Study shows why boys need positive, diverse role models

Study shows why boys need positive, diverse role models

A growing body of research shows that young men are finding it increasingly tough to find their place in the world and build confidence to navigate the pressures and expectations of modern society.

Studies show boys are seeking help only one in four times compared with girls. Research from Kids Helpline shows that just under a quarter (22%) of contacts Kids Helpline responded to are male, while 75% are female, and 3% are trans or gender diverse.

As harmful voices dominate online discussions about masculinity, young men are also struggling to understand manhood in today's rapidly evolving world.

A new eSafety study of more than 100 young men aged 16 to 21 highlighted the complexities faced by today’s generation when navigating offline and online life.

Boys are navigating a confusing landscape

According to eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant, these young men navigate a confusing landscape of conflicting ideals, exacerbated by the influence of online figures.

“Navigating adolescence and early adulthood has always been a confronting rite of passage, but this is one of the first generations to grow up in a world straddling the offline and online dimensions, with the online world becoming an increasingly potent force,” eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said.

“Young men are also coming of age against a backdrop of complicated and contested public discussions about what modern-day masculinity means, potentially making the process of figuring out who they are and what they stand for more confusing and fraught.”

A collaboration with Deakin University and the Queensland University of Technology, ‘Being a young man online: Tensions, complexities and possibilities’ confirmed that while online environments are a powerful source of community, acceptance and friendships for young men, conversations about their place in the world are often negative.

“There was also a feeling of being powerless as individuals, even though some participants recognised men hold a lot of structural power,” Inman Grant said. “And when a small number of harmful online influencers dominate the discussion of what it means to be a man, it’s no wonder young men feel uncertain about how to express their identity and place in the world.”

The research highlighted young men both experience and perpetuate online harms, with some young men, for example, describing online gaming communities as places where it is normal to respond to abuse with abuse.

“From ‘looksmaxing’ and aggressive online gaming, to the lure of algorithm systems and online influencers, there’s constant pressure for young men to conform to particular, often narrow and traditional ideals, about manhood.”

The good news

One of the research leads, Deakin University's Professor Amanda Keddie, said the research also unearthed a range of healthy habits young men applied to their online interactions.

“I was really heartened by the critical awareness that many of the young men expressed about their online behaviours, from trying to stem their overuse of apps like TikTok and YouTube to their critical reflections about manfluencers, such as Andrew Tate,” Professor Keddie said.

“Some of the young men were very critical of Tate’s misogynistic messages. Many of the young men were also highly critical of online pornography – its ease of access and its negative representations of intimate relationships and women.”

To help schools and communities turn these insights into relevant online safety advice, eSafety is consulting with relevant practitioners, including Daniel Principe, Movember, R4Respect, Richie Hardcore, The Man Cave and The Men’s Project.

“Young men are navigating significant cultural and social uncertainty,” said Professor Simon Rice, Global Director, Movember Institute of Men’s Health. “Online content and influencers offer them immediate, unregulated, and sometimes misleading answers to the very stressors they face, wielding immense power to shape Australian young men for better or worse.”

Professor Rice said a collaborative and collective effort is needed to unravel the profound and multifaceted impact of social media and online spaces on young men and their communities.

“That is why we will continue to work in collaboration with young men to unravel the impact that masculine norms and dialogues have within these spaces, and why we support, and welcome, the research published today by the eSafety Commissioner.”

Boys crave meaningful connection and leadership

The Man Cave’s Josh Glover said many of the male students he works with crave meaningful connection and leadership.

“As a senior facilitator, I get to hear from teenage boys every day. Underneath any veneer of confidence or bravado they project is a sincere desire to connect and explore who they could be - without fear of judgement or teasing,” Glover said.

“The online world can both build up that confidence and sense of identity, as well as tear it down. It’s so important we create psychologically safe digital spaces and elevate positive male role models to help boys and young men navigate the online world."

Inman Grant said we must keep listening and learning from young men to meet them where they are at.

“These are complex societal issues, and there’s a collective responsibility to help young men answer important questions about what constitutes healthy, respectful models of manhood and masculinity,” she said.

“We encourage parents, carers and educators to help boys, tweens and teens further hone their critical reasoning skills and instill a healthy sense of online agency and responsibility.”

Inman Grant said tech companies also need to be more accountable for user safety, especially the impacts of harmful recommender algorithms.

“These systems can result in young people being served increasingly damaging content that can erode respect for oneself and others, as well as perpetuate ideas rooted in misogyny,” she said.

“We need industry to take a more proactive Safety by Design approach by considering the risks their systems and platforms may pose at the outset and design in appropriate guardrails, including actively preventing young men from being drawn into an endless spiral of harmful echo chambers.”