I recently read a thought-provoking article by Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan titled “‘Demise of Guys’: How Video Games and Porn are Ruining a Generation.” There’s also a TED talk that you can watch on the same topic.
To summarize, Dr. Zimbardo’s research has found that an overuse of video games and internet porn are debilitating guys from functioning normally in society. (Of course, girls are not immune to this problem, but it is much more prevalent among guys.)
Unlike addictions to gambling, alcohol, or drugs, where the addict simply needs more of the same substance to reproduce the same quality of buzz, addictions to video games and porn require novel content. Hence, the compulsive search for “the next thing” is “creating a generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment.”
This news hits close to home because even at a graduate level seminary, I have seen students who missed classes because they stayed up too late playing games, as well as students who showed up to class only to play computer games during the lecture. I also know of a married student whose porn addiction precipitated a divorce during my time at Gordon-Conwell.
Addictions are programed within the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls the emotions and the “fight or flight” survival responses, involving food, safety, and sex. In order to cope with fear and stress, the limbic system programs a craving for behavior that has previously been associated with survival (i.e. an escape from fear and stress). The brain bypasses the usual filtering process and fixates on that survival behavior until it returns to a sense of safety and “normalcy,” making the behavior compulsive.
Therefore, the article continues, boys and young men are being neurologically rewired by their digital addictions to seek instant gratification and constant stimulation. The tampered brains are “totally out of sync in traditional school classes, which are analog, static and interactively passive. Academics are based on applying past lessons to future problems, on planning, on delaying gratifications, on work coming before play and on long-term goal-setting. Guys are also totally out of sync in romantic relationships, which tend to build gradually and subtly, and require interaction, sharing, developing trust and suppression of lust at least until ‘the time is right.’”
Before we go on, let me clarify my own belief that calling the overuse of video games and/or porn an addiction does not exclude moral responsibility. Reductionistic and behaviorist explanations for addiction do not negate the fact that “the Bible locates the core motivational dynamic in covenantal space, not in psychological, physiological or psychosocial space” (David Powlison, “Question at the Crossroads,” Care for the Soul, p. 47). At the heart of all addictions is a failure to be captivated by Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph 5:18).
A robust conception of sin traverses legal as well as relational dimensions. Sin does not merely comprise the violation of laws in the Bible, but also any attempt to fill one’s spiritual void or build one’s core identity with something other than God (Barbara Taylor, Speaking of Sin, pp. 57-67). Hence, overuse of video games and porn are indeed sinful, and calling it an addiction does not excuse boys and young men from moral responsibility.
How, then, should the Church respond to this epidemic? How can we teach the guys in our midst to forsake video games and porn so that they can treasure Christ supremely?
We must first encourage the guys to confess their sins. Proverbs 28:13 teaches that “whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” Confession is a prerequisite for forgiveness (1 Jn 1:9) and healing (Jas 5:16), but guys addicted to video games and porn fail to avail themselves because they either deny that their addictions are sinful/harmful or refuse to admit their powerlessness over addiction.
However, these are not innocent diversions, as this research reveals. In one extreme case, a South Korean man died of cardiac arrest after playing Starcraft for nearly 50 hours straight. The article also notes that the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik reportedly prepared himself for the shooting of 77 people by playing “World of Warcraft” and “Call of Duty” for 16 hours a day over a year. In fact, research suggests that playing violent video games in general increases aggressive behavior in real life.
Similarly, studies have shown that people who use pornography are much more likely to engage in prostitution and extramarital affairs (Mary Eberstadt and Mary Anne Layden, The Social Costs of Pornography, p. 24). One prison inmate described his own slippery slope from adult book stores to topless bars, phone sex lines, X-rated videos, exhibitionism, and eventually rape (Henry Rogers, The Silent War, p. 181). Physiological tolerance makes repeated sexual acts progressively less gratifying, compelling addicts toward increasingly risky and depraved behavior.
Jesus taught that lust is tantamount to adultery, and hatred to murder, not merely to discourage lust and hatred but also to highlight their essential and inevitable connection to adultery and murder, respectively (Mt 5:21-30) (Anonymous, “The War Within: An Anatomy of Lust,” Leadership 1982, p. 23). Both video games and porn can warp people’s sense of reality and impair their interpersonal relationships and social functioning. Erotic fantasies must be demythologized as unrealizable ideals, and gaming heroics must be exposed as chimerical feats. Confession is the first step toward recovery.
