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Screen Savers. Case Histories of Social Reaction to Mass Media, Children and Violence

Chas Critcher
p. 59-78


Historically the mass media have often been blamed for causing violent behaviour by children and young people. Two case studies of new media, film and video games, are compared in terms of their emergence, reactions to them and outcomes of the debate, mainly in the USA and Britain. Both cases are used to test the sociological model of moral panic which is found to be of limited appli­cation. It needs to be supplemented by two other concepts, those of media panic and moral regulation. Only then can be grasped the complexities of continuities and changes in these historical debates, at the heart of which remains the figure of the eternally vulnerable child.

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I. Introduction : moving targets

1 The mass media have frequently been implicated in historical debates about young people and violence. Throughout the twentieth century the advent of each new mass medium provoked public discussion of their general effects upon children and young people, in which allegations about their contribution to crime were consistently prominent. Such deba­tes occurred in turn about film, radio, comics, television, video games and, in the twenty first century, about the internet. Oswell (2008 :477) has concluded that,

Far from being a response to “new” media, anxiety about media regulation (whether expressed in moral, religious or psychological terms) has been an ongoing feature of modern media regulatory discourse and that much of this anxiety has been focused on the relationship between imaging technology, violence and young people.

2 Elsewhere (Critcher, 2008) I have reviewed theses debates over each mass medium. Here I will confine myself to two examples : film and vi­deo games. Film is important because it was the first modern mass me­dium, in the sense that it used new electronic technology and exploited a genuinely mass market. Video games are much more recent. I have chosen them precisely because they appear eighty years after film, in a much changed social and cultural context. This is, of course, not the only dif­ference between the two cases, as the following table illustrates.

Table 1 : Two media compared



Video games

Take off period





Individual /pair

Physical involvement





Mainly young males




3 The precise nature of these differences will be detailed as the argument progresses. There are some countervailing similarities : both media are electronic based, dependent on moving pictures and come eventually to be dominated by multi-national corporations. Nevertheless, the consumer experience remains qualitatively distinct. Our interest is whether reaction to each of these new media reflects these variations or whether it demons­trates historical continuities reflecting wider cultural anxieties.

4 To help make this judgement we have quite different sources. The debate about film has attracted the attention of historians, at least in Anglophone countries. They have therefore assembled and dissected evidence about political, moral and public reaction to the new medium. However, the case of video games is much more recent and less well analysed. There is also a much greater gap, in terms of arguments and audiences, between populist agitation and the evidence provided by psychological researchers. How far they share the same assumptions will have to be established by detailed examination of some classic statements rather than reliance on existing historical work.

5 This is, then, a comparative explanation of two media. Ideally it should also be a cross cultural comparison to see whether these debates take similar forms in different countries, each with its own cultural tradition. But I am only able to read texts written in English so the experiences of countries recorded in their own languages cannot be represented here. Making historical and geographical comparisons will enhance our capacity to ge­neralise. Such generalisations can be conceptual as well as empirical. My own interest in this area came as a result of work over the last decade on the sociological concept of moral panic.

II. Moral panics : model conduct

6 The concept of moral panic is summarised in the opening paragraph of a British study published nearly forty years ago :

Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. (1) A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and inte­rests ; (2) its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media ; (3) the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people ; (4) socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions ; (5) ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to ; (6) the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.

Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folk-lore and collective memory ; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself (Cohen, 1973 :9, numbers added).

7 Cohen developed the concept of moral panic from his doctoral thesis which focused on what seemed to be a massive overreaction to seaside skirmishes in England in the early 1960s between members of two youth subcultures, Mods and Rockers. These often trivial events, exaggerated by media coverage, came to symbolise the perceived decline of English civilisation in that decade.

8 Originally about youth deviance, the model was subsequently applied to a wide range of social issues (Critcher, 2003). These can be broadly divi­ded into seven categories : AIDS, child abuse, drugs, immigration, media violence, street crime and youth deviance. Some of the fiercest moral pa­nics occur when several categories overlap, such as immigrants and street crime or, in our kind of example, youth deviance and media violence.

9 Cohen’s model is more complex than one extract can convey. Particularly important is his assumption that the target of the moral panic will normally be an identifiable group who will be portrayed as folk devils. He also holds the news media to be absolutely central to the articulation and progress of a moral panic, aided and abetted by moral entrepreneurs anxi­ous to exploit the issue. As I have argued (Critcher, 2003) Cohen’s is a model of moral panic as a process which is, however, not predetermined. He is interested in how and why any potential moral panic does or does not follow the prescribed route.

