The Epidemic of Male Loneliness
It starts in childhood, and it's dangerous for everyone. What can we do? Plus: Which disinfectant wipes work & are safe for kids?
Today’s essay is a long one, folks — because it’s really important. I also answer a reader question about disinfectant wipes at the bottom of the post — don’t miss it!
A few weeks ago, while driving to camp, my kids started talking about their friendships.
My 9-year-old daughter said she had lots of friends, but only a few that she would feel comfortable confiding in and telling secrets to.
My 12-year-old son said he had lots of friends, too — but then added, somewhat casually, that he didn’t have a single friend he could confide in.
I was shocked. My son has some very good friends — including one we podded with throughout the pandemic; they have had dozens of sleepovers — and I’d always assumed they shared some level of emotional intimacy. How hard was it to go through middle school without a single friend to open up to? I felt so sad for my son. Heartbroken, even.
Later, I asked him why he felt he couldn’t trust his friends enough to confide in them. He corrected me: It’s not that he didn’t trust his friends; it was just that they never talked about feelings or asked each other for advice or shared much about themselves.
Me: So if something happens at school and it’s, like, really scary or sad, and you don't know if you can tell me…. Would you feel like you had a friend you could tell?
A lot has been written and discussed recently about the “crisis of masculinity.” If you want to broadly explore the issue, I highly recommend this podcast interview between Ezra Klein and researcher Richard Reeves, as well as this excellent Washington Post piece by Christine Emba.
Today I’m going to zero in on the specific issue of boys and friendships. Because what my son voiced to me is, in fact, a widespread phenomenon, and it has tragic implications. In the non-profit organization Equimundo’s 2023 State of American Men survey, two-thirds of men aged 18 to 23 said they felt that “no one really knows me.”
Recent surveys find that both men and women today are suffering an epidemic of loneliness, but that the decline for men has been much steeper. Fifteen percent of men today say they have no close friendships, a fivefold increase since 1990. This helps to explain why suicide is so common among men. In the Equimundo survey, a whopping 44 percent of men reported having had thoughts of suicide over the past two weeks.
I know it can be easy to scoff at the plight of boys and men today. Why are we worrying about them when men have been top dog for so long at the expense of so many other marginalized groups? I hear that, and I’ve felt that way too. But I believe that supporting our boys in the right ways can have broad positive ramifications for society, because many of the world’s social problems are, at least in part, fueled by the toxic and gendered messages boys get throughout their lives.
Helping boys, in other words, helps everyone.
It’s learned — not innate
One big question I’ve had is why. Why do boys lean away from meaningful, deep friendships? The simple answer: It’s not them. It’s our culture. Their choices are a product of the infinite insidious messages our society sends boys about how to be male in our society — and, perhaps more crucially, how not to be male in our society.
While reporting her book When Boys Become Boys, Judy Y. Chu, now a lecturer at Stanford, followed a group boys from pre-K through first grade. When they first arrived at school, the boys meaningfully connected with each other, both physically and emotionally, and even “engaged in displays of tenderness and affection,” she wrote. The boys would hug each other and tousle each other’s hair.
But about halfway through that pre-K year, the dynamics of their friendships dramatically shifted. The boys became more emotionally guarded and “began to shield the qualities that had marked their full presence and genuine engagement in relationships,” she wrote. “They began to look more like stereotypical ‘boys,’ or how boys are often said to be.”
Given that the boys started the year with such a rich capacity for connection — illustrating that boys do seek and enjoy emotional intimacy — Chu inferred that this change was a reflection of the cultural messages the boys absorbed from others. She concluded:
The cardinal discovery of my research is that what is often perceived and described as natural to boys is in fact not a manifestation of their nature but an adaptation to cultures that require boys to be emotionally stoic, aggressive, and competitive, if they are to be perceived and accepted as “real boys”.
In other words, in striving for more connection and acceptance by their peers, boys sacrifice the very thing they're seeking.
Niobe Way, an applied psychologist at NYU, has been studying boys and their friendships since 1987. She has observed that boys undergo another dramatic shift in relationships in adolescence. As she wrote in a 2013 paper: “Late adolescence for the boys in my studies is a time of disconnection from the relationships that they hold so close to their hearts. Rather than simply being a period of progress, adolescence, for these boys, is also a period of profound loss.”
When I spoke to Dr. Way earlier this week, she told that boys have been teaching her, over and over and over again, that they have a rich capacity and need for connection throughout their lives.
“They come into the world wanting what every other human wants and have the same capacities as every other human,” she said. But then, during the teen years, “they start to disconnect from what they know about themselves and disconnect from each other.”
We’re part of the problem
If you’ve read my book, or any of my multiple articles on the topic, you know I’ve overtly pushed back against gender expectations and stereotypes with my children since they were born. As a family, we have had many conversations about the fact that society tells girls and boys to act in gendered ways, and my son has agreed, many times, that it’s ridiculous that boys are expected to be stoic and unemotional and to not open up to others. I’ll also note that my son is incredibly emotionally intelligent and perceptive.
And yet, despite knowing that gender stereotypes are ridiculous and even harmful, my son is still being shaped by the cultural pressure to conform. I suppose it’s not surprising: There are social costs to “breaking the rules.” Boys in my son’s rather progressive public school have been called homophobic slurs simply for having close male friends.
(An aside: if you’re wondering why gender stereotypes are so dangerous, read chapter 5 of my book. But, to give you an idea: A 2017 Equimundo report found that the more men believe that men should suppress their emotions, never ask for help, and act strong even when they feel scared, the more likely they are to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, to have suicidal thoughts, and to engage in bullying and sexual harassment. It’s also worth noting that their loneliness often becomes an added burden for girls and women: Many males only open up to their girlfriends and wives, which means that women essentially become their partners’ therapists, Dr. Way said.)