Then, we must surround guys with authentic community. As Carnes argues, “fear of abandonment and shame are at the core of addiction” (Patrick Carnes, Out of the Shadows, p. 6). However, instead of alleviating feelings of fear and shame, addiction intensifies them, resulting in further alienation that fuels the addiction. Sexual addiction, in particular, is “especially virulent because few forms of fixation or excitement are as supercharged with social judgment, ridicule, or fear” (Carnes, p. 31).
Therefore, a community that accepts and cares for the guys unconditionally is integral to the recovery process. We need to be a community that recognizes that no one is above such temptations. We need to counteract the insecurity that drives guys back to video games and porn. This kind of community can allay fears of abandonment and shame that feed the addiction and thus reduce its compulsive force. It can provide accountability, and, by offering an alternative to the virtual community of gamers, serve to rehabilitate guys for social interaction.
As suggested above, the neurological reinforcement of addictions is driven by a survival instinct that compensates for lack of security, self-esteem, acceptance, or intimacy. Therefore, the distorted assumptions about self-image, relationships, needs, and/or sexuality that insulate impaired thinking must be converted.
Henri Nouwen expresses beautifully that conversion is “enter[ing] into the desert of our loneliness and … chang[ing] it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude.” It requires courage and faith to envision the desert yielding a beautiful array of flowers, and conversion moves “from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play” (Patrick Carnes, A Gentle Path through the Twelve Steps, p. 196).
First, acknowledging God as Creator enables one to recognize his self-worth as a being created in God’s image (Gn 1:26-27), which precludes self-pity and escapism.
Second, the awareness of the pervasive nature of sin and admission of one’s sinful behaviors realign faulty self-perceptions that incubate pride and lead to hedonism (Alan Medinger, “Grateful Heart: An Antidote to Lust,” Regeneration News 1997).
Third, the acceptance of God’s forgiveness and unconditional love empowers one with the security to overcome stress and form trusting relationships (1 John 4:18).
Fourth, the affirmation of God’s new creation from the old self (palaios anthrōpos) to the new humanity (kainōs anthrōpos) frees one to “exploit… a perfection already present” rather than struggle after an ideal (Eph 4:22-24; Gal 5:16-25) (Robert Roberts, “Outline of Pauline Psychotherapy,” Care for the Soul, p. 142). We must encourage guys in our churches to contemplate “whatever is true, … noble, … right, … pure, … lovely, … [and] admirable” (Phil 4:8). The conversion of faulty core beliefs is imperative for behavioral change.
However, even the conversion of false beliefs does not guarantee sustained transformation. There is a time lag between what the neocortex, the part of the brain that stores information for decision-making, has learned, and what the limbic system, which controls addictive instincts, believes (Michael Dye and Patricia Fancher, “Relapse and the Brain,” http://www.nacronline.com/addictions/relapse-and-the-brain).
For this reason, challenging the automatic habits wired by the limbic system takes persistent and prolonged commitment. The addictive cycle begins with preoccupation, a trance-like mood wherein an addict is obsessively absorbed with thoughts of video games or porn, and then proceeds to ritualization, the addict’s personal set of routines that lead up to the gaming or sexual behavior. The addict must be prepared to interrupt the cycle during these stages by fleeing (2 Tm 2:22; Gen 39:1-20). Access to video games and pornography must be blocked, whether it be through internet filtering software or through physical removal of the gaming console by another individual (e.g. parent, friend).
Since, for many, stress often triggers addiction, we must teach guys to structure their time and stay organized in order to circumvent stressful situations. We need to help them keep “a mental file” of times and places where they have succumbed to their addictions and encourage them to avoid them even when it is inconvenient to do so (Rogers, p. 211). God is faithful and assures that we will not be tempted beyond what we can bear, and he will always provide a way out for those who are committed to following him (1 Cor 10:13).
Undoubtedly there will be disappointments, and sometimes guys will be overwhelmed by failure, but we must remind them that Jesus Christ, our highest priest, is able “to empathize with our weaknesses” and give us grace and mercy to help us (Heb 4:14-17).
After all, purity “does not consist in following the moral rules of a niggling prudish master who spies on our every glance and forces us to keep holding in our hand Tartuffe’s handkerchief. We have to be pure because the Lord wants this and because His love does not allow any sharing” (Francois Mauriac, What I Believe, pp. 56-57). The verifiable principles of the spiritual realm teach us that impurity separates us from God. As Mauriac writes, “Purity is the condition for a higher love—for a possession superior to all possessions: that of God” (52). Nothing less than God himself is at stake.