10 Our exploration of first film and then video games will explore the applicability of Cohen’s model of moral panics. For each example we shall look in turn at the emergence of the new medium, immediate reaction to it, outcomes of the debate and possible explanations for the degree and nature of concern. The fit of the moral panic model will be assessed before introducing two supplementary approaches, based upon the concepts of media panic and moral regulation. First we discuss film.

III. Film : projecting fears

A. Emergence

11 The technology required to produce moving pictures was developed late in the nineteenth century. The Lumière brothers revealed in 1895 their Cinématographe which took, printed and projected film. The first com­mercial applications were as peep-shows in fairgrounds or novelties in variety shows but it was more profitable to show the same exhibition si­multaneously to a captive audience. The first specialist cinema, the “Nic­kelodeon”, opened in Pittsburgh in 1905. More followed across the USA, four thousand by 1907. Equivalents opened in Western Europe including Britain. Shows were twenty minutes long with several short films, usually real events, comedies or melodramas. Cinemas showing films were about to become a mass entertainment industry.

12 Many technical and stylistic innovations came from Europe, especially Britain and France, but the First World War helped establish the US industry as the dominant force. Around 1910 film stars came to prominence, reinforced when the industry subsequently moved to Southern California and developed the studio system. Programmes now had a main feature lasting four reels. D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) heralded a new age of epic narrative. Charlie Chaplin was infusing slapstick comedy with narrative structure.

13 By the 1920s Hollywood’s dominance produced 800 feature films every year. In 1927 The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson was the first film to carry sound. Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) established film noir. With sound came the musical genre and gangster films, staples of the golden Hollywood years between the two world wars. By the 1930s, most people in the western world went to the movies, many weekly and some more fre­quently. Film would retain its pre-eminence as the medium of popular drama until the advent of television in the 1950s.

B. Reaction

14 Film was the first medium with a genuinely mass audience for two reasons. First, it appealed to and could be understood by the illiterate as well as the literate. And, second, it appealed to adults and children alike. Moral critics were immediately alarmed by physical and moral dangers. These interwoven anxieties are nicely captured in an account of the history of cinema in Australia :

To a generation reared on television the impact of this is difficult to appreciate. But in 1910, people not only marvelled at the technical virtuosity of the screen, they also feared its effects. First there were its physical dangers : that darkened and ill-ventilated cinemas could damage the eyesight and encourage the spread of infection ; that children who went regularly to the cinema would forfeit the exercise necessary to healthy development ; that the realistic terrors and exci­tement viewed would over stimulate young minds, making them subject to night terrors ; that late nights and lack of sleep would impair concentration on school work. But the moral dangers were even more to be feared. Attempts were made to screen films in lighted cinemas, for there was a risk that young couples would take advan­tage of the darkness for immoral activities, or perverts would molest young people sitting next to them. Perhaps children would be encou­raged to steal or beg to get the price of admission to their favourite entertainment, or people would imitate the behaviour seen on the screen, and so a rise in crime and immorality would result. Most serious of all, perhaps the subtle influence of the cinema would give young people false values, encouraging them to reject chastity and virtue, to despise marriage, home, and family, and to decide that the only drawback to crime was getting caught.

To make matters worse, films were cheap and their programmes changed frequently, so they were particularly popular with working men and women and with children. This was just the section of the population to be most in need of protection, for without the benefit of education and maturity how could they be expected to be a discriminating audience ? (Bertrand, 1998 :15-16).

15 The criticism of films for glamorising and thus encouraging crime were repeated across Europe. In 1907, for example, the Danish Minister of Justice issued instructions to local police chiefs to crack down on

Cinemas, kosmoramas and similar establishments including variety theatres, (showing) pictures which may be considered offensive either morally or through the way in which the carrying out of crime is shown or which by their nature are apt to corrupt their audience and especially the young people who are present in great numbers (cited in March Hunnings, 1967 :310)

16 In 1921 the Prefect of the Var region in France issued an edict on film, the preamble to which went :

Considering that the public exhibition, by film, especially but also by views, exhibitions, posters etc., of scenes of murder, homicide, suicide, theft, sabotage, criminal activities and attacks, is too often mar­ked by a desire for realism which has led to the non-exclusion of any detail, however shocking ; considering that […] some actors of these scenes appear as a special kind of hero which gives to the performance the character of a veritable justification of criminal acts ; considering that the cinemas are much frequented by young people ; considering that public order and tranquillity cannot be maintained, any more than can morality, with this continual instigation of young people to unhealthy exploits […] (March Hunnings, 1967 :340).

