8 Feb 2023

Why toxic online content appeals to young men

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 8 February 2023

Cancelling 'toxic' internet personalities won't solve the identity crisis their young male followers are struggling with, says psychologist Matt Defina from the Australian mental health charity Man Cave.

young man on laptop in the dark

Photo: Vadim Artyukhin

The huge popularity of self-described misogynist Andrew Tate reflects the unmet social needs of the millions of young men who idolise him, he tells Jesse Mulligan - and it's this we need to try and understand.

TikTok influencer Andrew Tate

TikTok influencer Andrew Tate Photo: YouTube screenshot

In the last decade, and especially since the #MeToo movement, many men have struggled with how to embody and express masculinity, Defina says.

Add to this a lack of healthy male role models and intergenerational connection and you have "a bit of a vacuum" that's being filled for many by entrepreneur Andrew Tate's messages of unapologetic male empowerment. 

"Andrew Tate represents a version of masculinity that young men feel is not that welcome, which is pursuing success, buying fast cars and being really fit and strong ... He's being who he wants to be without any fear or shame.

"It's like he's playing out a movie character version of himself - and he knows how to get attention, he knows how to get followers and he's been really successful at it."

Last year, motivational content from the former kickboxer website, Hustler's University, spread like wildfire among young men seeking clarity and direction, Defina says.

When he was banned from social media in August for promoting misogyny, Tate's outsider antihero status only grew.

Yet Tate's misogynistic perspectives on women are still shaping the values and belief systems of many teenage boys.

In The Man Cave's recent survey of Australian teenage boys, a third said they relate to him and a quarter said they look up to him.

In an upcoming research paper, 50 percent of the Australian teachers surveyed said Tate's ideology has had a dramatic and negative influence on classroom behaviour, Defina says.

"Teachers, especially females, were feeling disrespected and even unsafe. And female peers were also feeling unsafe around these young men."

Although we hear a lot about 'toxic' masculinity, there's too little discussion going on about what healthy masculinity could look like, Defina says.

'What it comes down to is how can we show young men how to make really responsible values-based decisions and care not just for themselves but also those around them ... and to understand what their gifts and talents are so they contribute to their communities in a meaningful way.

"Teachers are reaching out to us and asking how they can not judge young men and seek to understand them. That's obviously really challenging ... especially when they're are already under a lot of strain.'

Matt Defina

Matt Defina Photo: supplied

Defina would like to see school systems focus not just on educational development but also on character development.

"We have got the smartest people with the best technology working on keeping everyone's attention on social media to drive marketing dollars… then vaping, pornography … [Young men] don't know how how to regulate [themselves]."

To better understand the impact of social media he recommends people watch the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.

Family members keen to connect with a young person consuming online content they find concerning can try the following three steps:

1. Do your own work first

"Go and absorb some of Tate's content - which you can watch in incognito mode so it doesn't come in your algorithm too much. See what you can connect with and what triggers you."

2. Create a safe space for conversation

This needs to be a judgment-free space where people feel welcome to bring their own perspective and really hear the other person's.

3.  Seek to understand without judgement

"Then have a conversation that's going to build on a foundation of respect and trust between you two."

You can follow The Man Cave on Facebook and Instagram.


Why the boys are not alright (Afternoons)

How to communicate with a teenage boy (Nine to Noon)

How to protect children online (Nine to Noon)

Fatherhood: 'First you have to figure out who you are as a person' (Afternoons)

What does it mean to be a modern Kiwi man? (Nine to Noon)

Jordan Peterson's 12 rules for a chaotic world (Nine to Noon)

The influence of Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson (Saturday Morning)

How strengthening male friendship can aid well-being (Nine to Noon)

How to foster gender equality at home (Afternoons)

Parenting Boys - The Celia Lashlie Collection