Two ominous trends are combining to exacerbate inequality between men and women, and harm relationships in our society. One is the incessant draw of new and distracting electronic entertainments—which will only get more intense as we enter the age of virtual reality. The second trend, which exacerbates the first, is how our behavior is increasingly less likely to be moderated by informal family and community pressures and influences.
Today, we have less respect for hierarchy and authority, and we have more wealth, which gives us more mobility and freedom to escape the constraints of social pressure and join groups of our own choosing. We have seen this in changes to romantic relationships and marriage practices. For example, we’ve rid ourselves of the problems of arranged marriages on one extreme, but brought on increased relationship instability and divorce, with the fallout affecting families and children and contributing to social problems like poverty.
The same is true of our daily leisure practices, especially for men. With less social and cultural pressure favoring responsibilities, men are increasingly separating themselves from wider commitments to family, education, work, and civic society. They are more often absent from the children they father, their work participation rates are declining, their college enrollment rates are significantly lower than women, and their voting rates are now 10 points below women.
So, what activities do men participate in? A recent White House report on the decline of work among men reports that prime-age men who don’t work spend a lot of time “on leisure activities” instead of on education or helping out in the home.
According to Nielsen, we consume an incredible 10.5 hours of media per day in all its various forms. Video gaming has joined television, film and music as the major leisure activities of our time. Gambling (e.g., casino, online gambling, the lottery, and sports betting) has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry that consumes increasing amounts of our time and money. Meanwhile, the proliferation of pornography, which has moved almost entirely from magazines to the internet, is simply massive.
The time and money these activities rob from relationships, work, and savings can hardly be overestimated, but there is no question they have changed the lives of millions of people, and likely not for the better. Even more innocuous forms of consumption, like watching sports on television, can be a problem when it becomes excessive, such as putting stress on marriages. Social withdrawal syndrome, where individuals isolate themselves, often with media, is increasingly an issue.
Almost entirely absent is a discussion of the role these activities play in promoting inequality, but not because of their unimportance. More likely, these activities are hard to fit it into statistical models with which most scholars are comfortable. Also, the culture-wide tilt toward liberation and rights at the expense of responsibilities extends to most scholarly analyses of social problems, which tends to let people off the hook for their behaviors. These issues also don’t lend themselves to simple solutions. Few propose censorship, which is probably unworkable anyway, although there are some regulations. For instance, advertising for porn is heavily limited both by laws and by corporate practice, and there is increased recognition from both progressives and conservatives that something should be done about it. Daily fantasy sports betting is also facing new restrictions in a few states.
The impulses people have to engage in activities like gambling and pornography are typically moderated by family members, and community pressures and influences. Crucially, this means that more authoritative and stable families and communities have a strong advantage over the more permissive and unstable. So, we are back to the importance of parenting, peers, and community. Fathers who are present in the home will need to be a positive, not a negative example, when it comes to engaging in these activities, especially for boys. Unfortunately, many men don’t always set the best example, as we saw above. Low-income families are particularly susceptible to these distractions because of the stresses of living in poverty, “natural-growth” parenting styles, and the decline of dual-parent families, all of which damage the development of “effortful control,” which is a key factor in academic competence, social-emotional competence, and other skills as youth develop.
But even where parental examples and influences are positive, one has to hope that by the time children leave the house for college or work, they have internalized these controls, and developed an understanding of their responsibilities to their families and the wider community. In our home, for example, we limit our three boys to a daily half-hour of video gaming and discuss the potential problems of gaming. This doesn’t always work, even in the best of families (so parents, don’t always feel guilty if you have a distracted child). Some children seem more prone to online distractions than others. Once they are out on their own, parents are more limited in what they can do, other than perhaps trying to remain a positive example. Even if children stay away from the bad stuff like gambling and porn, they may still have an issue controlling their time on the computer, given the distractions of viral videos, social media websites, multiplayer online gaming, and fantasy sports teams.
With most of us feeling less social pressure to limit our behavior, we are left to our own self-control, which itself is weakening under the onslaught of new consumer options and technology, and the family stresses mentioned above. Some family members have intervened and sent kids to Internet addiction camps. But for those who do not have close families or friends that will challenge their behaviors, or churches or other organizations that will cause them to reflect on how they spend their time, there is less hope. Some individuals do “grow out of it” when they realize they are missing much of life. But others may remain quite content in the virtual reality world, perhaps having buddies with whom they share these activities, lessening the overall isolation, but still causing them to be uninvolved in civic and community life. The increasing number of people living alone is also a sign of this trend. Though some maintain active social lives, many do not.
This combination of proliferating entertainments and declining social pressure toward positive behaviors is not a prescription for a healthy society, and can certainly be counted as one of the perils of modernity. We typically look to “policies” or changes in the law to address social problems, though I don’t think policy changes will help here as much. The question is: Will schools, religious communities, nonprofits, families, and/or intentional communities galvanize themselves to deal with these ominous trends? We shall see.
Michael Jindra is a cultural anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame. His research centers on the relationship and tension between cultural diversity and economic inequality and includes research with local antipoverty nonprofits.