17 These were the views of moral guardians of all kinds : religious leaders, teachers’ organisations, mothers’ groups. Yet overt hostility to the new mass medium was not always a typical reaction, even amongst middle class opinion. In Britain various local organisations took it upon themselves to conduct investigations into the cinema, collecting evidence from those involved or concerned and undertaking direct observations of their own. The consensus was that, though certainly vulgar, the cinema did not pose a threat to the moral or social order. It was often preferable to other popular places of amusement such as the public house (Richards, 1984). The massive Payne Fund studies in America in the 1920s also on balance felt that films did more good than harm. Their measured findings appeared first as an academic summary (Charter, 1933) but then as a popularised and sensationalised account (Forman, 1934) which misrepresented the conclusions as critical of films. Still, all agreed that some sort of regulation was needed.

C. Outcomes

18 In Britain, the first form of censorship appeared in the guise of concern over health and safety. After a series of fires in ramshackle venues, the Cinematograph Act of 1909 aimed to improve safety standards by requi­ring licensing of premises showing films. Eventually the British Board of Film Censorship (BBFC) was founded by the industry amidst mounting pressure for a government censorship body. It began work in 1913 «with only two rules – no nudity and no personification of Christ» (Smith, 2005 :25). Films would be given two types of certificate, U for “Universal” and A for “Public”. Both were regarded suitable for children but the former would be especially recommended for matinees.

19 By 1926 the BBFC it had its own code, a set of rules organised into se­ven categories. Five categories were religious, political, military, “social” and cruelty. The sixth was called “questions of sex” and the seventh label­led “crime”. Prohibitions under the crime category were quite clearly motivated by the desire to avoid offering any kind of role models. Hence films could not depict any of the following 13 items : 1) Hanging, realistic or comic ; 2) Executions and incidents connected therewith ; 3) Objectio­nable prison scenes ; 4) Methods of crime open to imitation ; 5) Stories in which the criminal element is predominant ; 6) Crime committed and condoned for ostensibly good reason ; 7) “Crook” films in which sympathy is enlisted for criminals ; 8) “Third degree” scenes ; 9) Opium dens ; 10) Scenes of, traffic in and distribution of illicit drugs ; 11) The drugging and ruining of young girls ; 12) Attempted suicide by asphyxiation ; 13) Breaking bottles on men’s heads.

20 Despite new rules issued in 1917, the association of film with crime continued to be troublesome, as noted in the BBFC annual report for 1919 :

One of the most difficult subjects with which the Board has had to deal is the question of crime […] Stories of crime make a strong appeal to the imagination of the public, especially to the less educated sections. When a story of crime is accompanied with the further elements of daring adventure, or romance, and of mystery, there are the elements of a popular success. It is also true that to young people, especially boys, with their ingrained instinct for adventure, uncorrec­ted by experience of life, such “crime” films make a special appeal, and it may be added, a dangerous appeal (Smith, 2005 :30).

21 The view of government changed considerably over time. Before the First World War the government, like local authorities, believed that film provoked crime. Meeting their representatives in 1916, Home Secretary Herbert Samuel said :

I have lately obtained the opinion of a number of Chief Constables, who declare with almost complete unanimity that the recent increase in juvenile delinquency is, to a considerable extent, due to demora­lising cinematograph films (Smith, 2005 :29).

22 Appearing yet again as Home Secretary in 1932 in a Commons debate on juvenile crime, Samuel expressed precisely the opposite view :

[M]y very expert and experienced advisors at the Home Office are of the opinion that on the whole the cinema conduces more to the prevention of crime than to its commission […] In general, the Home Office’s opinion is that if the cinema had never existed there would probably be more crime than there is rather than less (Springhall, 1988 :118).

23 It appeared that, after some initial consternation, film was attracting cultural acceptance rather than moral disapproval.

24 If in the UK reaction and outcomes were reasonably measured, this was not the case in the USA. The Catholic Legion of Decency campaigned for films to adhere to Christian morality. Using propaganda effectively and threatening to organise boycotts of “immoral” films, they were instrumental in forcing the industry to undertake self-regulation, in the form of the Hays Code. For public showing, all films had to comply with this set of strict moral prohibitions. Anxious to maximise its audience, the industry declined a system of certification. The upshot was that all films had to be suitable for all types of film goers. Amazingly, this regulatory system governed the content of American films from the late 1920s to the late 1960s (Black, 1997).

25 In the ten years up to 1920 film censorship was introduced in other English speaking countries and Western Europe. Boards of censors appea­red in nearly all Canadian provinces between 1911 and 1916 (Dean, 1981) and as a part of federal government in Australia in 1917. The Danish go­vernment set up its board in 1913 with an equivalent in France instituted in 1919. Belgium, uniquely, eschewed all censorship for adult films but under a 1920 law children could only enter cinemas to see films approved by a special commission. The precise form of censorship reflected the pre­vailing social, political and legal system in each country but the need for censorship was universally acknowledged. Few were as prescriptive as the systems in the USA and Britain, content merely to list the conduct films should not portray, mainly crimes and sexual misdemeanours (March Hunnings, 1967).

