Why I'm Increasingly Worried About Boys, Too
Since the 1970s, boys have been pushed away from the real world and pulled into the virtual.
Here at the After Babel Substack, we’ve had many posts about declining adolescent mental health, many of which noted that the problems are more severe for girls, or that “liberal girls sank first and fastest.” The evidence, from studies and from what so many girls say, points clearly to smartphones and social media, particularly Instagram and TikTok, and particularly when girls are hooked in early puberty (middle school).
But what’s happening to boys? I could see that they were not doing well, even though their rates of anxiety and depression are much lower than girls, on average. I just couldn’t identify a clear pattern in their mental health trends nor a clear explanation for why they were doing poorly. That began to change in late 2022 when Zach and I committed to figuring out the boy question when we started writing The Anxious Generation. I asked Zach to create a new Collaborative Review Doc, on boys, and to put everything into it: what do we know about rising marijuana use, falling sperm counts, sports betting addictions… everything. I invited my friend Richard Reeves to join us as a curator of the document. This was while Richard was working on his book Of Boys and Men.
Once Zach and I read Richard’s book, the story became much clearer. The story for boys begins in the 1970s, as they slowly get pushed out of the real world, and slowly get pulled into the virtual world with the arrival of home computers and video games. The push-pull dynamic got stronger after the arrival of the internet, in the 1990s, and it got supercharged in the late 2000s and early 2010s with the arrival of mind-blowing multi-player games, smartphones, and practically unlimited access to the virtual world via the new high-speed internet.
Richard asked me if I would tell that story in a short essay at his new and very much needed American Institute for Boys and Men. That essay was published on Nov. 14. I’m very grateful to The Free Press for giving it a much wider readership by republishing it on December 5. Zach and I decided to republish it here as well, so that readers of After Babel would be sure to see it, and so that our list of posts includes this post focused on boys. (There will be more.)
Let’s figure out what this rapid technological change has done to boys, as well as what it has done to girls.
Since 2015, I have been trying to solve a mystery: All of a sudden, around 2013, rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm began rising rapidly for American adolescents. Those born in and after 1996—Gen Z—have the worst mental health of any generation for which we have data (going back to the “Greatest Generation,” born 1900 to 1925).
Teen girls reporting more depression
You can see the sudden change in Figure 1, which plots the percentage of adolescents (ages 12-17) who self-report at least one major depressive episode in the past year, as measured by a major national U.S. survey:
Figure 1. Percent of U.S. teens (ages 12-17) who had at least one major depressive episode in the past year (by self-report based on a symptom checklist). Data from U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health. See more on U.S. mental health trends in Adolescent Mood Disorders Since 2010: A Collaborative Review.
What stands out is the trend for girls. It’s like a hockey stick, with a bend that begins going up in 2013. Why that year? That is the year after Facebook bought Instagram, and, with so much publicity, girls of all ages flocked onto the platform. In graph after graph, Jean Twenge, Zach Rausch, and I found sharp increases in poor mental health for girls right around 2013. One major correlational study found that girls who are heavy users of social media are three times more likely to be depressed than non-users, while for boys, there’s no sign of harm for light use, and heavy users are “only” twice as likely to be depressed as non-users.
The conclusion was clear: Social media harms girls via multiple well-known mechanisms including social comparison, early sexualization, perfectionism, cyberbullying and relational aggression, and emotional contagion. Mystery solved, right?
Not quite. What about the boys? Their depression rates also go up in Figure 1, but not as much, and without a clear “elbow.” So, maybe the story is that boys use social media less than girls do, and/or it is less harmful to them, so we should focus most of our efforts on helping girls.
That’s what I thought when I began my deep dive into the mental health crisis of Gen Z. After four years of research, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve found that boys are doing very badly too, but it was harder to see because I was focusing on the wrong outcome variables. I’ve learned that the collapse of boys’ mental health is driven by different social and technological factors, compared to girls. (You can find a Google doc collecting studies about boys’ difficulties here. I curate it with Zach Rausch and Richard Reeves.)
I’ll be sharing that story in future essays for the American Institute for Boys and Men, a new think tank founded by Richard V. Reeves, and in my forthcoming book The Anxious Generation. But let me give you a brief preview now.
Boys are doing badly too
On any measure related to anxiety or depression, girls have higher absolute rates (the total number of individuals), often two or three times higher, as you see in Figure 1. For suicide it’s the opposite: as a new research brief from AIBM makes clear, the rates for boys are much higher, and their high rate is the deepest sign of a crisis for boys.
But what about the relative change since 2010? For the data shown in Figure 1, the answer is that the rate of reported depression for girls was up by 145%, while boys are up 161%. That’s right: The relative change since 2010 was actually slightly larger for boys. (Again, a similar but opposite trend can be seen in suicide rates.)
From a public health standpoint, the change for girls is more serious because it includes a much larger number of girls; just as the rise in suicide rates among boys has a much bigger absolute impact.
But from a researcher’s point of view, trying to understand causal factors, the relative change is also important. It tells us that something changed in the early 2010s that impacted boys at least as much as girls. We see similar patterns in many other mental health variables. The relative change is only occasionally larger for boys (as in Figure 1), but it is often in the same ballpark.
