Deep down, many teenage boys today are not sure if they have what it takes to be a man. In many ways this doubt is understandable. Being a man is not always easy. Being a man means self-sacrifice. It means taking on hardships. It means laying down one’s life for others. Of course teenage boys have doubts about becoming a man; many of the grown men that they look up to are not even confident in their masculine identity.
This self-doubt, coupled with the fact that they are entering this new world of adulthood with nearly zero real-world experience, inevitably leads teenagers to making some bad choices. The sad reality is that when young men are not settled in their masculine identity, they will engage in risky behavior to prove that they “have what it takes” to be a man.
The following examples are five ways in which young men today seek to prove their manhood to their peers, when boys do not experience a proper initiation into manhood. These are the ways that society offers boys today to “prove themselves” as men.
Video game addictions are a primarily male phenomenon, with 94% of all video game addicts being male, and 6% female (1). When a young man is addicted to video games, it can give him a false sense of being a hero. He can defeat the enemy, shoot a terrorist, or slay the dragon, all without having to get off the couch.
There is nothing wrong with boys playing a moderate amount of video games; but when video games are taken to the extreme, they can become very problematic. Achieving greatness in video games does not require any self-sacrifice or self-discipline; two things that are inherent to being a good man.
Some video games reward players by advancing or “leveling up”, which makes them more powerful and the game that much more fun to play, enticing them to play even more. Other video games allow players to play online with peers, which gives players a sense of community and belonging while playing video games. The irony is that the young man who is addicted to video games is no hero at all. Video game addicts are much more inclined to be depressed, to be unable to hold a job, to be unable to maintain a healthy relationship, and have a tendency to overeat. Young people who are addicted to video games falsely believe that their achievements and connectedness in the digital world will bring them satisfaction in the real world. At its core, video game addictions are caused by boys getting their masculine identity from the virtual world, rather than the real world.
Another way that false manhood manifests itself is with an obsession with physical size or strength. When a man is dissatisfied with his body and turns to the gym as his solution, this can lead to an unhealthy obsession with exercise.
Of course, exercise is a good thing. There are physical, mental, and social benefits to daily exercise. But, as the saying goes, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.
When young men put too much emphasis on their appearance, this can lead to something known as muscle dysmorphia - a psychological condition marked by a negative body image and an obsessive desire to have a muscular physique. The average age of onset of muscle dysmorphia is 19 years old, and research also shows almost 6% of college freshmen have it (2).
Of particular concern, muscle dysmorphia may lead to potentially dangerous abuse of anabolic steroids. Studies indicate that 6-7% of high school boys have used these drugs (3).
Let’s face it; society does not only have an unrealistic ideal body image for women, but we have an unrealistic ideal body image for men too. One American study, for example, found that the percentage of men dissatisfied with their overall appearance (43%) has nearly tripled in the past 25 years (3). An obsession with having big arms, wide shoulders, and six pack abs can trick our boys into thinking that going to the gym is more important than work, play, family and sleep. The young man who spends too much time in the gym and is obsessed with his body image, has confused his masculine identity with muscle, size, and strength.
A man who is insecure in his masculine identity will frequently strive to prove his manhood through the sexual conquest of woman. Pornography offers an insecure man the easiest route. It is the path of least resistance. It requires no effort on his behalf to woo the woman, no chance of ever facing rejection, and does not even require the consent of his digital call girl.
Socially, pornography use hinders young men from maturing. There are of course multiple factors explaining why young men choose to live with their parents, but if a young man can get “sex” from any woman that he wants, whenever he wants, all without having to leave his childhood bedroom and actually talk to a girl, why would he want to leave?
Porn addictions inhibit young men from learning how to cope with stress in a healthy way. When someone starts to use pornography to deal with their problems, it offers them momentary pleasure and an escape from reality. But the more that a user views pornography, the more that their brain is desensitized to the images and develops a tolerance to it. This leads users to seeking out higher quantities of porn, and porn that is increasingly graphic in nature. A downward spiral develops where users eventually find themselves in a position where they cannot quit even if they try. Their pornography habit has become a full blown addiction. Many porn addicts who attempt to stop watching porn go through the same withdrawal symptoms as drug addicts and alcoholics who try to quit.
When a man seeks to sexually conquer women - in the real world or in the digital world - it is his authentic masculine identity that he desires. But he will not gain what he is looking for. Pornography and premarital sex will not give him his manhood, because they cannot give him his manhood. He is looking for authentic masculinity in the wrong place. He is chasing an empty promise.
Smartphones and the increasing role that technology plays in our lives has drastically changed the way that young people now try to earn social status among their peers. In previous generations, kids did things to impress their peers like ride their bikes without their hands, lick a permanent marker, or jump off a flight of stairs on their skateboard. Dangerous? Yes. Disgusting? Also yes. But the difference between past generations and today is that the pressure of trying to go viral leads kids to take things to the extreme, all for the sake of gaining attention online.
One way in which young people can earn social status is by posting videos of themselves completing “challenges”, in hopes that the video goes viral amongst their peers, who are also on these platforms. These challenges can be as harmless as the Ice-Bucket challenge (pouring a bucket of ice water over your head) or the Mannequin Challenge (filming yourself frozen in place, like a mannequin).
But these challenges can also take a dark turn. The “slap a teacher challenge” has kids taking a video of themselves slapping or otherwise physically assaulting their teachers during class, and posting to social media platforms so their peers can watch (4). Without fully developed judgment skills or wisdom to lean on, many kids don’t know when they have taken things too far until after the damage is done, forever altering the course of their lives and the lives of others.
Finally, the need to “prove themselves” can drive some young men to criminal activity. Though clearly flawed, gangs provide a false sense of stability and sense of belonging, which is attractive to an unstable, self questioning young man. Gangs provide security in the form of group protection with a defined pecking order, oftentimes with an alpha male to follow.
Gangs are also an overwhelmingly male phenomenon, with males comprising 92% to 94% of gang membership, while females make up just 6% to 8%. (5)
Oftentimes joining a gang will involve an initiation test - usually committing some form of a crime - to prove their loyalty to the group. This initiation test is a sort of corrupt rite of passage used to trap young men into membership. Once the crime is committed, the young man has a difficult time getting out of the gang if he ever wants to, because the group now has “dirt” on him. It has been reported that in order to join the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, new recruits have a bucket of feces and urine poured over their head (6). Whether this is true or not, the ties of this initiation test to a sacred ritual of baptism are undeniable. Rites of passage exist at every level of society - from gang members to church goers.
What's the Solution?
The ways in which men search in vain for their masculine identity is not limited to just these examples. Fighting. Recreational drugs. Excessive drinking. Shootings. The list goes on and on. The sad reality is that young men engage in risky behavior in an effort to prove themselves. But does it have to be this way? Is there anything that can be done?
Yes, there is something that can be done. Men can step up to help the next generation of boys successfully make the leap from boyhood to manhood, and avoid the common pitfalls that so many young men fall into today. Check out our new book Milestone to Manhood on Amazon here.
3. Pope HG, Phillips KA, Olivardia R. The Adonis complex: the secret crisis of male body obsession. New York: Free Press; 2000.