December 6, 2011

Another Moral Panic Falls Apart

While I was off doing NaNoWriMo, there were some news reports about one of the more peculiar ideas teenagers were having across the country. It involved vodka, tampons, and . . . well, let’s let Stephen Colbert sort it out:

Field tests showed it didn’t work that well, anyway (via). But it’s a good story on how a moral panic gets rolling, especially when it involves something teenagers do. After all, they’re an alien species to adults, anyway, so who knows what kind of weird shit they’ll come up with. More times than not, however, the facts on the ground don’t really match up to the hysteria that initial media reports stir up.

So, on that front, remember the great threat to civilization known as sexting? You know, where teenagers were taking pictures of themselves in various stages of undress and sending them to other teenagers via cell phone and what not? It was an epidemic, another example of how the sexualization of the culture was reaching young people.

Only, it turns out, it wasn’t. As with the vodka-soaked tampons, the hullabaloo about sexting is more about heat than light. As reported here, a pair of new studies shows that instead of nearly 1 in 5 teens engaging in that kind of behavior, the real numbers are more like 1 in 100:
‘There’s a zeitgeist in America socially that suggests that sexting is something that’s really prevalent,’ Pew research specialist Amanda Lenhart told the [New York] Times. ‘I think this research shows that it actually isn’t that prevalent. It happens, but the likelihood of it happening to any given person is pretty low.’
How does something like that get so blown out of proportion? The co-author of one of the studies explained:
It only takes one or two cases to make people think this is very prevalent behavior. This has been reported as if it were something that everyone was doing...It's really not the case.
That’s particularly true in the modern media world, fed by a 24-hours news cycle and the fertile fields of social media. How do we avoid falling into that kind of trap next time some sensational news story breaks? As usual, a healthy dose of skepticism (nay, even cynicism) goes a long way. You know how when it comes to financial scams that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is? I propose a similar truism when it comes to new stories about the habits of teens – if it sounds too weird to be true, it’s probably bullshit.

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