D. Explanation

26 The obvious question which arises is : why did film provoke this level of moral concern and action ? Drotner (1999) argues that film had five new characteristics which especially disturbed moral guardians. First, film was primarily visual. As such it appealed to the baser emotions, working against the control of impulses which only verbal thought could provide. As one contemporary US commentator put it,

For the picture can never really be a substitute for thought, and the intuitional elements which it supplies to the mental process are a poor exchange for the analytical elements of logical interpretation which reading and listening demand (cited in Starker, 1989 :98).

27 The second disturbing characteristic of film as a medium was that it was readily accessible without education :

Pictures are more degrading than the dime novel because they represent real flesh and blood characters and import moral lessons directly through the senses. The dime novel cannot lead the boy further than his limited imagination will allow, but the motion picture forces upon his view things that are new, they give firsthand experience (Professor of Philosophy at University of Kansas in 1909 cited in Black, 1994 :10).

28 Thirdly, film was especially attractive to children, by definition vulne­rable and impressionable. The British Home Office in 1917 noted that «the cinema differs greatly from the Theatre : the audience is less intelligent and educated, and includes far more children and young people» (Jones, 2001 :337). Almost exactly the same observation was made by an Australian police inspector in 1918 (Bertrand, 1998 :16).

29 Fourth, the environments for film watching were commercial and unlicensed so that unscrupulous businessmen could pander to the lowest tastes of the audience. Finally, the film encouraged the audience to confuse fantasy with reality. The populist Payne fund summary stressed what happe­ned to the audience member :

He forgets his surroundings. He loses ordinary control of his fee­lings, his actions, and his thoughts, he identifies himself with the plot and loses himself in the picture, he is possessed by the drama (Forman cited in Starker, 1989 :103).

30 For the sociologist what is being defended here is the process of socialisation, the inculcation of moral beliefs and behaviour amongst the next generation. Many of the criticisms of cinema emanated from agents of socialisation, such as teachers or clergy. The cinema was dangerous because it intruded into the socialisation process normally dominated by family, school and church. Loss of control over the socialisation process could at different times produce concerns with imitations of criminal behaviour or with emotional disturbance amongst children. Regulation was designed to realign the messages from films with those from other governing agents.

E. Moral panic

31 A major work on children and the early cinema in Britain has argued that the «concerns and responses to children and cinema in the 1930s did not constitute a moral panic in the classic sense» (Smith, 2005 :103). The author gives three reasons for her judgement. First, the concern was not volatile, as would normally be the case in a moral panic. The debates and outcomes extended over twenty or thirty years. Second, reaction was not universally hostile or irrational. There was much reasoned debate about the issue, including strong views that the activity was at worst harmless and at best a force for good. Third, there was a genuine regulatory issue here which had not been invented by moralists. Who should be able to watch what kinds of films did require careful consideration.

32 However, the situation was quite different in the USA. There, a powerful religious lobby, confident in its right to impose its moral absolutes on a new entertainment medium, brooked no debate and encountered very little resistance. The rapidity of its success and the draconian nature of the Hays Code suggest that this was more like Cohen’s model of a moral panic. More cross cultural comparisons are required to establish whether the USA is an extreme case and the UK a more typical one. This national difference recurs in our second case study.

IV. Video games : shooting scenes

A. Emergence

33 Games to be played on computers were first developed in the USA by programmers and technicians for their own amusement in the 1950s and 1960s but the industry remained dormant until the release of the coin-operated arcade game PONG in 1972. A lack of innovative games held back progress until the release in 1978 of Space Invaders. The years immediately following, especially 1982-1985, proved the heyday for arcades which sprung up in shopping malls and stores across the USA. Specially designed games proliferated. The first really popular cartridge base console had been produced in 1977. By the early 1980s the USA’s arcade and home console industry was growing fast. The appearance of home compu­ters in that decade for a while usurped the clumsy consoles of the time. The market slumped but then revived following the 1985 release of the Nintendo Entertainment System bundled with Super Mario Bros which would dominate the market for a decade. In 1989 the same firm released Gameboy, a reversion to the hand held console.

34 In the 1990s technical innovation came thick and fast including 3D gra­phics, real-time strategy and hand-held gaming. In 1991 Sega issued its Mega Drive console together with Sonic the Hedgehog. Play Station arri­ved in 1995. At the turn of the century games were becoming ever more sophisticated with Grand Theft Auto III in 2001 heralding the arrival of virtual world gaming. Subsequent hardware innovations included Micro­soft’s Xbox 360 (2005), Sony’s Play Station 3 (2006) and Nintendo’s Wii (2006). By the late 1990s computer games had become a global industry with an annual turnover higher than that of Hollywood (Buckingham, 2000).

