How to help your son navigate the manosphere

Three strategies for helping your son develop critical thinking skills.
By Rebecca Ruiz  on 
A young boy looks at a glowing desktop screen.
Helping your preteen son navigate the manosphere means taking his need for independence seriously. Credit: Vicky Leta / Mashable

Gary Barker believes parents are inadvertently ceding too much ground to digital culture influencers who may not have their sons' best interests at heart. As the president and CEO of the nonprofit think tank Equimundo, which promotes gender equality, Barker spends much of his time thinking about this problem.

Some of what young boys encounter online can be purely engaging, fun, and confidence-building. And then there's the "manosphere," which loosely describes the online ecosystem of influencer content built around traditional masculine norms of self-sufficiency, dominance, toughness, and stoicism.

Some of the content in the manosphere can be harmless and enjoyable, appealing to boys and men by offering well-intended health or well-being tips. But the harmful, serious content that surfaces is frequently tied to racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, antisemitism, and in some cases, violent rhetoric.

If you think your son would reject such ideas out of hand, consider that the gateway to the more dangerous aspects of the manosphere is often absurd or irreverent content designed for maximum laughs rather than indoctrination. Other content in this space, like specious advice about money, dating, or politics, makes boys feel like they have knowledge about how the world really works — and teaches them how to take advantage of that insight.

In other words, the manosphere represents a unique parenting challenge: helping boys develop critical thinking skills about digital content they find entertaining and fulfilling without alienating them by passing strong judgment of their media consumption choices. Striking this balance is particularly tricky for parents of preadolescent boys between the ages of 8 and 12, who often yearn for independence but aren't quite old enough to understand the implications of certain decisions.

A parent's first impulse might be to ban questionable content altogether, without discussion, but Barker cautions against doing that, because these online spaces can offer the sense of mastery over their own lives that boys at this age crave.

"Often parents step in with this restrictive approach...that is perceived as intrusive and [sends] boys further down the rabbit hole rather than helping them look up from the rabbit hole and engage in conversations," says Barker.

Figuring out how to parent a boy who's curious about or interested in various aspects of the manosphere is urgent, given the stakes. Equimundo's 2023 report on the State of American Men, which Barker co-authored, found that younger men "are socially disconnected, pessimistic about the future, and turning to online anger."

There are key strategies that parents can use to help their boys both navigate the manosphere and develop critical thinking skills that will become even more essential as they get older:

1. Respect your son's need for independence and competence.

As a parent, it can be hard to conceal alarm when your son encounters or starts exploring the manosphere.

Young men accused of committing mass shootings in the U.S., including in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, embraced aggressive or violent behavior online toward women and people of color. The Buffalo shooter allegedly spent much of his time exploring video and forum content on YouTube and Reddit devoted to using firearms and discussing racist conspiracy theories, according to a lawsuit against those companies filed on behalf of victims and survivors.

Even if the alleged gunman knew little of the manosphere, parents may feel the content boys find there can prime them for more extreme views and behavior.

Last year, the popular manosphere influencer Andrew Tate, who refers to himself as Cobra Tate, was arrested by Romanian police on charges of rape, human trafficking, and organized crime. He and his brother, who was also arrested, deny the allegations and have sued their accusers for defamation.

As Mashable's Chance Townsend reported prior to Tate's arrest, the "self-help guru offering advice to young men on how to make money and talk to women" had a massive following. He'd been dubbed, as a compliment, the "King of Toxic Masculinity."

Caroline Hayes, who conducts research on the manosphere as Equimundo's senior strategic initiatives officer, says that one common through line of the content is the narrative that feminism oppresses men and that the "system is rigged against" them. Boys often find certain influencers' rebellious posture on feminism, in particular, appealing.

Hayes says that the story told by many of these influencers is a timeless one repackaged for the digital and modern age: Boys and men are heroes facing an enemy cast as the "other," like women or immigrants, against the odds.

The "counterculture" edginess of that sentiment, and the way it provides a sense of belonging and validates boys' disaffection, can be intoxicating, Hayes adds.

That's why Barker urges parents to focus on recognizing their son's age-appropriate need for independence and competence. When this respect comes from a parent, it can reinforce a boy's belief that he can be trusted to think critically. If parents can't or won't do this, dangerous voices in the manosphere will.

But offering this validation doesn't mean letting a boy freely wander the manosphere without oversight, says Dr. Andrew P. Smiler, a psychologist who works with teen boys and men. Instead, parents should familiarize themselves with the sites and forums their sons are frequenting and ask what they like about the content, instead of banning it. Additionally, they should be able to monitor private messages online.

"They're not ready for full freedom yet," says Smiler, author of Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy.

In cases of extreme content, Smiler still recommends asking a boy what's appealing about it and trying to redirect healthy interest in a subject to a safer or more appropriate platform or resource.

