Digital Parenting | 13 Jul 2023

Positive masculinity: Finding the best role models online

Toxic masculinity has been in the news a lot recently, but there are a growing number of positive role models showing boys and young men how to behave with kindness, respect and empathy.

The brand of misogynistic and materialistic ‘toxic masculinity’ that YouTuber Andrew Tate personifies is a problem that has vexed parents for some time.

“Time and time again expectations of ‘being a man’ have led to more and more young males finding their way into serious violent crime,” according to a 2020 report from Greater Manchester’s Innovation Unit. It noted that the influence of toxic masculinity on young men may be rising.

“This pressure to uphold a masculine image based on strength is becoming intensified through the increasing influence of social media,” the report concluded.

And this pressure can be devastating for individuals and society: “Extreme forms of certain traditional masculine traits are linked to aggression, misogyny and negative health outcomes,” according to the American Psychological Association.

The tide could be turning though, as a flood of surveys and school initiatives suggest that ‘toxic masculinity’ might finally be facing a new foe – ‘positive masculinity’.

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“If we create the right environment, these young men will show the best versions of themselves,” says Mike Nicholson. A former English teacher with almost two decades of experience under his belt, Nicolson is now director of The Progressive Masculinity Programme. This organisation hosts workshops with boys, and also with their parents, exploring what it can mean to ‘be a man’ by fostering more inclusive and empathetic attitudes.

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When Tate first hit the headlines, parents reported feeling powerless to fight the values he and his ilk perpetuated on social media. “Many are now obviously aware of influencers like Tate and how the online world can be a breeding ground for toxic ideologies, but it can be very hard to have conversations on these topics due to generational differences and a lack of time to actually watch the kind of content we’re talking about,” says Nicholson.

But that may now be changing. In February, a major study signposted profound and positive changes in the viewing habits of families. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of parents now watch along for at least half the time their children are in front of a screen, so that they can engage in and monitor the contents of what their children are watching. The study, which collected data from 5,000 families in 10 different countries, noted that the thing that parents most desired from media content was “positive role models for children”.

Watching together is a vital first step, but parents need to go further, according to the campaign group Global Boyhood Initiative. Last year, its report – The State of UK Boys – did not mince its words. “To continue breaking down harmful norms,” it stated, “we crucially need to work in partnership and dialogue with children and young people… Participatory, creative, and open-ended approaches are required, that respect and actively engage them.” Addressing these norms, they stress, “must start early, given gender socialisation is a process that begins before birth.”

To help with this, the Global Boyhood Initiative has published a list of tips for parents concerned about the impact of extremist influencers like Tate on their children. Prominent among them is the advice not to censor or judge your son for his choice of role model, but ask open questions about the content (“How does listening to them make you feel?” for example). Once you’ve built their trust, you can begin to encourage more critical engagement (“Do you agree with his statement about women?”).

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Nicholson’s experience suggests this approach genuinely pays off: “The vast majority of boys and young men we work with are receptive to more progressive interpretations of masculinity provided their frustrations and views are acknowledged and respected. A large part of our success has been providing these young men with a non-judgemental space in which to express their views, no matter how extreme or disturbing they may be and then to guide and challenge in a way which doesn’t shame or humiliate.”

Progress in schools

Nicholson’s organisation is not the only one to recognise the importance of providing boys with alternative role models and values. Positive or progressive masculinity programmes have proliferated over the course of 2022-2023.

In November 2022, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced a £1 million education package to be rolled out in the city’s secondary schools. The goal, he explained, was “to help teach the next generation of men about becoming allies and building positive and healthy relationships with the women and girls they see and interact with every day.”

‘Allyship training’ that helps kids to recognise and call out sexist and misogynistic behaviour will now be taught by teachers, with support of workshop leaders from Tender, a charity that works to end domestic abuse and sexual violence through healthy relationships education.

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The capital is not alone in this approach. In Manchester, the Social Switch programme trains boys from Year 10 to run sessions with Year 7 boys, helping them to think more critically about social media and the ideals that influencers perpetuate.

A major review of such school-based interventions found that the years between the ages of 12 and 16 are ‘a prime opportunity for intervention, given the development of masculine identities at this age’. The study went on to define the three subjects on which such ‘positive masculinity’ programmes should focus.

The first is making sure young people stay connected. “To be ‘connected’,” its authors explain, “is to have a respectful, tolerant, equal, empathetic, kind and non-violent relationship with a variety of people, systems and the self.” Developing that quality, they suggest, helps to counter the traditional idea that boys should be self-reliant and aloof, which can lead to alienation and loneliness, as well as violence.

The second is staying motivated. The authors define this as “the drive to continually grow as a human, contribute to one’s society and feel a sense of purpose.” This, they argue, helps to counter peer pressure from friends and influencers.

The third is being authentic, or “to know, and to be comfortable in one’s own (masculine) identity… having the ability and flexibility to be inclusive of all people, having the ability and flexibility to express their true identity, attitudes and emotions.” This helps to counter the confusing and conflicting messages that boys receive about what’s expected of them as men.

As Nicholson puts it: “We believe supporting boys and young men to be critical thinkers is vital, particularly in the online world. Where are we getting our information from? Is it a reliable source? Can we detect a bias or agenda? What’s the counter-argument?”

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Progress among influencers

Early signs suggest this new definition of masculinity might even be trickling down to the world of influencers.

In April 2023, the globally famous British influencer KSI apologised for his casual use of a pejorative term for people of South Asian origin in a now-deleted video. “My ignorance has only reinforced the negative stereotypes that have existed for way too long in this country,” he said. “I want to express my heartfelt regret for what I said, and I want you to know I am genuinely ashamed… I realised that my words have consequences as a public figure, I have a responsibility to use my platform for good rather than perpetuating discrimination.”

Time will tell if he does so. But other influencers are sharing their vulnerabilities, too. Markiplier, a gaming influencer, has spoken openly about struggling to cope with the death of his father from cancer. DanTDM, whose gaming videos also propelled him to fame, often shares videos of him caring for his children, and last year starred in a video about mental health, made by suicide prevention charity CALM.  In February, he announced he was “retiring from the YouTube mindset” – in other words, he vowed to spend less time making algorithm-pleasing content in order to focus on something far more fulfilling – his family.

“There are now so many amazing people out there addressing these issues both in the ‘real’ and digital world,” says Nicholson. There is, he stresses, still much work to do. Yet: “I am very optimistic about the future and I don’t believe that masculinity is in ‘crisis’. I have never known the topic of masculinity to be so openly discussed, and the young men we work with consistently demonstrate the potential to be the kind of men, partners, husbands and fathers this world desperately needs.”

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