B. Reaction

35 As the introduction noted, the reaction to video games has, unlike film, yet to be documented. Sources from the USA will be used here for two reasons. First, the US community of psychologists lead the world in their experimental investigations of mass media effects. Second, for a range of reasons – from the levels of violent crime including intermittent school massacres to the influence of religious fundamentalism – violence in the media is a frequent topic of public debate in the USA. Such conditions may not prevail in other countries. It is an empirical question whether they reproduce similar discourses.

36 I shall take one example from the psychological literature and one from a populist polemic. An instance of the professional psychological critique of video games appeared in a special edition of the Journal of Adolescence in 2004. One article is a meta-analysis of research in the area conducted by one of its prolific authors, research psychologist Craig Anderson. Much of the article is a scrupulous discussion of how to compensate for metho­dological weaknesses in published studies. Once this has been done and the results calibrated, the conclusions are clear : «Basically the debate about whether media violence has an effect is over and should have been over by 1975» (Anderson, 2004 :114).

37 The verdict of cumulative research is unequivocal : «Exposure to violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviours, increases arousal, and decreases helping behaviour» (Ibid :113).

38 There are no moderator effects, or intervening variables. The results apply to every non-adult who plays violent video games.

39 The evidence for this claim is meticulously presented but once into the discussion the scientific mask slips. The video games industry, we are told, has disputed the research results «much as the tobacco industry found “experts” to criticize all research on the possible causal links between smoking and lung cancer» (Ibid :115). Finding the increase in deviant behaviour stemming from violent videos games to be around 23% is «somewhat alarming» because this «is larger than the effect of condom use on decreases in decreased HIV risk, the effect of exposure to passive smoke at work on lung cancer, and the effect of calcium intake on bone mass». The effect is compounded by the fact that «a lot of youths are playing violent video games for many hours a week» (Ibid :120).

40 The editors of the special issue explicitly claim that they are not anti-video games and express disappointment that no article submitted discus­sed any potentially positive effects of video game playing (although such work does exist, for example Durkin/Barber, 2002). But they are in no doubt that empirical work based on social-cognitive models of human aggression has identified video game playing as a risk of which society needs to become more aware. This is the current orthodoxy amongst US psychologists, including those specialising in the media (Subrahmanyam et al., 2001 ; Wilson, 2011).

41 An example of the lay or populist attack on video games in the USA is Grossman and DeGaetano (1999). The book offers a five stage argument. First, the authors examine the problem of increasing violence in society. Once all other factors have been discounted, the most convincing explanation is the increase in the media of violence as entertainment, especially directed at children. Second, the scientific evidence is clear. Media violence has been shown to make children «more violent than they would naturally become without being exposed to it» (Grossman/DeGaetano, 1999 :10). Fifty years and over 3500 research papers have demonstrated this for short-term and long-term effects.

42 Third, the psychological mechanisms are known. Children and young people are particularly susceptible because they «haven’t fully developed their thinking functions» so «need guidance to analyze and evaluate their experiences» so that they can «develop accuracy in interpreting and des­cribing feelings spurred by violent imagery» (Ibid :25). Hence their experience of screen violence produces increased aggression, greater fearfulness and more insensitivity to violence in real-life and on screen. Media violence interferes with the normal process of growing up, altering children’s «cognitive, emotional, and social development in such ways as to embed in them a desire and/or conditioned reflex to act out violently without remorse» (Ibid :48). Children learn through imitation and identification with role models. Their ability to distinguish fantasy from reality is undeveloped so that they suffer from “cognitive confusion”. Moreover, media displace other activities such as spontaneous play and reading :

Children growing up as spectators, staring at two-dimensional images for four or more hours daily, do not get enough physical movement, tactile, 3-D experiences, problem solving practice, or opportunities for language expression and skill-building that they would get with less time watching and more time doing (Ibid :58).

43 Fourth, video games are inherently dangerous and becoming more so. They have become more popular, more lucrative and more realistic in their simulations. Games are named and shamed : Postal, Duke Nukem, Mortal Kombat and Doom which was implicated in the Columbine massacre. Fifth and finally, the required remedies are lacking. The ratings system is voluntary, ineffective and frequently unrecognised by the public. Attempts to legislate have been consistently stymied by the industry clai­ming their rights under the First Amendment of the American Constitution guaranteeing the right to free speech. It is therefore left to parents indivi­dually and collectively to monitor their children’s use of video games. Parents should get to understand the enclosed world of video games, state their opposition to simulated violence, forbid very young children any access to computer games and make older children use computers in family rooms.

