Future Tense

We Worried About Kids and the Internet. We Should Have Been Worried About Adults.

A woman staring at a laptop with glazed eyes.
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“Youngsters Falling Prey to Seducers in Computer Web,” screamed a 1995 headline in the Los Angeles Times. The article by Kim Murphy detailed two instances of runaway teenagers whose parents were sure had been victims of adult predators who groomed them online. The subheading was catchy: “Once candy was the lure. Now strangers are using cyberspace e-mail to attract minors into harm’s way.” Articles like this in major newspapers as well as newsweeklies were part of the discussion of internet dangers that led to congressional action on the topic in the mid-’90s.

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But despite our fears over the past few decades, it was not children who were especially vulnerable to the corrupting influences of the internet. It was adults, millions trapped by a collective confabulation spun about pedophilia rings, a stolen election, and a messianic version of Donald Trump.

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The internet is not the first new funnel for information that has channeled influence. Over more than a century, Americans have expressed their concerns about each new form of media through fears about children and youth. Younger Americans were supposed to be especially vulnerable to undue influence, influence that would come through direct exposure to cheap publications, movies, radio, television, and the internet. Over multiple generations, Americans tried to guide, control, or censor access to these media under cover of this supposedly greater vulnerability.

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But with every new medium, adults are the real suckers.

In the early 20th century, cities attempted to control popular films that were a primary form of entertainment for young working-class women who would crowd into theaters. Concerned about how the cheap nickelodeons showing films with racy plots would influence female sexuality, cities pressured theater owners and filmmakers into the beginnings of a voluntary censorship system.

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But the greatest negative influence of the early film industry was not on sexuality but in bolstering racism. In 1915, The Birth of a Nation created a celebratory image of the Ku Klux Klan through film spectacle. As the first true commercial blockbuster, the movie was both propaganda and recruitment tool for the Klan as it reemerged in the 20th century. The most publicly racist president of the century, Woodrow Wilson, screened The Birth of a Nation at the White House and proclaimed it a true portrait of the Reconstruction Era as he did his best to promote segregation within and outside the federal government.

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In the late 19th century, middle class parents worried that “cheap, plentiful books were seducing children into a life of crime and violence.” Mass print communications drew even more concern immediately after World War. In the 1950s, Sen. Estes Kefauver chaired hearings where witnesses testified about how the new genre of crime comics was influencing youth and promoting an alleged wave of juvenile delinquency. But the same technology—mass production and distribution channels for cheap publications with images—did far more to spread conspiracy theories and extremism than delinquency. The same technology and distribution for crime comics was a vehicle for those writing about alleged (and sometimes real) government conspiracies. In the 1960s, a state legislative committee in Florida tried to gin up fears of gays, especially gay educators, and they produced and distributed a lurid pamphlet—the so-called purple pamphlet from 1964—that was almost explicit and explicitly about generating outrage and justifying the committee’s vicious tactics.

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In the 1960s and 1970s, Americans became more concerned about the potential influence of television on children, including the poor quality of and advertisements in commercial programs. Did Saturday morning cartoon shows serve primarily to market breakfast cereals and toys? Action for Children’s Television thought so, and lobbied for limits on shows that served as a vehicle for advertising.

Despite the legitimate concerns about marketing to children through television, they have not been the primary focus of broadcast advertising; while pressure to strictly limit advertisements and product tie-ins to children has relaxed since the 1970s, there still are special limits on commercials in broadcast television focused on children. But it seems we needed to think about the vulnerabilities of adults, too. One only need look at the behavior of a single industry to understand this dynamic. In the mid-1990s, the Food and Drug Administration first reviewed and then loosened rules on advertising prescription drugs directly to the public. Between 1994 and 2005, the new regime of direct-to-consumer radio and television marketing accounted for 20 percent of that period’s increase in pharmaceutical spending on pain relievers, cholesterol drugs, prescriptions for stomach acid, and sleep aids. The pharmaceutical industry spends billions annually on marketing, and industry executives expect that investment to pay off.

With that history, no one should be surprised that the internet followed the same pattern. In the mid-1990s, members of Congress became deeply concerned that the internet was an unregulated, chaotic, dangerous place filled with predators who could connect with children and lure them away from their parents. Congress included the Communications Decency Act as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a response to yet another moral panic over a new medium of communications. (In 1997, the Supreme Court struck down part of the law as unconstitutionally vague.)

For all the dangers that some part of the internet may pose to children and youth, we now know that once again, the main targets of the new medium have been adults. Of 193 people arrested for the attack on Congress, Robert Pape and Keven Ruby discovered the average age was 40. In a January poll conducted by YouGov, adults younger than 30 had relatively more favorable views of QAnon than older adults, but that younger group didn’t dominate those who attacked the Capitol.

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Social media has been the tool for disinformation campaigns worldwide; Facebook was a primary channel used for stimulating genocide of Rohingya in Myanmar, and in continued attacks on Rohingya refugees in India. And, of course, the internet was the organizing ground for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

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Children and youth may be vulnerable in some ways to the influence of various new media, but adults are far from immune. In each case described above, the misuse of new media had less direct influence on children than adults because there simply is more wealth to be made or power gathered by distorting the reality of adults than by targeting children. Adults have money and votes.

But there’s a second difference: Children change, and there’s only a limited amount of time that you can influence them as children or youth, to goad their parents for sugary cereal or toys or anything else. In contrast, you can form long-term emotional connections with adults in a very different way, and the money can flow for decades.

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There is an important counterexample: the Walt Disney Co., which shepherds its brand precisely to craft multigenerational emotional ties that pay off in billions of dollars every year, as adults become the primary guide tracking children into the same emotional connections parents and grandparents remember and cherish.

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But even that counterexample proves the point. Disney’s success has taken effort and planning and organizational discipline, and there is only one Disney. But there are plenty of pharmaceutical companies, passels of talk-show hosts, and dozens of wealthy televangelists who depend on decades of contributions and loyalty from their remote followers.

Moral panics about new media and children feed into two modern ideas we hold about ourselves as Americans: that we cherish children, and that we are strong enough to protect them. But these also feed a third myth: that we are strong enough to withstand what we think endangers children. And that has not been the case with most new media that emerged in the past century, and certainly not the internet.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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