The Echoes of Moral Panic – What Is Old is New Again!

April 17, 2024

A quote from the Joker in the movie Batman Forever, “riddle me this, riddle me that – what is:” 

  • Something designed to be held in the hand?
  • Primarily designed to capture the attention of youth and keep them entertained?
  • Can be emotionally, psychologically, physically, and socially damaging to youth?
  • Could cause criminal behaviour in youth?
  • Launched national government hearings into the damage that these items were having emotionally on youth? 
  • Facilitated the publication of a book that was held out to be the pivotal evidence substantiating the above-mentioned claims?

Many of you reading this post might guess “smartphones or cellphones,” but you’d all be mistaken! The correct answer to the riddle is actually “comic books” – yes, comic books.

In 1954, the publication of “Seduction Of The Innocent – The Influence of comic books on today’s youth” by American psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wentham marked a significant moment. Dr. Wentham’s work, grounded in his documented research cited within the book, asserted a startling claim: that comic books were responsible for the societal concerns and harms mentioned above. Moreover, the book’s thesis also posited that comic books played a role in what Dr. Wentham described as the promotion of homosexuality among young boys (Batman and Robin) and lesbianism (Wonder Woman) among young girls. The profound impact of Dr. Wentham’s findings triggered a widespread moral panic among parents and legislators, leading to swift action. His work became a cornerstone in the public discourse, prompting the United States Senate to convene hearings on the regulation, and potentially the prohibition, of comic books within the nation. Dr. Wentham’s “scholarly” contribution sparked a national attack on the influence that comic books had on youth culture, their mental health, and the need for regulatory measures to safeguard societal values and to protect their emotional wellbeing – sound familiar?

Now, fast forward to today. Replace comic books with smartphones or cellphones, and you’ll find yourself in familiar territory. Just as comic books once captured the attention of youth, today it’s all about how digital devices hold sway over our children’s lives. But are the principled concerns and moral panic of technology we see today, any different from what happened with comic books in the past?

Consider this: smartphones, like comic books before them, are designed to captivate young minds. They offer entertainment, connection, and a window to the vast onlife world. Yet, just as comic books were once falsely accused of causing harm by the “scientific experts”, today’s technology faces the same scrutiny for its potential negative effects on youth.

From emotional and psychological effects to worries about social behavior and the potential influence on criminal tendencies, the similarities between past and present are remarkable. Indeed, the very technology that offers to enhance our lives and link us with the world can also bring risks, especially for our children. Yet, the question remains: to what extent? This issue, akin to the debates surrounding comic books in the past, is sparking intense discussions within the research community today when it comes to the use of technology by our kids.

So, what can we learn from history? Firstly, let’s approach the issue with a balanced perspective and think critically about what “some” are pushing to be true. While technology undoubtedly brings benefits, it’s also essential to acknowledge and address its potential drawbacks as well. Secondly, let’s engage in open dialogue with our children about their onlife habits. Just as parents once monitored comic book consumption, today we must guide our children’s use of technology with care and understanding – teaching age appropriate and reasonable digital literacy and internet safety skills, combined with age-appropriate technology, helps to build resiliency when it come to our kids in today’s onlife world where technology is ubiquitous.

Let’s remember that history has a way of repeating itself. By learning from the unfounded moral panics of the past and embracing a proactive approach to parenting in the onlife world today, we can navigate the challenges of technology with confidence and ensure a brighter future for our children – this will create buy-in with our kids rather than push back.

In his great article “The Coddling of the American Parents” Writer Mike Masnick stated:

“As with historic moral panics – parents, schools, and politicians will embrace it, absolving themselves of their own failings in raising children in our modern world and pointing to an easy villain” – technology, cellphones, and social media.

One more “riddle me this, riddle me that” question to end this blog article – “Could it be that akin to how we now view comic books, in 70 years, will we reflect on today’s moral panic about our children’s technology usage with disbelief?” Our prediction leans toward a resounding “yes” based on past history when it comes to moral panics.

Enlighten Not Frighten Through Facts Not Fear

Digital Food For Thought

The White Hatter

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