A generation of young men is choosing fantasy over reality. At least that’s what Dr. Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University and psychologist Nikita Duncan argue in their new book, The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It.

The message of the book is simple: Research is demonstrating that young men are becoming addicted to video games and online pornography on a scale unparalleled by any addiction that we’ve ever seen in history.

But unlike with drugs, alcohol or gambling, these addictions aren’t for ever-increasing quantity. Instead, they drive boys and young men to seek novelty  — the next big thrill.

According to Zimbardo and Duncan, it’s the same phenomenon observed in laboratory rats which, when given the opportunity, abandoned food in order to electrically stimulate the part of the brain responsible for pleasure. In effect, the rats gladly “short-circuit” their natural means of enjoyment to get a thrill that felt new every time.

“Young men … who play video games and use porn the most,” say the authors, “are being digitally rewired in a totally new way that demands constant stimulation.”

Not only does this kind of addiction rob guys of the time, money and health they need to do other things, but it also diminishes their ability to enjoy real life, which can never offer stimulation as frequently, easily or in as much variety. As a result, say Zimbardo and Duncan, young men addicted to digital sex and digital soldiering are less able or willing to participate in those acts for real.

A recent study in Psychology Today, which I talked about last year on “The Point,” reinforces this prognosis. The study found that men who regularly viewed internet pornography actually lost their ability to perform in real-life sexual relationships.

As a consequence of this over-stimulation, boys are now growing up with “new brains.” Not only are they poorly wired for traditional learning, they lack the capacity for strong romantic relationships. Why? Because they tend to be largely unable to delay gratification or set long-term goals. They have to live for now.

And as any junkie knows, this ultimately makes us miserable. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that “regular porn users,” despite constant stimulation and excitement, are more likely to report depression … poor physical health,” and “isolation.” And we all probably know young men who could use a little more playtime with real people and a lot less PlayStation.

I’m reminded of a chapter from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, in which the distinguished old devil, Screwtape, tells his apprentice nephew how to destroy humans with pleasure: “…We always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure,” he writes, “to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever-increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure in the formula.”

But simply cursing the darkness here won’t solve anything. We need to recognize that, as Screwtape himself admits, all pleasures — even destructive ones — are originally based on God’s good design.

Young men are supposed to desire sex — within marriage. And, while all right in moderation, video games aren’t the true outlet for the male desire to be heroic and to fight for worthy causes.

We need to learn how to replace counterfeit pleasure with legitimate pleasure, encouraging young men to set aside cheap imitations and prepare themselves spiritually, morally and emotionally to pursue the real thing.

This is a place where the church can lead culture — by leading the rescue effort for this generation of young men.

Do you have any ideas? Visit BreakPoint.org, click on this commentary, and leave a comment or a suggestion.

Publication date: June 5, 2012