National Edition

The war on boys: Sex, media and violence

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

Terri and Scott David of Sandy, Utah, sat down with their boys, Teagan, 15, and Dallin, 12, and agreed on time limits for all electronics, not just games. It's too easy, she says, to let media take over lives.

"We have purposely curtailed the use of video games in our home," says David Bench of Mission Viejo, Calif., who has sons 21, 20 and 17. "In fact, certain video games we never even bought so we never had them in the house — Call of Duty and that kind of stuff, (because) I'd say video games are probably right up there as the No. 1 way for boys to be exposed to violence."

"Desensitization is a real risk of playing very violent video games for long periods of time," said Caroline Knorr, parenting editor of the nonprofit advocacy group Common Sense Media. "The more (violence) they see, the less it impacts them — it's like they need more of it to get that same sort of visceral rush of adrenaline."

Her organization takes seriously the American Academy of Pediatrics statements about media effects on kids. In 2009, they said that violence in TV, movies, games and music can directly cause real-life aggression. They found the connection between violence, on-screen and in games, and real-life aggression nearly as strong as the health association between smoking and lung cancer.

Mixed messages

Boys need not be violent and aggressive to prove masculinity, says Coyne. "A real man in our society can take care of family, be a good father, be compassionate and kind." But boys get mixed messages. When they're hurt, they're told to stop crying, "don't be a sissy."

That starts young. A little boy who wants to play with dolls — all he's really doing is practicing parenting — is told to stop, laments David Derezotes, a social work professor who co-teaches a men's issue class at the University of Utah. And roles have changed. Couples used to marry to form families and be more stable financially but now the focus is intimacy, he says. Divorce is up. Life has changed in every aspect. Expectations of a "warrior" have changed. And "even though we want young men to be successful, we don't agree on what success is. The men we most admire are football coaches, the shamans and leaders of the 21st century. Do we hear about men who are great dads, who are cooperative?" There are no news stories, he says, about folks who bypass a promotion to teach or to care for their kids.

Kindlon expresses naked disdain for the way males are portrayed in the media because he believes those archetypes can eventually take a crushing toll on boys and men. "The images of men on TV and in the movies are still pretty bad," he says. "There's stoicism — not asking for help when they need it — or feeling they have to do things alone. One of the biggest public health issues with men especially, is that they don't ask for help when either they're psychologically in need or even sometimes physically in need; they don't go see their doctors enough. To have that reinforced as a piece of manliness by the media is unhealthy for men and boys."

Knocking heads together

The question of when proper boy behavior crosses into violence is vexing. On the one hand, the child psychologist and co-author of "Raising Cain," Michael Thompson, asserts that a moderate amount of rough and tumble play is precisely what nature intended for boys.

"The biggest misunderstanding of boys is a misunderstanding of their play," he said. "Boys are hard-wired for wrestling.... Elementary school teachers especially are always looking at boy-play and seeing 'violent play,' so they're constantly interfering with boys' play. But nobody's getting hurt. It's that they're shooting each other with their index finger or they're playing hunt-and-chase games or rough and tumble games."

It's also clear, though, that excessive violence delivered through an artificial medium like video games or television can cause inordinate and inappropriate aggression.

Because boys police each other, Bob Dunn, director of the South Valley Boys and Girls Clubs, says they try to identify boys who are leaders and help those boys make the right choices. Other boys follow the example.

Much to do

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