Young men face unprecedented challenges in recovery. This is amply evident in their presentation. Many come into men’s addiction treatment with an array of issues that were once quite rare. These include a shortened attention span, issues of identity, and generalized apathy. Some observers describe it as a loss of social intelligence.
These changes have caught the attention of several researchers, most notably Dr. Philip Zimbardo, emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford University. Zimbardo detailed his findings in his book, Man, Interrupted. Zimbardo believes that the “failure to thrive” that we see in many young men is due to several factors, including digital gaming, digital pornography, and stimulant medication.
Gaming is an extremely popular and overwhelmingly male pastime. It is not uncommon for young men to play for five or six hour stretches, or even longer. Gaming addiction is a very real phenomenon. Digital games stimulate the production of dopamine and activate the same neural pathways that are implicated in the abuse of cocaine or crystal meth.
Digital pornography is even more problematic. Where alcoholism progresses in terms of the amount of alcohol consumed, porn progresses via novelty. This means the porn addict’s taste in pornography grows more extreme as the addiction progresses. The consequences of digital porn addiction are startling. Rates of sexual dysfunction in young men have skyrocketed; many report that they are not even aroused by conventional sexual behavior. Others complain of shyness, of an inability to initiate conversation.
Most stimulant medication (e.g., Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta) is prescribed to young men. Zimbardo cites a joint study (Brown, Tufts, and UCLA) that showed that stimulant drugs change the functioning of the nucleus accumbens, the same part of the brain implicated in addiction. Furthermore, these changes correspond with low motivation, or apathy, in humans. This is consistent with what we see with many of our younger male clients. Apart from getting high and digital entertainment, they show little initiative or interest in anything, especially recovery.
What does this all mean in terms of recovery? It means that parents and educators must become much more judicious about the use of digital devices and stimulant medication. It also means that recovery (especially sober living) will increasingly involve the cultivation of “soft skills” (e.g., being on time, public speaking, preparing for an interview). If we are going to meet the challenges of the addiction epidemic, we must avail ourselves of the most relevant research. Recovery must evolve with the times; we are facing new challenges that demand new interventions.