A LACK OF ROLE MODELS, DANGERS ON THE INTERNET, EXPOSURE TO SEX, AND BODY IMAGE PROBLEMS: THE MODERN WORLD IS A PERILOUS PLACE FOR YOUNG MALES. BUT THERE ARE SOLUTIONS
For teenage boys, can real life adventures in Scouts compete with the addictive allure of the internet?
the bedroom door slammed shut behind them, we comforted ourselves that at least we knew where our boys were. They might have been in adolescent huffs but they were safe at home in their rooms. Once upon a time. Now those rooms have no walls. Safe at home, our boys and girls can be anywhere. They travel with passwords that are keys to an infinite number of sites on the internet. It’s a whole new world – in the most literal sense. In it, says Australian author and social analyst Maggie Hamilton, our boys may be dabbling in hard-core porn and virtual sex, using avatars to kill people in virtual roleplay games, being cyberbullies, or gambling. Or they might just be chatting on Skype or bragging on Facebook – maybe even doing their homework. The internet is not all bad. However much we talk about parental supervision, the logistics of contemporary life and the technological aptitude of the young put very long odds on the cosy idea of parent-child online collaboration. And safe at home, they may well be making dangerous liaisons in the virtual world. And cyberbullying has been linked to teenage suicides. A Melbourne teen, Allem Halkic, 17, committed suicide after a cyberbulling campaign last year.
So parents need to wise up. Boyhood ain’t what it used to be and our little boys are having all manner of crises we may have found unimaginable in our own childhoods. Indeed, Hamilton argues in her book,
What’s Happening to our Boys? (Viking, $29.95), that childhood is shrinking. Children are so heavily exposed to uncompromising adult marketing that they are shunted out of the cradle and into adulthood before they can utter the words “Peter Pan”.
Instead of bartering marbles or collecting footy cards, they are worrying about body image and girlfriends. A few years later, they are desperately trying to build up their immature bodies so they can look buff. Anorexia and bulimia are not unknown among lads, but according to Hamilton, the catchword is “bigorexia” – the quest to look big, to bulk up. To get these V-shaped bodies they spend long hours pumping iron, eating high protein and, in extreme cases, seeking steroids . . . bombarded by images, just like girls, of how they should look. Like girls, our boys can suffer from eating disorders.
The innocence of the playground is gone. Never a halcyon place, it has always been the scene of rivalries, small vendettas and for bullies to flex their muscles. The difference these days is the emergence of the new platform of cyberbullying and the corollary territories for torment – text messages, FaceBook and YouTube.
Lachlan McAllister is 16, a Blackfriars Priory student who hopes to become an avionics engineer. He and his brother come from a modern, parent-sharing world. Lachlan can barely remember a time when he could not turn to Google and the web to provide an answer to almost everything. Much of his free time is given to paid work at McDonald’s which has helped him to upgrade his online life to the other sort of (Apple) Mac. Of Facebook – the time trap for his agegroup – he offers the understatement: “I am on there a few hours a day and in holidays quite a bit. But not so much that I don’t have a life. Mainly it is chat. Out of several hundred FB friends, I chat with about 50. We talk about everything and anything, things we have been doing and plans we want to make. I admit it’s a pretty bad distraction while you’re doing homework.”
Lachlan agrees that it is impossible to be a teen today and not to have heard of or witnessed cyberbulling. “I’ve not been directly affected but quite a few friends have,” he says, citing Formspring, a website which enables the anonymous asking of questions on Facebook profiles as a primary tool now being used for bullying online.
Since its creation last year, Formspring has been controversial. In March, a New York girl was reported to have committed suicide after receiving a series of insulting comments posted via Formspring. “It’s a shield some use and you see it quite a bit on Facebook,” says Lachlan. Then there are schoolyard fights which go from the yard to Facebook where, says Lachlan, boys “unfriend” each other as acts of anger, spite or defence. “It just makes things worse,” he says.
With these new vulnerabilities comes a new era in which the vital shoulder of manhood has slumped. More than ever, growing boys are without role models