from the stop-the-moral-panics dept
Techno moral panics are back in fashion, it seems. There have been multiple (misleading) stories about “kids and social media“, and then there are always attempts to dive into specific “new” services. Last fall, it was all about the kids and their TikTok challenges. But, Tiktok is so last year. So now CNN is back again, and this time the target of its moral panic is Discord. It has a whole scary article about “the dark side of Discord for teens.”
Except if you replace “Discord” with any other ways that teens talk to each other the story wouldn’t be much different. I’m reminded of earlier freakouts about instant messaging. Or the widespread moral panic in the 1980s about kids in day care. Or how about the moral panic of kids who went to raves in the 1980s and 90s. Everywhere you look, they all seem to have the same kind of pattern. This new thing is putting kids at risk and something must be done!
The CNN piece does include some harrowing stories of teens who were approached by strangers on Discord. But it makes no effort to examine how widespread this actually is, or if it’s any different or more prevalent than any other situation involving kids. Obviously it’s bad if kids are put at risk via the internet, but the solution to that is not to attack a single tool. Because if it’s not Discord it’s going to be a different app. People talk to other people. And sometimes those people are not good.
In the past people used telephones to talk to others, and I can assure you that in the olden days some adults made inappropriate phone calls to children. We should never think that’s okay, but we similarly shouldn’t blame telephones for that. We should blame the adults and hold them liable.
Indeed, the CNN piece lumps together a wide variety of “harms” as if they are all the same and can be dealt with the same way, even though that’s nonsense:
CNN Business spoke to nearly a dozen parents who shared stories about their teenagers being exposed to self-harm chats, sexually explicit content and sexual predators on the platform, including users they believed were older men seeking inappropriate pictures and videos.
Being exposed to sexual predators is an entirely different category of problem from “self-harm chats” or even “sexually explicit content.” But CNN (conveniently) lumps them all together, and focuses mostly on those predators, the most sensational aspect of the story, rather than figuring out how big of an issue it actually is.
As for “self-harm chats” that can mean a wide variety of things. Often, teenagers are exploring complicated emotions, and researching things is part of that process. As we wrote in our case study about kids and eating disorders, the research actually shows that allowing kids to read about it often helped to get them to realize they had a problem, rather than driving them towards more harm. Hiding all that content doesn’t change that. As for “sexually explicit content” — again, that can mean a lot of things, and if we’re talking about teenagers, you kind of have to expect that some of them are likely trying to understand and explore their own sexuality. That’s not to say it should be a free for all — obviously. But, both of those may be cases of teenagers being teenagers and trying to figure out who they are.
That’s quite different from being preyed upon.
Similarly, the thing that is starkly absent from the CNN piece is any sense of parental responsibility. And by that I don’t mean parental surveillance. So much of the CNN piece seems to hint that if only Discord enabled parents to constantly spy on their kids, this wouldn’t be a problem. But that’s not helpful. Kids need to learn how to handle challenging situations — in the same sense that parents should teach their kids how to have some level of street smarts for when they will be walking alone on the streets, parents need to teach their kids to be digitally smart: to know how to avoid problems online and how to respond should they come across something they shouldn’t.
But, rather than tell that story, it’s easier to write a whole scare story about how “Discord is dangerous for kids.” It’s lazy reporting and it leads to really bad overreactions by politicians and parents. CNN: do better.