Technopanics and the Great Social Networking Scare

by on July 10, 2008 · 30 comments

Time technopanic cover

Sean Garrett of the 463 Blog posted an excellent essay this week about the great moral panic of 1995, when Time magazine ran its famous cover “Cyberporn” story that included this unforgettable image. Unfortunately for Time, the article also included a great deal of erroneous information about online pornography that was pulled from a bogus study that found 83.5 percent of all online images were pornographic! The study was immediately debunked by scholars, but not before Congress rushed to judgment and passed the Communications Decency Act, which sought to ban all “indecent” online content. It was later struck down as unconstitutional, of course.

Anyway, Sean’s essay also brought to my attention this amazing new article by Alice Marwick, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University: “To Catch a Predator? The MySpace Moral Panic“. The topic of “moral panics” is something I have done quite a bit of work on, but Marwick’s paper is absolute must-reading on the topic, especially as it pertains to the recent moral panic of MySpace and social networking sites.

She sets forth a theory of “techopanics” based on earlier research about moral panics. Here are some nuggets from her gem of paper:

This paper is about moral panics over contemporary technology, which I call “technopanics.” I use two examples, the cyberporn panic of 1996 and the contemporary panic over online predators and MySpace, to demonstrate the links between media coverage and content legislation. In both cases, Internet content legislation is directly linked to media–fueled moral panics that concern uses of technology deemed harmful to children. This is of particular interest right now as a new Internet content bill, the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), is being debated in Congress. The technopanic over “online predators” is remarkably similar to the cyberporn panic; both are fueled by media coverage, both rely on the idea of harm to children as the justification for Internet content restriction, and both have resulted in carefully crafted legislation to circumvent First Amendment concerns. While both panics have their roots in legitimate concerns, I am not primarily concerned with the extent of the purported harms. However, my research demonstrates that the legislation proposed (or passed) to curb these problems is an extraordinary response; it is misguided and in many cases masks the underlying problem.

She goes on to articulate her “theory of technopanics”:

The technopanic is an attempt to contextualize the moral panic as a response to fear of modernity as represented by new technologies. […] Technopanics have the following characteristics. First, they focus on new media forms, which currently take the form of computer–mediated technologies. Second, technopanics generally pathologize young people’s use of this media, like hacking, file–sharing, or playing violent video games. Third, this cultural anxiety manifests itself in an attempt to modify or regulate young people’s behavior, either by controlling young people or the creators or producers of media products.

She builds upon the work of other “moral panic” scholars, such as Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda, who “specif[ied] three particular models of moral panic causality: grassroots, elite–engineered, and interest group.”

The first model presumes that public, grassroots anxiety over social stresses (new technologies, social changes, and so on) is mapped to a particular group which serves as a scapegoat. In the second model, elites or incumbents, including government actors, the wealthy, or socially influential persons, strategically create a moral panic to divert attention from social problems, in essence creating a distraction. In the third model, moral crusades by special interest groups, such as activist groups, community organizers or non–profits give unintentional rise to moral panics.

Sound familiar? It should. This is exactly what is going on in the debate over social networking with various media reports and regulatory-minded activists groups spinning horror stories about the “evils” that will befall our society if we let our children communicate online. As Marwick concludes:

the furor over MySpace is disproportionate to the amount of harm produced by the site. Indeed, the furor over online predators seems also to be disproportionate. Rather than focusing on nebulous “predators,” it seems that parents, teachers, and social workers should emphasize identifying and preventing abuse in specific, local community settings. This fits Goode and Ben–Yehuda’s model of moral panics.

And finally, in conclusion, she argues that:

The Deleting Online Predators Act is not a remedy for any of the concerns discussed in this paper and should not be considered a viable legal solution. First, while online predators do not represent an epidemic or socially significant problem, child pornography and child abuse are important social issues that require attention. However, they are not caused by minors using MySpace, and preventing children from using social networking sites will do nothing to end these problems.

Second, the media should attend to their social responsibility when covering technology. While new discoveries almost always have both benefits and disadvantages, breathless negative coverage of technology frightens parents, prevents teenagers from learning responsible use, and fuels panics, resulting in misguided or unconstitutional legislation.

Third, teenagers should be encouraged in their use of technology. Technological skills are advantageous both in terms of social capital and job prospects, and we should promote technological knowledge among young people rather than discouraging it. Finally, parents should work with their teens to teach responsible Internet surfing habits. Prohibiting teens from using MySpace will not prevent them from using the site, and instead will dissuade them from talking about any problems that occur. Taking a nuanced, informed, and gradual approach to the social integration of new technologies will do more to lessen harm and improve responsible user practice than a panicked, emotional response. DOPA, unfortunately, is an example of the latter.

Marwick’s essay is a masterpiece. I strongly encourage you to read every word of it. As I have noted in my book on parental controls and online child safety, we must break this endless cycle of moral panics and learn the importance of talking to our kids in an open, loving and understanding fashion about the realities of the world. And we must do so in a rational, level-headed fashion and be guided by the facts, not fanaticism.

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