Well before the pandemic exacerbated the situation, there have been concerns about how boys are faring in all aspects of their lives. The “boy crisis,” as some describe it, argues that boys are falling behind in school, their mental health is at risk, and they no longer feel a sense of purpose.
What’s causing these problems? If you listen to some shortsighted, narrowly focused advocates, it’s the “feminization” of the education system that neglects and persecutes boys while using teaching styles and structures that favor girls. And/or they charge, boys are being raised without, or with less-involved, fathers who are not keeping them out of trouble or teaching them how to “be a man.” Finally, in a nod to old-school masculinity, they also assert that boys no longer have a sense of purpose—no longer want to be “a warrior, a leader, or a sole breadwinner,” as author Warren Farrell puts it. Farrell, who decades ago served on the board of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, long ago began distancing himself from his earlier history. He now speaks warily about feminism and women’s rights, staking out right-leaning positions that undermine achieving gender equality.
Technically, describing the situation as a boy crisis isn’t wrong—some boys are falling behind in school; they just happen to be overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic, or children from low-income communities. As succinctly put by Sara Mead, a nationally recognized expert in early childhood, elementary, and secondary education, “the predominant issues for [boys] are race and class, not gender.”
While single-parent households have risen to account for 20 percent of total households, having only one parent impacts every child, not just boys. As for boys’ mental health, suicide has consistently ranked as one of the leading causes of death for teenage boys in the US and Canada. That is a crisis, but the cause of the high suicide rate cannot be boiled down to one specific reason; solutions involve extensive wrap-around supports and initiatives.
The blind spot obscuring Farrell and his ilk’s vision of boys is that they are more preoccupied with maintaining the idea of how boys should think, act, or behave than they are with showing genuine concern for the boys themselves. A careful examination of the causes proponents of conventional notions of boyhood cite to support their claim of a “crisis” exposes them as perpetuating traditional or hegemonic masculinity, and reinforcing old-school gender roles. The result? They maintain the status quo.
If there is genuine anxiety about boys’ (and all children’s) well-being, then educators, psychologists, and policymakers must be encouraged to look for ways to better understand boys and translate their concern into meaningful change at home, in schools, and in communities. As the noted psychologist Michael C. Reichert, author of How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men, puts it, “The problem with trying to fit a boy into a predetermined identity is the message he receives about the person he actually is: that he is not good enough.” (To read an excerpt from his book, see the Spring 2020 issue.)
Reevaluating the Boys of Today
Boys growing up today are experiencing a much different childhood from that of previous generations. It’s been difficult to keep pace with a rapidly evolving “new normal”—and schools and parents alike are looking for answers. One only needs to scan media reports to learn about how the pandemic—or technology— has impacted young people; unfortunately, if you look behind the headlines there are scant examples offering clear direction on where we go from here.
The truth is we need to challenge our preconceived notions of boyhood and be skeptical of self-professed thought leaders. We need to turn to the real experts: the boys themselves. If we have any hope of supporting boys and young men, we need to work with them to understand how things really are right now. My organization, Next Gen Men, set out to do this by creating a survey to capture what boys are feeling, what they’re stressed about, how they’re doing, and what they’re doing.
We surveyed 44 boys age 11 to 16 across Canada and beyond — 91 percent of respondents live in Canada, and the remaining respondents outside of Canada (unspecified). The survey participants self-identified as heterosexual (59 percent); pansexual/ bisexual (30 percent); gay (9 percent); and unknown (2 percent). The majority of the boys were white (59 percent); followed by Indigenous (7 percent); unknown (7 percent); white/Asian (5 percent); Asian (5 percent); and Jewish (5 percent). Other ethnic/ cultural groups made up less than 2 percent of participants (12 percent).
Working with this demographic of diverse boys, we began work on a report on the status of boys, focusing on what is most important to them right now— navigating an increasingly online world as well as the usual challenges of boyhood and masculinity.
Where Are Boys Now? Online
Today, technology has become increasingly intertwined with all aspects of all of our lives, and both accessibility to and reliance on teachnology has sharply increased. During the pandemic, reliance on technology spiked (think Zoom, for example). Nearly all our interactions with other people—going to the grocery store, seeking out entertainment , accessing healthcare— were mediated through technology. Since the beginning of the pandemic nearly three years ago, for youth there has been a 17 percent increase in media screen use, according to a recent report, “The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens,” 2021.
Boys spend more time using screen media than girls (1:16 minutes a day more, on average, among tweens; 1:14 more among teens). This increase has been a cause for concern for parents, educators, and researchers. Interestingly, youth themselves don’t feel the worry. Only 5 percent of the surveyed boys were “a lot” concerned about their amount of screen time, leaving the largest proportion of those surveyed (39 percent) only “a little bit” concerned about their screentime.
Historically, society has seen youth’s use of technology— smart phones, tablets, and television—as strictly for entertainment or frivolous distraction. While young people are using technology for entertainment, they no longer are able to separate their in-person lives from their digital lives. Adolescents now perceive offline and online experiences, relationships, and status markers as “interchangeable and mutually instantiated,” researchers Isabela Granic, Hiromitsu Morita, and Hanneke Scholten wrote in a 2020 article, “Beyond Screen Time: Identity Development in the Digital Age.”
This blurring of their in-person and digital lives has far-reaching implications for their well-being which, right now, society appears ill equipped to handle. By and large, most educators, youth advocates, and parents subscribe to the notion that the internet is divorced from “real life.” Is this the boy (or youth) crisis we should be worried about? Next Gen Men’s experience working with boys— including our surveys of them—has led us to conclude that it is no longer helpful to look at the challenges boys face through a status quo lens. It’s time for a paradigm shift: to define what boys’ new normal looks like. And that means acknowledging their complex relationship with the internet. Not because the internet is inherently bad, but because for boys, we are now beginning to understand how it intersects with everything—the way boys build relationships, form their identities, conceptualize masculinities, and understand the world.
To get this right, we might be advised to turn to the past. In Chinese, there is no single word that translates as “crisis.” Instead, there are two symbols: the top one means “danger”; the bottom, “opportunity.” As we work with boys in the days ahead, may we turn the dangers some are genuinely concerned about into the opportunities that many, many more are yearning for.
As marketing manager for Next Gen Men, Sarah Andrews is committed to spreading the word about gender equality. She is putting her master’s degree in public health to good use, currently writing NGM’s new report on the status of boys. To learn more about boys—in their own words— check out the Status of Boys Report at www.nextgenmen.ca/report.
One Boy’s Ideas on How to Live
Ask before you assume.
Listen and learn.
Ask to help out.
You need to be nice in any circumstance.
Stay safe say kind words.
Help even when you don’t need to.
Everyone is unique.
Care about people who you love.
Be as kind as you can
Even when you are nice it’s ok to be
Bad is not the worst thing.
Always remember to be nice.
Listen as much as you can
An angry person is not crazy.
Not everything is what you want
Cold or hot.
Everything you have is what you need.
Don’t make a mountain
out of a molehill.
—Louie Bo Tourville Louie Bo Tourville, 7, is a second grader in Asheville, N.C.