Youth, communication technologies, and ‘media panics’: from the telegraph to ‘sexting’

Modern controversies about the influence of computer games are the latest instalment in the long history of anxieties about the media’s influence on youth. Each new media technology has been surrounded by concerns about its impact on the young. For Danish media theorist Kirsten Drotner (1992; 1999), these successive moments of alarm represent examples of ‘media panic’. Drawing on theories of moral panic (see Chapter 4), Drotner argues that, since the nineteenth century, the development of new media forms has been accompanied by a fever of social anxiety — a media panic — that perceives the new technologies as a unique danger to public morality and wellbeing.14

In such media panics, Drotner explains, ‘the mass media are both the source and the medium of public reaction’ (1992: 44). And, focusing particularly on popular fiction and film, she traces a history of media panics across a number of countries. As each new medium has been introduced, Drotner suggests, there has been a kind of historical amnesia about previous panics. While earlier media achieve social acceptance, the new form becomes a focus for a fresh wave of concern. Media panics, however, are underpinned not so much by a fear of the new technologies per se as by an apprehension that they contribute to broader challenges being made to dominant power structures and social relationships. From this perspective, then, media panics (like moral panics) reflect wider political agendas and are constituent in broader social struggles.15 According to Drotner, moreover, media panics have generally focused on the young because children and young people have often been in the vanguard of new media developments. And calls for greater media censorship and regulation, she suggests, represent attempts to reinstate control of young people’s cultural

Media effects and youth 97 independence and restore traditional structures of cultural authority. As Drotner explains:

On a social level, media panics basically attempt to reestablish a generational status quo that the youthful pioneers seem to undermine. This tacit generational struggle is demonstrated in the adult strategy of externalising the problem: it is the young and their media uses that are targeted as evils.

(Drotner, 1999: 614)

The ‘generational’ dimension to media panics is, to some extent, demonstrated by the social make-up of those who believe strongest in a causal link between playing video games and real-world aggression. Research in this area is limited, but Przybylski’s (2014) US-based survey of over 1,000 adults suggested that those who ardently believe video games are a source of aggression are older, and have little experience of gaming themselves. Belief in a causal link, Przy-bylski found, was strongest among groups aged over 45, and who had minimal gaming experience. This group, his study suggested, were ‘between four and six times more likely to believe that electronic games contributed to human aggression compared to younger adults’ (Przybylski, 2014: 232).16

Media panics, like moral panics, can also have a pronounced dimension of gendering. Indeed, there is a long history of social fears casting women as especially vulnerable to ‘threats’ posed by new media technologies. Rather than responding to genuine dangers, these fears have invariably been provoked by suspicion of the greater independence the new technologies may afford to women, and their potential challenge to traditional models of femininity. Literary historian Jacqueline Pearson, for example, shows how reading novels was criticised as an unhealthy and ‘dangerous’ pastime for women in Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Pearson, 1999). And Justine Cassell and Meg Cramer (2008) show how the arrival of the telegraph and telephone in the US during the late nineteenth century was accompanied by fears that young women might use the new technologies to make contact with inappropriate romantic partners or dangerous strangers. These fears, Cassell and Cramer suggest, have many parallels with modern-day concerns about the vulnerability- of young women to sexual predators on the Internet and social media.

Of course, there are some well-documented cases of young people falling victim to sexual abuse and violence by strangers they meet online — and such events are clearly abhorrent. It is, though, misleading to see the Internet itself as the cause of such tragedies. As Cassell and Cramer observe, concurrent with the rise of the Internet in the US, the proportion of crimes committed against girls where the offender was an adult stranger actually declined rather than increased (2008: 54). The most common offender in such crimes, they point out, is a family member or acquaintance, and the focus on online danger runs the risk of obscuring ‘the real danger posed to young people by those close to them’ (58). Moreover, Cassell and Cramer argue, from the telegraph to the Internet, fearsabout the vulnerability of women to the dangers of new communications technologies has been underpinned by anxieties regarding the potential disruption of traditional sexual values and the challenge of new models of femininity. As they explain, a review of the history of panics about women and new communications technologies shows how:

... it is less the technology per se that turns out to be the culprit (or even the kinds of relationships made possible by the technology), and more the potential sexual agency of young women, parental loss of control, and the specter of women who manifest technological prowess.

(Cassell and Cramer, 2008: 70)

For some authors, similar concerns have surrounded mobile phones. The growing prevalence of mobile phones among young people, Gerard Goggin (2006) has argued, spawned a series of ‘mobile panics’, or episodes of overblown alarm about the threat mobile phones posed to, variously, youngsters’ health, literacy, and cultural values. In particular, Goggin highlighted the way attention in Australia had increasingly focused on mobile phones’ imaging capabilities and the practice of ‘sexting’ - in which young people send nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves via their mobile phone. The ensuing media panic about sexting, Goggin suggested, not only stoked public anxieties about youth and new technologies, but also met with a legal response that was over-zealous and authoritarian.

Nora Draper (2012) suggests sexting met with a similar response in the US. Analysing coverage of sexting in US TV news during 2008—9, Draper found that, alongside a tendency to exaggerate the occurrence of teen sexting, the TV coverage was dominated by three key themes. Firstly, there was a tendency to cite mobile technologies themselves as a cause of sexting, with ‘technologically deterministic’ explanations that were suffused with ‘the notion that “good kids” are seduced by the accessibility of digital technologies into deviant activities’ (225). Secondly, there was a marked gendering in representations of sexting — with a distinct ‘focus on girls as vulnerable to technological seduction’ (227). Thirdly, Draper argued, the TV coverage generally promoted increased surveillance of young people’s media use as the most effective tool for discouraging teen sexting. Sexting, Draper acknowledged, should be viewed as possibly risky behaviour, given the potential loss of control over something as powerful as a sexually explicit image. But, she suggested, the TV coverage of sexting was akin to Drotner’s notion of ‘media panic’ in the way it delivered an exaggerated, distorted — and highly gendered — view of the practice.

A similar account of sexting is offered by Amy Hasinoff (2012; 2015). In the US, Hasinoff argues, the early twenty-first century saw sexting widely presented as ‘a technological, sexual and moral crisis’ (2012: 450). While there was certainly some truth to media stories of teenage girls being traumatised by unauthorised distribution of their private images, Hasinoff suggests the severity of the problem was often overstated. She also notes how policies meant to curb

Media effects and youth 99 sexting — primarily criminalisation and abstinence - often failed to account for distinctions between consensual sharing and malicious distribution. The social responses to sexting, moreover, were highly gendered, with girls who create sexual images either demonised as ‘deviant and dangerous’ or stigmatised as helpless victims. In contrast, Hasinoff challenges the idea that sexting inevitably victimises young women. Instead, she suggests that sexting can sometimes be a site of active media production, and a site for sexual expression and exploration. ‘Even though a sexual image might be created for an audience of only one person — or just for yourself, Hasinoff contends, ‘such mediated practices of self-representation may facilitate media critique, creativity, and self-reflection’ (Hasinoff, 2012: 457).'

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