44 These views about the effects of video game violence on children are apparently shared by a good range of professional groupings in the USA. According to Grossman and DeGaetano these include : the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, The Ame­rican Academy of Pediatrics, The National Association for the Education of Young Children, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and The National Parent/Teacher Association. This impressive line-up does not seem to be replicated in other western countries. It is certainly not the case in Britain. However, even if concern elsewhere has not been as volubly expressed as in the USA, the need for regulation has been widely recognised.

C. Outcomes

45 The need to act was indeed not confined to the USA : «video game re­gulation has been identified as a problem world-wide» (Watson/Shuker, 1998 :163). In the USA the Video Game Violence Act (1993) pressurised manufacturers to label each product with suitability rating stickers (Gentile, 2011) but few parents seem aware of the system (Subrahmanyam et al., 2000 :123). In Britain games were required to have certificates issued by the same body which licensed films and videos. In 2002 the video game Grand Theft Auto III caused controversy, with its alleged endorsement of attacking police officers and sex with prostitutes. It was refused a British certificate until some scenes had been censored. Other countries seem either to have opted for a voluntary system of labelling or incorpora­ted video games into their existing regulatory regimes for film and videos.

D. Explanations

46 The same question can be asked of video games as we asked of film : why did this mass medium provoke such reaction over its possible effects on children and youth ? It was arguably greater than concern expressed about previous mass media, such as radio, television or video. Until more in-depth analysis is available, we shall take the critics’ views at face value and review the reasons why they have argued that the threat is unprecedented.

47 One is that the games appeal to the visual and tactile rather than the intellectual or conceptual. Another is that access to the games is easy and often outside adult supervision or control. The market for the games comprises vulnerable children and youth children rather than mature adults. The producers are motivated solely by commercial considerations and appear to have no moral scruples about the narratives or their implications. The involvement of players as violent actors in the virtual reality could encourage them to carry their fantasy exploits over into real life. Our lay critics condense these objections in their introduction :

A new ingredient in the media violence equation has come with the introduction of violent video games. Screen violence is toxic, whe­ther on TV, in movie theatres, on videotapes, or in video games. But whereas before the children were just “passive” receivers of screen violence, with video games they push the button, click the mouse, and pull the trigger to initiate the carnage and killing. Of course, we all realize that the images on video screens are just that, just as they’re not real on TV screens ; but the sophistication of this techno­logy is making it hard to tell, especially for children whose minds are not fully formed. And a terrifying new threshold has been crossed with the development of point-and-shoot video games in which the child holds a toy gun and fires away at very real-looking “enemies” (Grossman/DeGaetano, 1999 :3-4).

48 Here is confirmation of grounds for concern : that screen violence is inherently dangerous ; that participatory videogames are even more pernicious ; that children cannot always distinguish fantasy from reality ; and that the alliance of commerce and technology constantly innovates to produce ever more realistic simulations of violence.

49 Additionally there is a strong sense that adults have no understanding of what is happening to their children, because video games are played on consoles or computers, often in the privacy of the child or young person’s bedroom. Adults may not know how much time their children are spen­ding on playing these games nor what kinds of values and experiences they offer. Children cannot access films, cigarettes or alcohol without fa­cing barriers based on age but none such exists for computer games. Overall video games are seen to pose such a threat because children and youth cannot resist their effects, because the reality they construct is insufficiently demarcated from real life and because adult regulation is absent.

E. Moral panic

50 Concern about the effect of video games upon male youth and children seems to have been greatest amongst moral entrepreneurs and psychological researchers in the USA. Yet regulating the media in that country is extremely difficult because of the absolute right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the American constitution. Thus while all the conditions for a moral panic were present in the USA, the capacity to institute effective regulatory measures was absent. Ironically, in countries where concern was not so widespread, it was easier to regulate the new games by incorporating them into existing frameworks for licensing films and videos. But, like the original licensing of films, such regulation was undertaken without the febrile atmosphere induced by a moral panic. Outside the USA there were too few recruits to moral agitation for the issue to rise up the political agenda. The whole issue also shared with film an immense popularity amongst the (mainly male) young population. Though this did not rule out regulation, it did make more complex any attempt to demonise the games or their players. Many were ready to testify that playing computer games might invite fantasies of deviant acts but these did not translate across into real life.

51 If we apply Cohen’s model, then a new threat did appear which was recognised by the media (stages 1 and 2) ; moralists and experts did denounce it (stages 4 and 5) ; attempts were made to control and regulate the products (stage 5) but foundered for legal reasons. In the USA at least the moral panic process seems to have worked itself through, only to fall at the last hurdle. Elsewhere though concern appears to have been much less, regulatory efforts were more successful.

