conditions were exasperated by their exposure to, or withdrawal from, violent media.”
Because the need for escape and media use differs so greatly, Jindra argues that men’s quest for escapism through digital media is something everyone — especially parents — need to be aware of.
“It’s kind of a hidden thing, even though (media use) is so widespread and so strong,” Jindra said. “It’s not you do it or you don’t, it’s bad or good, it’s a continuum here. That makes it harder to talk about than, say, buckling your seatbelt, where there’s clear consequences if you do or you don’t.”
The key to fighting digital escapism, Coulombe said, is to create a world boys and men want to be part of.
“All-male spaces where boys have the opportunity to have rites of passage and build a positive male identity are key,” Coulombe said, pointing to the Boy Scouts as an example. “We need to start seeing men being men responsibly as a good thing and understand the value of fathers and male mentors.”
If nothing changes and Jindra is correct in his escapism theory, the consequences may be huge for both individual men and society — some consequences are already unfolding in the American economy, Coulombe said. She pointed to a Congressional Budget Office report released this summer, which found that 1 in 6 American men between 18 and 34 are either jobless or incarcerated, a 45 percent increase over the past 30 years.
“For the individual, what gets lost in this tug-of-war between constant entertainment and obligations of real life is becoming competent and well-rounded, with emotional intelligence and social skills,” Coulombe said. “On a societal level, we are not harnessing an incredible amount of potential.”