National Edition

The war on boys: Sex, media and violence

Published: Sunday, Feb. 19 2012 11:00 p.m. MST

"Pop culture doesn't allow boys to not want sex all the time," says Karen Rayne, a consultant, teacher and author of "Unhushed." "There are plenty of boys who don't. ... We demand that girls be able to say no. We are not giving boys a lesson in how to listen to themselves and say no, as well."

Brashich agrees. "It is critical that we interact with teenage boys with the assumption that they want high-quality, mutually satisfying and emotionally supportive romantic relationships," she says. "Teenage boys are much more likely to live up to our assumptions and expectations of them than to put their own personal expectations far higher than those we set. ... We need to teach teenage boys how to engage respectfully by respecting them. Forget all the statistics about teenage boys when you meet an actual teenage boy. There will be one individual standing in front of you. Maybe he is average. Maybe he is not. Regardless, the only way to know is to get to know him."

All lit up

Girls have always matured faster than boys. What was once a six-month difference in maturity around age 13 is now as much as two years' difference, a gulf instead of a gap.

Some researchers think the "why" centers on industrial chemicals called phthalates, found in lots of products. They believe they leach into public water from plastics, mimicking estrogen and speeding female puberty while retarding male puberty.

"The data is scarily convincing," says Farrell, who adds that tests in different rivers and lakes repeatedly find evidence of phthalates. Some male small-mouth bass now produce eggs instead of sperm.

Today, boys are one factor in a complicated equation. To the maturity gap add girls who may be becoming more sexualized and more sexually aggressive, as well as boys who are unsure of how to approach girls or who have been rejected — or who aren't yet up to the chase. That boy may veer to pornography in lieu of dealing with real girls. It's there, online, and never says "I don't want you."

"It's available to boys your daughters are interested in. And he's choosing between rejection by your daughter or free porn…," says Farrell.

Porn and video games both send blood to the nucleus accumbens, the brain's reward center. It lights up and blood is actually directed away from the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, where motivation and real-life goals reside.

As the complexity of video games has mushroomed, the games have become harder for boys to quit by adopting addictive characteristics akin to gambling, says Daniel Kindlon, co-author of "Raising Cain." "Obviously, a lot of the shooting games are marketed to boys much more strongly (than to girls). I think that's a big obstacle in front of boys — there's this temptation that wasn't there before that's primarily directed at them. The way it's set up, it's a hard thing to stop doing because there are these kind of incremental rewards, where you're getting a little better each time. That really sucks you in, kind of like a slot machine."

Lots of research has been done on boys and video games, says Sarah M. Coyne, assistant professor of human development at Brigham Young University. With extremely violent games, one of the messages is to be violent and aggressive, she notes.

While "violent play" doesn't portend violent outcomes, violent video games definitely desensitize, Kindlon says.

When boys become involved with video games or porn, Farrell notes, "soon they are addicted, then unmotivated to be either sexual or productive in real life. They are motivated to play football online, but not to play in real life. ... We are standing on the brink of being a far less productive country and women do not fall in love with nonproductive men."

The message of male dominance and aggression also pervades TV and movies, music, ads and other media. In popular action-adventure films, men are hyper-masculine. Coyne says studies document a moderate effect with video games, but aggressive behavior may increase and empathy decrease. It is "definitely not the case" that it's just a game, with no harm. "Be smart as a parent and know what they're playing, know when to talk to them about it."

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