Topic 1: Moral Panics?

Concern about children and the effects of the media on them has a long history, ever sinnce widespread literacy brought a fear that children would be reading 'unsuitable material' (given the Victorians' appetite for pornography, this could have been a real fear). Children’s cinema raised the same sort of fears, as (Staples 1997) points out. The industry reacted in a number of ways -- by adopting the famous British system of censorship (lightly disguised as film classification combined with licensing legislation, officially devised as safety regulation), and by attempting to encourage the habit of 'family viewing', ensuring adult supervision. In fact, such adult supervision sometimes led to children being present at 'adult' films, of course, and there have always been ways of gatecrashing adult films (I used to stay behind and hide in the cinema after children's films had finished).Soon, inevitably, there were special children's matinees, usually on Saturday mornings, showing material deemed especially suitable for kids -- simple adventure stories and westerns with strong moral messages, serials, cartoons. Even these had to be regulated, though, since kids used cinemas as 'sites of disorder' and were often unruly as audiences (and there were substantial tragedies, once or twice, as the result of overcrowding and panic). 

One solution was to attempt to regulate cinema attendance by establishing a 'club' for the child audience. The rival cinema chains had different ones -- I was an ABC minor. We had to attend for three consecutive weeks, then fill in a form with our names and addresses, and pay 1/3d (about 6 pence, or 15 cents). Then we received a badge, and a rule book.We sang a club song, following one on-screen (sung by an adult choir with beautiful middle-class 1930s charm school accents, I recall). Even so, the cinema in our area of Portsmouth was sometimes a dangerous place where you might be challenged to a fight outside, or where you might be made the target of kids at the back throwing orange peel or be tripped in the dark as you walked by. Later, as a teenager, fights were still common, and sometimes cinema seats would be slashed (a strange pastime associated with Teddy Boys and early rock'n'roll movies) -- and a major reason for going then was to encounter the opposite sex, or to take your girlfriend somewhere warm quiet and dark for a while (terraced houses were far too crowded and cold, and we didn't own cars then).

These undesirable moral connotations of the cinema (later to be associated with the video arcade too, perhaps) arose because of the associations of cinemas with 'rough' kids' or youths' culture. Football grounds, video arcades, fairgrounds, school playgrounds, and later, package holidays had the same sort of associations, of course. But there was something specific to cinema as well -- films especially were supposed to have an almost magical effect on kids. Theorists like Elsaessar (X) have pointed out the structural power of cinema -- you enter a dark room with a huge illuminated moving image showing at one end, complete with 'realistic' sound. There is nothing else to look at, and no real escape except to leave -- the screen commands attention, while viewers sink into a dream-like state of receptivity. Whether TV viewing takes place in the same circumstances is doubtful now, but when it first appeared in Britain, the whole family would settle down to watch that screen too in darkened rooms and with full attention.

In these circumstances, watching films or TV was seen as uniquely threatening to childhood. Of course, there were specific assumptions or ideologies about 'proper childhood' involved here, often disguised as an eternal view of children's 'nature' (for a history of childhood, and a thought-provoking description of very different assumptions about what was 'natural' for children see Aries (X)). Wagg (X) summarises the ingredients of this ideology -- 

children were naturally active and outgoing (and unsuitable cinema watching made them passive and introverted), 

children were idealistic and innocent, and thus naturally vulnerable to the commercial, violent and sensual elements of adult cinema which would 'rob them of their childhood', confuse them and give them nightmares

children were naturally curious and interested in the world, and should be properly educated, not entertained

British children were in special danger of having their morals, ideals and whole outlook corrupted by 'Americanism' (apologies to any American readers here) -- there is a long tradition of anxiety about the threats offered by American popular culture which might threaten such key values of a good British childhood  as  self-discipline (especially waiting to earn good things by 'deferring gratification' -- see  file on educational research for more details), politeness, deference and respect for elders, individualism, innocence (especially about sexual matters) and so on (see Tomlinson 19XX on this as a general theme in British commentary on popular culture).

As you can see from this sort of collection of ingredients, children and their viewing habits can serve to organise  a number of more specific themes -- about families, their tensions and the rights of kids and adults, about sexuality and innocence, about social and cultural change, including commercialism, about education, and so on. For sociologists, this can lead quickly to the emergence of a 'moral panic', a series of linked public campaigns (run by 'moral entrepreneurs') designed to introduce some legislation or moral reform (or new repressive measures) (see Hall et al 1980?). This concept helps explain the tremendous, often heated, public interest in children and media -- there are always stories in the press about spectacular children's crimes or misdemeanours, falling literacy rates or whatever, and how the mass media are to blame. This sort of story focuses our anxieties about a wide range of matters, and helps us reassert our own values, even if only 'symbolically'.

These themes occur again and again in the contemporary discussions of  TV or video games too, as we shall see. They figure in the justifications of the makers of specific children's media products, from the Children's Film Foundation (see Staples 19XX), to the defenders of Blue Peter (a UK children's programme), to the producers of Sesame Street, and now Teletubbies and Tweenies. They also inform the huge amount of work done researching the 'bad' effects of TV and video games, which often assumes that kids are 'naturally good', so that the violence, aggression or sterotypes they display must be alien and thus introduced by something like the mass media.

In what follows, we attempt to take a cool and critical look at some of these assumptions and whether any  research can be based upon them.. Is there a real cause for concern here, as many people think, or is the whole issue  merely a moral panic? Can research help us clarify these issues, what sort of research has been done, and what sort of methods might be best? 

You might find your own moral sensibilities engaged by this too. I have taught this topic to many parents and some teachers, for example, who find it hard to doubt that electronic games have had bad influences on their kids, whatever the research suggests. On the other hand, some real enthusiasts for electronic games can find it hard to grasp what all the fuss is about and find it hard to take seriously that research which does argue for some undesirable effects. I shall myself be following the ususal approach of arguing in favour of whatever I happen to be teaching about that day, on this impeccably balanced course!!

Some projects

  1. Compare some early British children's TV (found on one of the souvenir tapes or hit (link to M Pearson's website) -- try Bill and Ben, or Bagpuss -- with some later material (say Insektors, Live and Kicking or any other example). See if you can identify any assumptions about children and their interests in these pieces, and spot any differences ( as a clue, you might consider assumptions about who is watching with children, what the typical interests of children are, how best to address children and so on --or take my list of 'themes' above, and try to tick some off)
  1. Watch an episode of Teletubbies, collect some of the more critical commentaries from the press, and see if you can find out what all the fuss is about.
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