V. The limits of moral panic models : half truths

52 Comparing these two case studies eighty years apart has provided a testing ground for the concept of moral panic. Film and videos games have provoked moral panics in the USA but elsewhere reactions and reme­dies have proved more measured. Neither reached the level of concern evident in some countries in the two real moral panics about the new media, comics in the 1950s (Lent, 1999) and video nasties in the 1980s (Barker,1984) .

53 Comparing cases is not without its merits. It enables consideration of which factors shape whether a new medium does or does not provoke pa­nic. But the check list approach is qualitatively deficient. It does not deli­ver the specifics of what features of new media are constructed as threate­ning to children and why. For that a more media centric version of moral panic is required.

VI. Media panics : repeat showings

54 Many attempts have been made to identify a recurrent pattern in reactions to new media as threatening to children and young people (Gilbert, 1986 ; Starker, 1989 ; Sutter, 2000 ; Wartella/Jennings, 2000). One of the most cogent is Drotner’s development of the idea of a media panic as a subspecies of moral panic. She identifies (1999 :596-597) five basic cha­racteristics of the media panic.

55 First «the media is both instigator and purveyor of discussion». That is, the older media discuss the nature of the new media. The debate about te­levision often took place in the press. Television documentaries may explore the dangers of computer games. Second, «the discussion is highly emotionally charged and morally polarised (the medium is either “good” or “bad”) with the negative pole being the most visible in most cases». Rarely is a new medium recognised as unproblematic. Negative criticisms emerge the earliest and it may take time for supporters of the new medium to a make themselves heard. Thirdly «the discussion is an adult discussion that primarily focuses on children and young people». Not only are young people unrepresented in the debate ; their views and experiences are rarely sought. Fourth, «the proponents often have professional stakes in the subject under discussion as librarians, cultural critics or academic scholars». This is initially an issue for cultural elites rather than for the public as a whole. Fifth, «the discussion, like a classic narrative, has three phases : a beginning often catapulted by single case, a peak involving some kind of public or professional intervention, and an end (or fading-out phase) deno­ting a seeming resolution to the perceived problems in question». This last is similar to Cohen’s model of the process through which moral panics pass.

56 We can summarise our discussion so far in terms of Drotner’s characterristics in the following table (Table 2).

57 In broad terms Drotner’s model seems to identify factors crucial in both cases. Important common characteristics include the kinds of groupings which lead the chorus of criticism and the almost total exclusion of children and young people from any kind of voice. The typology also enables us to ascertain subtle differences between the two cases. For example, moral objections have been explicitly medicalised and psychologised for video games in a way which was only implicit for film. Some aspects need further testing. The suggestion that key incidents precipitate concern is true of school shootings in the USA but does not seem to have appeared anywhere else. Old media do clearly play a strategic role in hosting the debate but there are already active critics pursuing the issue before the news media become interested. The model may also not yet capture one of the most striking aspects of the two debates reviewed : the persistent evocation of the natural state or development of childhood which is threate­ned by the new medium. To put these reservations more abstractly, we need to incorporate the role of agitators against the new medium and the discourses they habitually employ.

Table 2 : Media panics : the two cases compared

Drotner’s criteria


Video games

Other media lead the critique

Press clearly important but also evidence of independent religious and political agitation

Press and broadcasting explore issue at times of crisis but campaigners permanent

Immediate and

emotive moral


Associated with general immorality but also specific concerns about encouragement of crime

Accused of dismantling childhood as well as inciting violence

Adult discussion

excluding children

Largely so ; only a few investigations actually consulted young people

No evidence at all of consulting children or youth who play games

Debates amongst

professional elites

Teachers, clergy and cultural guardians much in evidence ; public excluded

Psychologists, medics and teachers to the fore but attempts to involve ordinary parents

Phase 1 : provoca-

tive beginnings

The innovation of showing films in cinemas was itself provocative without any notorious incidents

Technological innovations of games intrinsically provocative but school shootings clear catalyst in USA

Phase 2 : concerted


Censorship instituted in most developed nations

Variable voluntary (labelling) or statutory (licensing) outcomes

Phase 3 : apparent


Issue faded once censorship introduced with occasional debates and reforms later

Issue only half resolved ; periodically revived

58 Additionally there is a problem which the media panic model shares with its progenitor, the moral panic model. Both help us to recognise when a reaction does or does not approximate to the model’s ideal type. But they do not conceptualise what the moral or media panic is an extreme example of. What is the social phenomenon which may or may not sometimes take the form of a moral panic ? To address these problems of active campaigners, evocative discourses and historical dynamics we can resort to a third concept to supplement those of moral and media panic. We can use the idea of moral regulation.

VII. Moral regulation : ruling passions

59 The concept of moral regulation has recently been developed within Canadian sociology (Hier, 2008 ; Critcher, 2009). Originally it emerged from a Marxist attempt to explain the rise and functions of the capitalist state in the nineteenth century (Corrigan/Sayer, 1985). The state, it was argued, sought to create citizens in its own image so that they accepted without question the legitimacy of the state and its expectations. This, the process of “moral regulation”, might now be termed the construction of the subject.

60 The concept was subsequently broadened to assume an analytical status similar to that of political or economic regulation. Any modern society will have mechanisms and processes for regulating the moral conduct of individuals and the citizenry as a whole. There will be a more or less continuous debate over what kinds of conduct are entitled to be regulated and by whom. Identifiable groups will intermittently lay claim to the right to have the conduct of others regulated on moral grounds :

[P]rojects of ‘moral regulation’ … involve practices whereby some social agents problematise some aspect of the conduct, values or culture of others on moral grounds and seek to impose regulation on them (Hunt, 1999 :ix).

61 Hunt has used this concept to analyse movements to regulate sexual conduct in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the USA and the UK. Moral regulation invariably exhibits five characteristics : 1) agents who identify a need for moral regulation ; 2) targets whose conduct is regarded as immoral or harmful or both ; 3) tactics to be employed to publicise the issue and pressurise authorities to act ; 4) discourses designed to appeal to both supporters and to public opinion ; 5) political struggles with those who oppose the campaign’s objectives. Whereas moral panics are discrete episodes, moral regulation is a continuous process.

62 The process of moral regulation foregrounds some issues which the other models do not quite capture. It asks such questions as : Who exactly is stating their moral objections ? Who or what are they objecting to and why ? How do they go about trying to institute moral intervention ? Which type of discourse do they habitually employ ?

63 Like moral or media panics, the outcome of moral regulation is never predetermined. The campaign may succeed in mounting a moral or media panic all the way through to the reform or reinforcement of rules and laws. It may gain momentum but then lose it if there are intractable problems in implementing its reforms. Alternatively the campaign may encounter opposition at any stage which in some circumstances may effectively derail it.

64 Moral regulation offers, then, a slightly different set of questions to ask about our two or any other case studies. But moral regulation need not replace moral panic models as Hunt and others (Hier, 2008) have advocated. It is quite compatible with them. Media panics are a type of moral panic. Moral panic is an extreme type of moral regulation. Utilising all three also permits us to see how specific controversies, such as those over film and video games – or indeed more recent ones over the internet (Sandywell, 2006) – are at once connected as media panics to other historical debates about new media and children ; connected as moral panics to other issues relating to children and youth such as the consumption of alcohol or recreational drugs ; connected as moral regulation to much wider arguments about disruptive behaviour, such as the problem of unruly children and youth.

65 The moral regulation perspective insists that we ask exactly who is seen as morally at risk. Thus far we have followed critics in talking about the risks to children. But in practice these risks are highly gendered. The main allegation against the two media was that they would contribute to anti-social behaviour by providing inappropriate role models. But both the protagonists in film and those in the audience most likely to follow their lead were invariably male. Role models for women were less likely to be cri­minal and in any case girls were less likely to adopt criminal behaviour. That video games were designed for and appealed to mainly young males reinforced this assumption that boys were most at risk from fantasies portraying violent and anti-social behaviour. From this perspective much of the debate about new media is haunted by the spectre of the male delinquent.

66 Such an image, Hunt suggests, is quite typical of moral regulation :

Moral regulation movements form an interconnected web of discourses, symbols and practices exhibiting persistent continuities that stretch across time and place. The deep anxieties that are roused and stirred in moral politics involve the condensation of a number of different discourses, different fears, within a single image (Hunt, 1999 : 9).

67 The single image for our two case studies is that of the wide-eyed boy avidly consuming media products featuring violence he does not have the capacity to understand or resist and which, as a consequence, he may be tempted to imitate. The moral regulation of this activity – here as a certification system, there as determined parental supervision – becomes impe­rative. The media change and the terms of the debate shift but the image remains, frozen in time.

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Chas Critcher, « Screen Savers. Case Histories of Social Reaction to Mass Media, Children and Violence »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, 43-1 | 2012, 59-78.

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Chas Critcher, « Screen Savers. Case Histories of Social Reaction to Mass Media, Children and Violence »Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques [En ligne], 43-1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 11 mars 2013, consulté le 18 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Chas Critcher

Swansea University, UK.

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