New Media and Moral Panics

Ever been told that television is going to rot your brain? Or that violent video games will turn you into a homicidal manic? These are just a few accusations that have been leveled at the media in the frenzy generated by a moral panic. So what is a moral panic? It’s basically any widespread anxiety about an issue that is said to threaten the very the fabric of society. Moral panics often occur around forms of media technology. It seems that people are deeply suspicious of new media. Writer Douglas Adams put it best when he said that anything invented after you’re thirty-five is “against the natural order of things.”

This sort of anxiety is nothing new. In fact, around 400BC classical Greek philosopher Socrates was concerned that the advent of writing would create forgetfulness and people would generally know nothing.

In the 1860s, British politicians blamed popular culture for delinquent behavior. One argued that “cheap publications” and theatre performances of an “immoral character” would lead children to life of dishonesty and vice.

Fast forward to the 1950s, when American psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham published a book called The Seduction of the Innocent which claimed that comic books were a danger to children. Among other things, he claimed that Batman and Robin were gay lovers who lived in a homosexual paradise. Without a shred of evidence, he claimed that reading the lighthearted adventures of Batman and the Boy Wonder Wonder would encourage children to entertain homosexual fantasies. During this period, comic books were under attack for corrupting children. Outrage surrounding the horrific content of comic books led to the introduction of a comic book code that prohibited violence and gore in an attempt to curb juvenile delinquency.

In the 1980s, Britain worked itself into a frenzy over violent horror movies. According to newspapers at the time, these so-called video nasties were corrupting children. Newspapers and magazines went crazy with headlines like “The Vile Side of Video” and “Taken Over By Something Evil From the TV Set” which was about a child apparently possessed by one of these video cassettes. Public concern led parliament to introduce the Video Recordings Act of 1984. Many of these films were banned outright or censored for a British audience.

In the United States, ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ came under fire when it was linked to a number of suicides and murders in the 1980s. A report on 60 Minutes explored how vulnerable kids could be influenced by the board game. Dungeons and Dragons founder Gary Gygax dismissed the claims as unscientific and a witch hunt. Although these murders and suicides were tragic, at the time there were around four million children in the United States playing the game.

On Tuesday, April 20, 1999 Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Denver, Colorado. In the aftermath of the tragedy, commentators were quick to blame the mass media, including television programs like South Park, violent video games and the lyrics of Marilyn Manson. In Bowling for Columbine, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore explores possible reasons for this tragedy, pointing out the social and cultural problems that underpin events like these. The backlash against popular culture in the aftermath of Columbine was another moral panic. As Henry Jenkins points out in his article ‘Lessons from Littleton’, most kids are not at risk from the media they consume.

The next time you read about the dangers of social networking or how video games are making us violent, ask yourself whether it’s a legitimate story about the effect of new media or just another moral panic.

Further Reading

Springhall, John. Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics: Penny Gaffs to Gangsta-Rap, 1830-1996. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.