Editor’s Note: Psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo is a professor emeritus at Stanford University and is world-renowned for his 1971 research, the Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo teamed up with artist and psychologist Nikita Duncan to write “The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It,” released Wednesday by TED Books.
Authors argue that video games and porn create "arousal addictions"
Young guys are digitally rewired in a new way that demands constant stimulation
Video games go wrong when the person playing them is desensitized to reality
Is the overuse of video games and pervasiveness of online porn causing the demise of guys?
Increasingly, researchers say yes, as young men become hooked on arousal, sacrificing their schoolwork and relationships in the pursuit of getting a tech-based buzz.
Every compulsive gambler, alcoholic or drug addict will tell you that they want increasingly more of a game or drink or drug in order to get the same quality of buzz.
Video game and porn addictions are different. They are “arousal addictions,” where the attraction is in the novelty, the variety or the surprise factor of the content. Sameness is soon habituated; newness heightens excitement. In traditional drug arousal, conversely, addicts want more of the same cocaine or heroin or favorite food.
The consequences could be dramatic: The excessive use of video games and online porn in pursuit of the next thing is creating a generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment.
Stories about this degeneration are rampant: In 2005, Seungseob Lee, a South Korean man, went into cardiac arrest after playing “StarCraft” for nearly 50 continuous hours. In 2009, MTV’s “True Life” highlighted the story of a man named Adam whose wife kicked him out of their home – they have four kids together – because he couldn’t stop watching porn.
Norwegian mass murder suspect Anders Behring Breivik reported during his trial that he prepared his mind and body for his marksman-focused shooting of 77 people by playing “World of Warcraft” for a year and then “Call of Duty” for 16 hours a day.
Research into this area goes back a half-century.
In 1954, researchers Peter Milner and James Olds discovered the pleasure center of the brain. In their experiments, an electrical current was sent to the limbic system of a rat’s brain whenever it moved to a certain area of its cage. The limbic sytem is a portion of the brain that controls things like emotion, behavior and memory. The researchers hypothesized that if the stimulation to the limbic system were unpleasant, the rats would stay away from that part of the cage.
Surprisingly, the rats returned to that portion of the cage again and again, despite the sensation.
In later experiments, when they were allowed to push a stimulation lever on their own accord, they self-stimulated hundreds of times per hour. Even when given the option to eat when hungry or to stimulate the pleasure center, the rats chose the stimulation until they were physically exhausted and on the brink of death.
This new kind of human addictive arousal traps users into an expanded present hedonistic time zone. Past and future are distant and remote as the present moment expands to dominate everything. That present scene is totally dynamic, with images changing constantly.
A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “regular porn users are more likely to report depression and poor physical health than nonusers are. … The reason is that porn may start a cycle of isolation. … Porn may become a substitute for healthy face-to-face interactions, social or sexual.”
Similarly, video games also go wrong when the person playing them is desensitized to reality and real-life interactions with others.
Violence in video games is often synonymous with success. Children with more of a propensity for aggression are more attracted to violent video media, but violent media, in turn, can also make them more aggressive. This could be related to the fact that most video games reward players for violent acts, often permitting them to move to the next level in a game.
Yet research reported in the Annual Review of Public Health suggests a link between violent video games and real-life aggression: Given the opportunity, both adults and children were more aggressive after playing violent games. And people who identify themselves with violent perpetrators in video games are able to take aggressive action while playing that role, reinforcing aggressive behavior.
Young men – who play video games and use porn the most – are being digitally rewired in a totally new way that demands constant stimulation. And those delicate, developing brains are being catered to by video games and porn-on-demand, with a click of the mouse, in endless variety.
Such new brains are also totally out of sync in traditional school classes, which are analog, static and interactively passive. Academics are based on applying past lessons to future problems, on planning, on delaying gratifications, on work coming before play and on long-term goal-setting.
Guys are also totally out of sync in romantic relationships, which tend to build gradually and subtly, and require interaction, sharing, developing trust and suppression of lust at least until “the time is right.”
Less extreme cases of arousal addiction may go unnoticed or be diagnosed as an attention or mood disorder. But we are in a national, and perhaps global, Guy Disaster Mode that needs to be noticed and solutions advanced to fix a totally novel phenomenon, which will only increase in intensity and breadth without the concerted efforts of educators, gamemakers, parents, guys and gals.
It’s time to press play and get started reversing these trends.
Check out Zimbardo’s 2011 TEDTalk on “The Demise of Guys.”
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan.