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Moral Panics and the Media

A moral panic is an exaggerated outburst of public concern over the morality or behaviour of a group in society.

Moral Panic Theory is strongly related to labelling theory, in fact moral panic theory is really labelling theory applied to the media – instead of the agent of social control doing the labelling, it is the media.

Two related key terms include folk devils and deviancy amplification

A folk devil is the subject of a moral panic – the group who the media is focussing on, the group who is being targeted for exaggerated reporting.

Deviancy Amplification is one of the alleged consequences of a moral panic – it is where a group becomes more deviant as a result of media exaggeration of their deviance. It is very similar to the Self Fulfilling Prophecy.

As with just about anything in life, all of this is much easier to understand with an example:

Stan Cohen’s (1972) study of the Mods and Rockers

Stan Cohen’s (1972) first developed the concept of the ‘moral panic’ in his study of the relationship between the media and the Mods and Rockers in the 1960s.

The Mods and Rockers were two working class youth subcultures, the mods famously riding scooters and dressing in smart clothes such as suits, and the rockers riding larger motorbikes and dressing in leathers.

These were also two of the first youth subcultures in consumer society, and initially they existed peacefully side by side – they were really just about style and music and the members of each were primarily concerned with having a good time.

However, during one bank holiday weekend in Clacton in 1964, where both mods and rockers visited to party, there were some minor acts of Vandalism and some violence between the two groups, this then led to the media turning up at the next big Bank Holiday weekend in Brighton (also 1964) ‘ready’ to report on any disturbances.

Once again at Brighton there was also some minor vandalism and violence between the mods and rockers, but this time the media were present and produced (according to Cohen) some extremely exaggerated reports about the extent of the violence between the two groups.

This had the effect of generating concern among the general public and the police then responded to this increased public fear and perceived threat to social order by policing future mods and rockers events more heavily and being more likely to arrest youths from either subculture for deviant behaviour (whether violent or not).

A further consequence of the exaggerated media reporting was that the mods and rockers came to see themselves as opposed to each other, something which hadn’t been the case before the media exaggeration.

Some further examples of moral panics

There have been several examples of issues which might be regarded as Moral Panics:

  • Inner city mugging by black youths, as outlined by Stuart Hall in Policing the Crisis
  • Punks and Skinheads
  • Football Hooligans
  • Pedophiles
  • Islamic Terrorists
  • Benefit Culture

NB all of the above examples are only ‘possible’ examples of moral panics, see criticisms below.

Criticisms of moral panic theory

  • Cohen’s formulation of moral panic theory assumes that the audience are passive, but audiences today are much more active and able to critically evaluate media content, which means moral panics are less likely.
  • Thornton (1995) found that the media failed to generate a moral panic over rave culture, mainly because youth culture had become mainstream by that point, as had the taking of drugs such as ecstasy.
  • There are various reasons my ‘panics’ may not occur even if the media exaggerate the deviance of some groups – the media also exaggerate the police’s ability to deal with deviance and exaggerated reporting of deviance is so common these days that people are just desensitized to its effects.
  • Finally, some concerns which some may call moral panics may be legitimate – such as concerns over child abuse or rising knife crime today.
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Video Games Disorder: Just Another Moral Panic about Gaming?

The World Health Organisation recently included ‘gaming disorder‘ as a new mental health disorder in its latest updated draft version of the International Classification of Diseases.

The disorder has not yet been formally recognized as a condition, it’s under review over the coming year.  Not everyone’s convinced that it actually exists: the gaming industry is especially skepital, tending to view this as a moral panic reaction to parents’ raised awareness and dislike of their children spending longer on games such as Fortnite.

Is ‘gaming disorder’ must a moral panic reaction?

What is ‘Gaming Disorder’?

You can read the full definition here. It breaks down into three main elements:

  1. impaired control over gaming
  2. increasing priority given to gaming, such that gaming takes precedence over other hobbies/ interests and daily activities
  3. continuation or escalation of gaming despite negative consequences.

In order for it to be diagnosed, the WHO is suggestion that it needs to be observed over a 12 month period and have resulted in the declining ability of an individual to function in one of more are of social life, such as at work, or within the family.

What’s the evidence base for its existence?

Dr Vladimir Poznyak is one of the main defenders of the idea that VGD is a really existing phenomenon. He points to the fact that the last few years have seen a rising number of cases of ‘gaming addiction’ in several countries around the world, and some governments and charities have even set up treatment programmes, along the line of gambling addiction programmes.

He outlines in his case in this article.

NB – In his defence, Dr VP does say that <1% of gamers are ever likely to suffer from gaming disorder.

Problems with the concept and the evidence… 

UKie CEO Dr Joe Twist argues that the WHO definition is based on questionable evidence, and when pushed WHO officials are quite vague about what exactly it is they are worried about.

For example, it is unclear whether certain genres of games are more ‘addictive’ than others, or whether certain triggers (such as rewards structures) within games are the problem…

This episode of ‘Click‘ on iPlayer does quite a good job of summarising the issues surrounding gaming disorder.

What do you think?

Personally I think it’s perfectly reasonable to establish a new disorder, especially when the WHO is clear that it effects only 1% of users – I mean, check the definition, we are talking about SEVERE addiction here. Even someone who plays 40 hours a week wouldn’t necessarily be classified as having gaming disorder.

I think its fairly clear that some computer games have addictive features, which are going to affect a tiny minority in a negative way (very similar to gambling), and the games industry needs to recognize this rather than just ignoring the fact that their products create serious problems for 1% of users.

Having said that, maybe we do need further research which pins down particular genres and features…?

Image source.

 

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Is alcohol really that bad for your health?

The new ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption should be none, at least according to a recent study into the health risks of alcohol published by the The Lancet.

This contradicts the current official government guidelines on the ‘safe’ level of drinking: currently around 14 units per week for women, and 21 for men.

The findings of this research study were widely reported in the mainstream media:

  • The Daily Mail reported that ‘just one glass of wine a day increases your risk of various cancers’.
  • Even The Independent reported that ‘the idea that one or two drinks a day is good for you is a myth’.

alcohol health statistics.png

But what are the actual statistical risks of different levels of alcohol consumption?

The actual risk of developing a drink related alcohol problem for different levels of drinking are as follows:

  • No drinks a day = 914/ 100 000 people
  • One drink a day = 918/ 100 000 people
  • Two drinks a day = 977/ 100 000 people

I took the liberty of putting this into graph form to illustrate the relative risks: blue shows the proportion of people who will develop alcohol related problems!

alcohol health risks

This means that statistically, there is only a 0.5 % greater risk of developing an alcohol related illness if you have one drink a day compared to no drinks, which hardly sounds significant!

Meanwhile, there is a greater increase in risk if you have two compared to 1 drink a day, which suggests the government guidelines have got this about right!

(NB, despite the headlines, The BBC and Sky did a reasonable job of reporting the actual stats!)

So why did some news papers report these findings in a limited way?

This could be a classic example of News Values determining how an event gets reported: it’s much more shocking to report that the government has got its advice wrong and that really there is no safe level of drinking!

Or it could be that these newspapers feel as though they’ve got a social policy duty to the general public… even if there is only a slight increased risk from alcohol consumption, maybe they feel duty bound to report it in such a way to nudge behaviour in a more healthy direction.

In terms of why some newspapers did a better job of reporting the actual findings: it could be that these are the papers who rely on advertising revenue from drinks companies? Maybe the Mail and the Independent don’t get paid by drinks companies, whereas Sky does>?

This post will also be published to the steem blockchain: where you can get rewarded in crypto currency for posting, liking, commenting and so on! 

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The Moral Panic About Boys ‘Underachievement’ in Education

Researchers in the Gender and Education Association take a critical feminist approach to the issue of boys’ underachievement.

moral panic boys education.png
A news headline from 2016 – Is this just a ‘moral panic’?

 

They argue that boys’ underachievement has long been a feature of the UK education system, but it has recently become a ‘moral panic’ (In 1996, the UK’s Chief Inspector of Schools called it “one of the most disturbing problems facing the education system”) which has arisen because of the following three reasons:

  • First, deindustrialisation in the UK has led to the decline of traditional manufacturing jobs, and so there are fewer jobs available for those with few or no educational qualifications. As a result, young working-class men who leave school with relatively few qualifications have now become a ‘problem’.
  • Second, feminism has had an impact on girls’ education and career aspirations, and so women are advancing into technical and professional jobs which were previously male dominated.
  • Third, examination performance is increasingly central to policy, with Britain ranked against other countries, and failing students matter more.

They argue that focusing on boys’ underachievement is a problem because:

  • It ignores other differences between young people, particularly of ethnicity and class, which actually have a far greater affect on results.
  • Since girls are on top, there’s no space to tackle the problems that girls have in education. including teenage pregnancy, sexualisation and bullying in friendship groups.

Finally, they point out that some of the strategies adopted to deal with the ‘problem with boys’ are unlikely to work:

  • For example, there has been a big push to recruit more male teachers, particularly in primary schools, to act as role models for their male pupils. Yet research shows that the gender of the teacher has no effect on how well boys achieve in school.
  • Similarly, to solve the gender gap in reading policymakers have suggested giving boys adventure stories and factual books. But research shows that boys have a more positive attitude to reading when all pupils are encouraged to read as wide a range of books as possible.