2. Have open-ended conversations with your son.

The manosphere often engages boys and young men as equal partners in conversation, which is why it's crucial that parents approach their sons with openness and without judgment.

So if a boy shares a meme that he finds funny but is also offensive, a parent shouldn't dismiss it. Rather, they might first ask about the humor.

Smiler says that boys may not pick up on subtle messages or the cues and context that make a meme hurtful to others. In his own experience, Smiler has worked with male teens and adults who enjoy the style and visuals of the Japanese pop art forms manga and anime, but don't realize some of it is demeaning toward women because they watch animated shows with the sound or closed captions turned off.

If a boy's interest in something online isn't inherently tied to an objectionable message, Smiler recommends being curious about why they like it. When that conversation is well underway, a parent might pose open-ended questions about concerning aspects of the content. This can be put simply as, "Did you notice this other thing?"

Still, preteens haven't mastered the ability to take someone else's perspective. So if, for example, a boy is struggling to understand why a meme implied something cruel about a woman, Barker recommends asking him to reflect on what it would feel like if his mom, sister, or another female figure in his life were the subject of that content.

Ideally, a parent will approach this conversation as if a boy has a moral compass to help shape his views rather than filling in the blanks for him, Barker says. But he also admits accomplishing that isn't easy, and that parents should generally have ongoing conversations like this with their son.

Parents of Black boys and boys of color can face even more complex discussions, because their sons may encounter both manosophere content online as well as racial discrimination aimed at them or others.

Dr. Erlanger A. Turner, a psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, says it's particularly important for these parents to respond to children who've witnessed or experienced racism online by inviting their perspective and opinion first.

"Sometimes they know more about it than we think they know," Turner says, adding that it can improve a child's self-esteem to let them express themselves before you weigh in with advice.

Additionally, Turner says that some of the values promoted by the manosphere, like being tough, present a distinct challenge for parents of Black boys. Stoicism can be protective for Black boys who feel they can't afford to be seen as weak. At the same time, if they appear too tough, they risk being perceived as aggressive, which may prompt unwelcome or dangerous scrutiny of their behavior.

Turner says that as Black boys consider how the manosphere might benefit them, given the narrow tightrope they're forced to walk, their parents should create space for them to share those thoughts and even engage in healthy disagreement.

3. Really listen to your son.

Listening to your son is key, Turner says. But this requires focused attention. Consider body language as well. Avoid striking a pose that says: "I'm going to tell you what I think as soon as you're finished."

Sometimes this means calmly entertaining the junior version of mansplaining, which is actually quite important. Smiler says that for boys who buy into standard cultural expectations of what it means to be a boy or man, there is a focus on claiming knowledge and the ability to lead. Boys want to show that they know how the world works. Sometimes, they also want to show off as the person who knows better, Smiler adds.

Really engaging can lead to recognizing a boy's strengths, which is key to further developing confidence and critical thinking skills.

When parents really hear what their son is saying, they're in a better position to acknowledge how he's thought about a moral or ethical issue. They might be able to recognize qualities like empathy, kindness, and intelligence.

Around peers and friends, and particularly online, boys might receive recognition for different character traits than their parents emphasize.

"If I'm a boy and I'm trying to impress the other guys and get some status and self-esteem bumps from them, being nice is probably not the way to go," Smiler says. "Being kind of a jerk might be the way to go, because our image of masculinity is kind of a jerk right now."

If that dynamic is affecting your son, Smiler recommends finding peer groups that may be more accepting of the kind of boy he wants to be, or who you want him to become. This could mean skipping competitive traveling sports teams in favor of joining a recreational league. But making that decision requires yet more listening to your son, rather than making the choice for him.

Turner says that boys of color benefit from ongoing conversations about racial pride, even as parents have to balance that with preparing them for encountering bias or discrimination. He suggests attending cultural events or community activities that reinforce boys' pride in their racial identity, like a museum exhibition that features the accomplishments of famous Black people. Conversations about these experiences, in which a parent eagerly listens, help promote independent and critical thinking.

When parents can consistently provide experiences that encourage and affirm a boy's independence, character, and critical thinking skills, they've prepared him in important ways to explore the manosphere.

Rebecca Ruiz
Rebecca Ruiz

Rebecca Ruiz is a Senior Reporter at Mashable. She frequently covers mental health, digital culture, and technology. Her areas of expertise include suicide prevention, screen use and mental health, parenting, youth well-being, and meditation and mindfulness. Prior to Mashable, Rebecca was a staff writer, reporter, and editor at NBC News Digital, special reports project director at The American Prospect, and staff writer at Forbes. Rebecca has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master's in Journalism from U.C. Berkeley. In her free time, she enjoys playing soccer, watching movie trailers, traveling to places where she can't get cell service, and hiking with her border collie.

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