Monday, June 7, 2010 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Kids, Media, Commercialism & Moral Panic

I spend a lot of time here trying to debunk media "moral panics," "techno-panics," or unfounded hysteria over the impact of commercialism in general on kids. To believe what some politicians and regulatory agitators have to say, today's youth always seem at the precipice of the moral abyss. Our misguided youth are seemingly all going straight to hell and they dragging our culture and society down with them.

Except they're not. It's all the same old tripe we've heard one generation after another. As the late University of North Carolina journalism professor Margaret A. Blanchard once noted: "[P]arents and grandparents who lead the efforts to cleanse today's society seem to forget that they survived alleged attacks on their morals by different media when they were children. Each generation's adults either lose faith in the ability of their young people to do the same or they become convinced that the dangers facing the new generation are much more substantial than the ones they faced as children." And Thomas Hine, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, argues that: "We seem to have moved, without skipping a beat, from blaming our parents for the ills of society to blaming our children. We want them to embody virtues we only rarely practice. We want them to eschew habits we've never managed to break."

Anyway, I was reminded of this again today as I was finally reading through a report published last year by the U.K.'s Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It's entitled "The Impact of the Commercial World on Children's Wellbeing" and it is very much worth your attention. Several people had recommended I check it out in recent months, but I'm ashamed to say I am only now getting around to it as I prepare an amicus brief for the Supreme Court's review of a California video game law. But this U.K. report is not to be missed. Here are a few of the choice bits from the study:

On moral panics generally:

Concerns about the harmful effects of popular culture on children and young people have a very long history, dating back well before electronic technology. These concerns reflect much more general anxieties about the future direction of society; but, as several studies have shown, they can also be inflamed and manipulated by those with much broader political, moral or religious motivations. These concerns occasionally reach the level of a 'moral panic', in which particular social groups and practices are publicly demonised - often on the basis of what are ultimately found to be quite spurious accusations. Perhaps paradoxically, such stories also play well in the media themselves, often receiving extensive and highly sensational coverage. (p. 25)

On "blaming commercialism" for the woes of the world:
Children's growing access to media and technology, and the apparent increase in 'commercialism', are often cited as key reasons for this apparent corruption of childhood innocence. According to this view, childhood used to be a non-commercial experience: children were kept away from the sordid realities of the economy, and from the deceitful appeals of advertisers. But as commercialism has increasingly dominated childhood, and as children have come to be seen as 'fair game' for marketers, the freedom and innocence of childhood have been destroyed.

These kinds of arguments have been made many times over the years by commentators from a wide range of political, moral and religious persuasions. Indeed, they can be seen as part of a long-standing tradition in Western social thought that dates back at least to the Romantics. This is a long and complex tradition, which has motivated significant reforms in children's lives - for example through the work of writers such as Blake and Dickens and campaigners such as Shaftesbury. However, in some respects it has also entailed a resistance to modernity. Modern technology, urbanisation, consumer capitalism, the pressure to compete, and the 'speed' of contemporary life have all been cited as the villains of the piece; and there is a strong sense of nostalgia for a simpler, slower time, a rural idyll of family togetherness and spontaneous play, in which 'children could be children'. (p. 26)

On how childhood is represented in political debates:
it is important to consider how children and childhood are represented in this debate. The 'toxic childhood' approach provides an extremely negative representation of contemporary childhood. Children are portrayed here as vulnerable and helpless victims, rather than in any way resilient or competent - or indeed happy. They are seen to be suffering from a litany of ills and problems: the more positive aspects of modern childhood - for example, in terms of the range of opportunities children enjoy - are largely ignored. The potential benefits of the commercial world, or of modern media and technology, for children are effectively marginalised. The possibility that most children (and their parents) are reasonably well-adjusted and doing fairly well is rarely entertained: the glass is very definitely half-empty. (p. 28)

On causal relationships (or what I refer to as the "monkey-see, monkey-do" theories):
[Another] key problem here is to do with the nature of the causal relationships and explanations that are suggested for the apparent 'crisis' of contemporary childhood. There is a persistent logical confusion in these arguments between correlations and causes. The fact that x and y happened at more or less the same time does not in itself mean that x must have caused y, or indeed vice-versa. Even if we can prove an association between x and y (that is, that more of x coincides with more of y), this does not amount to proof of a causal connection. In these debates, the distinctions between symptoms and causes are frequently blurred; and incompatible or contradictory phenomena are often attributed to the same fundamental cause. Unfortunately, this is also the case with a good deal of the research in this field. (p. 29)

On "The Limits of Nostolgia":
Finally, it is important to consider the historical dimension of the argument. There is a very dominant strain of nostalgia here - a looking back to a 'golden age' when childhood and family life were apparently harmonious, stable and well-adjusted. But it is often far from clear when that time was, or the social groups to whom this description applies; and the basis on which historical comparisons are being made is frequently unclear. Historical studies of childhood certainly give good grounds for questioning whether such a 'golden age' has ever existed: if anything, they would suggest that the lives of children in earlier times were significantly harder than they are today. (p. 29)

Absolutely correct on all those counts. Of course, I'm cherry-picking a bit here and pulling out the bits with which I find myself in general agreement. The report is more balanced than I've suggested here. So read the entire thing for yourself. It's quite interesting. [More background on it here.]

posted by Adam Thierer @ 10:32 AM | Free Speech , Online Safety & Parental Controls