At first, I believed that my son was succumbing to these cultural pressures despite my best efforts to counteract them. But when I called up developmental psychologist Michael Reichert, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Boys' and Girls' Lives at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the book How to Raise a Boy, he pointed out that I might unwittingly be part of the problem.
Dr. Reichert told me about the book The Mama’s Boy Myth by Kate Stone Lombardi. For the book, Lombardi interviewed hundreds of mothers about their relationships with their sons, uncovering that many moms felt uncomfortable if their sons were emotionally expressive and craved a lot of connection, and that these moms often sent their sons subtle messages that this behavior wasn’t okay.
“This conflict would arise in [the moms’] hearts about whether they were jeopardizing their son's masculinity by keeping him too close,” Dr. Reichert explained to me. The moms would stiffen up around their boys, sending them the message that they should, essentially, “man up.” (Of course, dads send boys tons of unhealthy messages about masculinity, too — likely far more than moms do. I find this less surprising.)
The experts I spoke to — who have spent their careers highlighting the dangers of gender stereotypes and trying to understand how to counteract them — admitted to me that they have been unable to protect their kids from these pressures, too. Dr. Way told me that both of her adult children are very gender stereotypical. And here’s an 85-second-long clip from my conversation with Dr. Reichert that’s well worth a listen:
When I told Dr. Reichert about my son and the fact that he doesn’t feel he can confide in any of his friends, he said: “He's just trying to be included in the world of boys, not be marginalized. Kudos to him. It’s just tragic that it comes with a cost — a sacrifice.”
Becoming part of the solution
What can we do to help boys seek and find connection in a world that doesn’t want it for them? Clearly, it’s really hard.
Dr. Reichert told me that even if a boy knows intellectually that intimate friendships are okay, he may still avoid them. “You can give them all kinds of messages, and they might do it with you,” he said. But with friends, it’s likely that “they won't do it unless they know that other boys are okay with it.”
Still, there are a few things we can do that can help. Dr. Way’s work has found that boys who have at least one parent who emotionally engages with them and offers them opportunities to deeply connect are more likely to maintain intimate male friendships throughout adolescence. (Spoiler alert: Those parents are usually moms.)
We can also “normalize it by modeling it,” she said. We should talk about our own friendships and deep connections with others and be emotionally vulnerable with our children. We should ask questions of our kids — real questions that show our interest in understanding them and getting to know them deeply. When our sons make an attempt to connect with us or others or do or say things that are emotionally astute, we should praise them and show them that we value that behavior.
Christopher Pepper , who writes the excellent Substack(an insightful newsletter that is not just for health teachers!) and who is co-writing a book on boys, agreed. When we see our sons being vulnerable, or treating friends kindly, we should commend them. “Really praise that with the same enthusiasm that we praise them for making a great three pointer on the basketball court,” he said.
Mr. Pepper suggested that parents should also have explicit how-to conversations with boys on practical topics, such as: how to make friends, how to make plans with friends, and how to let friends know you care about them. As parents we (myself included!) often assume that our kids have skills and knowledge we’ve never actually taught them. Considering that so many kids lost social opportunities during the pandemic, we should take extra steps to ensure that they have essential relationship-building skills.
Schools can do a lot to help boys, too. Everyone I spoke to was a big proponent of school-organized boys’ groups — regular meetings where a social worker or psychologist creates space for boys to share their feelings, connect with each other, and discuss what masculinity means to them. These groups are powerful because the person leading them essentially gives boys permission to be emotionally vulnerable. Dr. Reichert has run one for years and boys “find it transformative,” he said. “That program has gone from being suspect and rather marginal to what the boys are calling the most popular program in the school.”
Mr. Pepper agreed. “Middle school and high school boys are really, really interested in talking about masculinity and talking about what it's like to be a boy today, and with a skilled facilitator, they will really open up,” he said. Sports coaches can be incredible facilitators for these types of conversations, too, but often do not have the training to feel comfortable doing it, so he recommended that schools consider enrolling their coaches in the evidence-based program Coaching Boys Into Men.
These interventions can also help ensure that boys don’t fall down the rabbit hole of toxic masculinity, he said:
Boys are looking for examples of how to be a man in the world. And when we don't proactively provide guidance and a place to talk about those issues, they're often going online and looking for the most visible examples — watching a lot of Andrew Tate videos and looking at examples of masculinity that are not so positive. So I think there's a real place for facilitated groups to talk about these issues, and to have a have a safe place for boys to talk about what's on their mind and what's going on in their life with a little bit of guidance.
To emphasize: Investing in our boys can help everyone. Of course, we need to be supporting our girls in myriad ways, too — and we have a lot of work to do on that front as well. But by giving boys permission and opportunities to experience emotional intimacy with others, we can help fulfill their needs and ensure that they grow up to be happier, healthier, and more invested in building a better tomorrow.
Scroll to the end of this post for a list of amazing resources Mr. Pepper shared with me. But first, a reader question!
What Disinfectant Wipes Work & Are Safe for Kids?
As a bonus today, I’m answering a question I just got from a subscriber. (Please submit your questions here! I’m answering more on Friday!)
For upcoming travel, we decided we need to do something to help prevent the kids from catching a virus. They get sick every time we fly! I want to bring wipes to use on arm rests and chairs in the terminal, that kind of thing. They have to be strong enough to kill viruses but also not make our baby sick when she then puts her mouth on these surfaces. Any thoughts? Will anything with alcohol in it do the trick? So even baby wipes? Or do I need something stronger?
To help answer the question, I consulted with Johns Hopkins infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Rivers, who writes the awesome newsletter.
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