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FIVE QUESTIONS

The porn effect on young men

By Jessica P. Ogilvie, Special to the Los Angeles Times

June 2, 2012

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In HBO's new show "Girls," creator Lena Dunham conjures up an image of young men so inundated with online porn that they almost unwittingly try to reenact it in their own boudoir escapades.

The show is fictional, but Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo believes there's a lot of reality to it. In a new e-book, "The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Struggle and What We Can Do About It," written with Nikita Duncan, Zimbardo theorizes that all those hours spent in front of a screen — not just watching porn but playing video games too — is leaving men in the dust socially, unable to relate to women and unable to function in society.

We talked to Zimbardo and Duncan about their research, discoveries and ideas for solutions.

What did you find in your research?

Zimbardo: We found that guys are failing in school and with women, and becoming socially isolated. This was based on extensive research, a survey and observations made by parents we know, kids we've talked to, grandparents, even women saying, "I can't find a guy to have a conversation with." We also found that there are growing numbers of boys who are fatherless, which is hugely detrimental for boys.

Duncan: They are looking for something to guide them to show them the way to be a man. Meanwhile, video games show them that they can be the master of the universe. They feel good when they play video games, and there's no risk of social rejection.

You talk about instant gratification in the book, and how porn's delivery of it shapes young men.

Zimbardo: Since there are no limits on porn, kids can be watching. So you have a 12-year-old who has no sexual experience at all, and that's what his view of romance becomes. It doesn't include talking or negotiation, it has no boundaries, not even foreplay — it's a totally alien view of what ordinary sexual relationships are and can be.

Much of the book is focused on fatherlessness and men's relationship with women. Are gay men faring better? What about boys who grow up in lesbian households?

Duncan: This is something that we need research on, and we don't have it. We don't know. Does a kid need two perspectives where they can agree on things and also provide a slightly altered view? We're not sure.

Interestingly, you don't suggest the end of video games or the end of porn. Rather, you suggest that people who make and use those technologies tweak them.

Duncan: There is so much potential for good in video games. Even with porn, it has forced people to start talking about sex, forced parents to recognize their kids as sexual beings, to start talking about it.

Zimbardo: They could redo porn. You could have porn where sexuality is romantic. My thought is developing video games that require a pilot and a copilot sitting side by side, so they have to interact socially as well as technologically.

Do you think it's possible for these changes to be made?

Zimbardo: Solutions are a tall order, although we do have some solutions. Partly we are here to alarm, to say, "Here is a systemic problem; it's not a phase that boys are going through." Fatherlessness is only going to increase, and we have to be aware that our entire culture is now living much of its life on the Internet.

If boys continue to drop out of school at the rate they are, it affects national productivity, national success. Plus, it's creating a new generation of men who are not suitable mates. The lack of general sociability could cause the quality of life in our whole culture to deteriorate. People would rather be in their rooms with their Internet or talking on a cellphone. It's already happening. It may be too late.

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