Boys are retreating
In scientific research, everything depends upon specifying the correct variables. The dependent variable is the one that we measure as the outcome. We try to understand how it changes in response to the independent variable, which is the one that we manipulate in the lab, or the one that the world manipulates for us (such as by giving some kids a smartphone, others not).
Back when I was focused on anxiety and depression as the dependent variables, the story of technology (as the independent variable) seemed to be a story that was mostly about girls. But once I read an early draft of Richard Reeves’s book Of Boys and Men, I realized that I had been focused on the wrong dependent variables. For boys and young men, the key change has been the retreat from the real world since the 1970s, when they began investing less effort in school, employment, dating, marriage, and parenting.
Figure 2 illustrates one aspect of this gradual withdrawal. It plots the percentage of American high school seniors who agree with the statement “People like me don’t have much of a chance at a successful life.” As you can see, very few girls agreed with that statement back in the 1970s, and as girls and women made progress relative to boys in school and employment, the line stayed low. It wasn’t until girls’ social lives moved onto smartphones and Instagram in the early 2010s that they reported feeling much more pessimistic about their lives and themselves (across many survey items).
Figure 2. Percent of U.S. 12th graders who agreed with the statement: “People like me don’t have much of a chance at a successful life.” Source: Monitoring the Future 1977-2021, 2-Year Buckets, Weighted).
For boys, the pattern is somewhat different. More boys than girls were pessimistic in 1977, and that number rose gradually and fairly steadily until 2011, at which time it was much higher than the rate for girls. After 2011, pessimism surged for both sexes, and girls closed some of the gap. In other words, the trend for boys has a longer back story.
The male crisis didn’t begin on the day that boys traded in their flip phones for smartphones packed with social media apps. Boys started to become more pessimistic around four decades ago, although the trend has accelerated in the years since everyone got a smartphone.
In Of Boys and Men, Richard describes many of the structural factors that caused boys’ gradual disengagement from the real world, such as an economy shifting away from manufacturing (in which male strength is a huge asset) and toward the service sector (where women have some advantages). What I and my colleagues have added to this analysis is the role of digital and entertainment technologies in pulling and keeping boys away from the real world.
The Siren Song of the Internet
Zach Rausch and I have constructed a timeline of the digital revolution and shown how at every step—from the first personal computers in the 1970s through the early internet in the 1990s and the rise of online multiplayer games in the 2000s—the virtual world sent out a siren song that sounded sweeter, on average, to boys than it did to girls.
Why? Among the most consistent and largest of all psychological sex differences is the “people vs. things” dichotomy. On average, boys are more attracted to things, machines, and complex systems that can be manipulated, while girls are more attracted to people; they are more interested in what those people are thinking and feeling.
So, in the early phases of the technological entertainment revolution, boys invested more and more of their time into computers, computer programming, and video games. It was only when social media became popular in the late 2000s that girls flocked over to the virtual world and began spending as much time as boys interacting with computers and smartphones.
The virtual world was magical for many boys. In addition to letting them interact with new gadgets, it also enabled them to do—safely—the sorts of things they find extremely exciting but not available in real life: for example, jumping out of planes and parachuting into a jungle war zone where they meet up with a few friends to battle other groups of friends to the (virtual) death.
Just as video games became more finely tuned to boys’ greater propensity for coalitional competition, the real world, and especially school, got more frustrating for many boys: Shorter recess, bans on rough and tumble play, and ever more emphasis on sitting still and listening.
To understand what has happened to the mental health of boys and young men, we must begin our analysis long before the early 2010s, and then we must use a “push-pull” analysis. In other words, what were the factors pushing them away from investing in real-world pursuits? And what were the factors pulling them into the virtual world?
(These are the questions I answer in a chapter of my forthcoming book. It covers research on video games, online pornography, and discussion platforms such as 4Chan that can sometimes lure boys into adopting radical political ideas and identities.)
Boys are in trouble. Many have withdrawn from the real world, where they could develop the skills needed to become competent, successful, and loving men. Instead, many have been lured into an ever more appealing virtual world in which desires for adventure and for sex can be satisfied, at least superficially, without doing anything that would prepare them for later success in work, love, and marriage.
And all of this withdrawal happened before the arrival of the metaverse, which is just now taking shape, and before the arrival of increasingly compelling, witty, attractive, and customizable AI girlfriends. The virtual world is becoming ever more immersive and addictive. Every year it will pull harder and harder on boys, urging them to abandon the real world. We’ve got to make the real world more appealing for them.
The mental health crisis afflicting Gen Z is among the most serious of many serious problems we face in America today. (I should note that the problem is not uniquely American; it seems to be happening at the same time and in the same way in all of the Anglosphere nations, and in the Nordic region too, as Zach Rausch has reported.)
I am extremely concerned about what is happening to girls, and to boys as well. (I happen to have one of each, currently in high school.) But the struggles of boys have received far less attention. I hope that is now changing, and we can figure out how to help boys and men flourish.