The manosphere and men’s wellbeing: How healthcare can help young men find alternatives to toxic online spaces

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  1. Brandon Sparks, PhD, senior lecturer, Kingston University,
  2. Chloe Papandreou, MSc graduate, University of Glasgow

Online forums are exploiting the insecurity and vulnerability of young men. Healthcare can improve their mental and social wellbeing by providing healthy, alternative support systems and challenging harmful ideologies, write Brandon Sparks and Chloe Papandreou

A growing body of literature is revealing the problems faced by young men. Roughly one in five experiences a mental health problem1 and young men have some of the highest rates of substance misuse,1 violent behaviour,2 and suicide.3 The Office for National Statistics recently reported the largest quarterly rise in young men (aged 16 to 24) in the UK not in employment or education/training in more than two decades.4

Reluctant to seek professional help5 and encountering a growing discourse that associates masculinity with “toxic” traits, young men are turning to online forums where they feel more comfortable and safe to discuss their problems and seek advice.6789 Colloquially dubbed the “manosphere,” these forums exploit the vulnerabilities of young men by employing misogynistic ideologies, claiming that the rise of feminism is the root cause of their personal difficulties.1011 Many of the masculine norms they champion are associated with behaviours that pose a risk to health.12 This presents a challenge and an opportunity for public health initiatives to encourage positive models of masculinity and promote spaces where men are supported in sharing their personal difficulties and worries.13

One part of the manosphere is the involuntary celibate (incel) community. Incels are men who experience distress because of their longstanding inability to form romantic and sexual relationships.14 Incels are a global phenomenon and are ethnically and politically diverse.14151617 Within incel communities, a “black pill” belief system has become widely adopted,15 which describes a set of nihilistic “truths” that trumpet the importance of physical characteristics in women’s dating decisions.18 This paints women as shallow and promotes the belief that a man’s romantic prospects are predetermined by genetic fortune. Lost in the criticism of incel communities is that these men experience significant mental health problems, have low self-esteem, report feelings of loneliness and isolation, and have limited social support systems, making them reliant on these forums.7141619

Incels often describe being treated as a “disease” by broader society, aligning with a history of being shunned by their peers.720 Many indicate that their entry point into the incel forums is driven by a search for information rather than being ideologically motivated.7 This aligns with their belief that “incel” refers to a circumstance rather than an ideology.715 In addition to discovering they are not alone, some incels have found solace in the biological determinism touted by the “black pill,” as this attributes their celibacy to external rather than internal factors.715 While involuntary celibacy is not new,21 incels report that incel-specific forums are often the only online spaces where they can express themselves for catharsis or to seek advice without judgment or platitudes.715 These findings are promising, as they indicate that incels are primarily seeking validation and are open to discussing their problems and receiving external support.

Alternative spaces are needed that can offer understanding and a sense of belonging that incels are seeking, without stigmatisation. Healthcare can look to existing forums for examples of how to create these spaces, such as r/IncelExit, a reddit forum that offers incels a platform to seek non-judgmental advice and support in leaving inceldom. Research has indicated that r/IncelExit has been effective in championing gradual, compassionate self-improvement, empowerment over blame, and the importance of increasing social belonging.22

Returning to the broader manosphere, its members may be relying on it more out of necessity than choice. This highlights the importance of healthcare providing access to support for young men that is male-friendly, as healthcare systems can often reinforce traditional gender roles, which is associated with worse outcomes.23 Such efforts also align with recent guidance from the British Psychological Society.24 An example of effective male-friendly support is Men’s Sheds— community-led workshops where men can share skills, discuss personal problems, and receive peer support. Evaluations of these workshops have revealed improvements in wellbeing and social cohesion and they have been effective among men with diverse cultural and language backgrounds.25

In addition to having friendly spaces, young men need healthier, less hegemonic models of masculinity to aspire to. Otherwise, elements of the manosphere that thrive on their insecurities will prevail. In response to criticisms of “toxic masculinity” as implying an inherent, universal toxicity of masculinity,26 researchers have started to develop a positive psychology positive masculinity paradigm (PPPM).27 The paradigm focuses on strengths and adopting a wider definition of masculinity, which has traditionally been viewed as an antithesis of femininity.23 The PPPM highlights the importance of positive traditional masculine traits, such as self-reliance, and encourages new forms such as emotional availability to be included in an expanded definition of masculinity.2728 Although research on the effectiveness of this paradigm shift is still in its infancy, incorporation of the PPPM in therapeutic settings has been associated with improvements in self-esteem, authenticity, therapeutic alliance, and marital and familial relationships.2930 Research has also indicated that some traditional masculine values can facilitate adaptive coping mechanisms.31

Helping men improve their relationship with masculinity and introducing them to male-friendly support systems, be it at the GP or in therapeutic practice, may increase the accessibility and effectiveness of mental health initiatives.28 Healthcare can help provide positive, alternative spaces to help young men find support and a community that will benefit their mental and social wellbeing.

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Footnotes

  • Competing interests: The authors declare no conflict of interest in the writing or publication of this article.

  • Provenance and peer review: commissioned, not externally peer reviewed.

References

  1. Nolsøe E. Record rise in young men out of work and education. Telegraph 2023 Aug 24.

  2. Sparks B, Maryn AG, Zidenberg AM. Navigating a dark place: What do incels make of their experience and how can we help them? Presentation given at the International Association for the Treatment of Sexual Offenders Conference. Trondheim, Norrway. 2023.

  3. Lilly M. The world is not a safe place for men: the representational politics of the manosphere. Doctoral dissertation. University of Ottawa.

  4. Farrell T, Fernandez M, Novotny J, Alani H. Exploring misogyny across the manosphere in reddit. Proc 10th ACM Conf Web Sci 2019. 87-96.

  5. Papandreou C. A qualitative IPA exploration of identity development and experiences of self-identified incels. Master’s thesis. University of Glasgow. 2023.

  6. British Psychological Society. Psychological interventions to help male adults. 2022.

  7. Hatger N. Positive masculinity in a German mythopoetic men’s group: a reflexive thematic analysis (Master’s thesis). University of Twente. 2021.

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