Enjoying the Moral Panic of the 21st Century

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I was unaware of the “Digital Natives” debate until this weeks readings, partly because most of my classes so far have primarily assumed that technology will drive major changes in the way education is developed. I was aware of critiques to Library 2.0, but the critiques were mainly about how libraries always provided similar service in the past. In other words, the critics claimed “Library 2.0 ain’t new!”

The debate in the “Digital Natives” forum seem to focus more on “Why do we have to change anything?”

In the book “Born Digital,” the term “Digital Natives” refers to young adults born after 1980, who are connected to technology 24/7, are skillful in these technologies to create content and collaborate, and do not distinguish separate identities for themselves online or offline (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008).

Palfrey & Gasser make a case that our education system cannot keep up with changes in the technological landscape, and that we must look towards the digital age as having opportunities for the next generation, as opposed to being harmful. They advocate interacting with the new digital age instead of fearing it.

Likewise, Abram and Luther, in their 2004 article, emphasize understanding the gap between two generations separated by a technological chasm. They lay out 9 differences between the NextGen Digital Natives and the older “Digital Immigrants,”namely how NextGens’s view information, what their learning behaviors are like, and the structure of their beliefs. These insights are the areas for librarians and educators to consider for future adaptations.

It’s these adaptations, changes and reforms that Maton and Kervin (2008) are sounding the alarm about.  In the British Journal of Educational Technology, they say:

“We argue that rather than being empirically and theoretically informed, the debate can be likened to an academic form of a ‘moral panic’.” (p. 775)

The moral panic occurs when a particular group is portrayed by the media as threatening societal values and norms. The moral panic exceeds the evidence in support of the phenomenon (Maton & Kervin, 2008). For Digital Native evangelists, Maton and Kervin themselves could be seen as fearmongerers, if not for the list of 50+ academic sources in their reference list for their 2008 article.

Unfortunately, Wolman’s commentrary in Wired Magazine (2008) (which could be described as anti-anti-moral panic), does not use a wealth of academic references, but still advocates the power of the Internet and its technologies for the next generation.

“What’s moronic is to assume that it hurts us more than it helps.” (Wolman, 2008).

Unfortunately, name-calling probably won’t change the moral panickers, but perhaps a few important statitistics could. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 57% of teens create content on the Internet, whether it’s blogs and self-created, or adapted from original sources. They use it as a format for personal expression, especially older teen girls. One in five teens keep a blog, and a larger amount have worked on a blog or websites for others. (Lenhart & Madden, 2005).  It is seven years later, and those numbers could be assumed higher.

Should, then, the moral panic of our age be seriously considered? At which point… the tipping point … does a moral panic become an actual panic before it is too late? Instead of looking at the extremes, perhaps the education/LIS areas would be best to look at how implementation of new learning strategies would help starting today, as opposed to whether or not there is a problem to begin with.  How good are 50 studies or even 100 if technology outdates them, as technology is always changing and presenting different challenges, along with new information? What if one day brains are wired directly into the Internet — are we still going to make Digital Natives sit at desks and read from tattered textbooks from the 80’s? I don’t think any form of panic is necessary to convince educators that a change will be needed now and in the future.  But the reality is, it’s time to go to the next step, since the Internet and Digital Age doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.


Abram, S., & Luther, J. (2004).  Born with the chip: The next generation will profoundly impact both library service and the culture within the profession. Library Journal. Retrieved from http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA411572.html

Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775-786. doi:10.111/j.1467 8535.2007.00793.x

Lenhart, A., & Madden, M. (2005). Teen content creators and consumers. Retrieved from Pew Internet & American Life Project website: http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2005/PIP_Teens_Content_Creation.pdf.pdf

Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2008). Born Digital [Excerpt]. Retrieved from http://www.borndigitalbook.com/excerpt.php

Wolman, D. (2008, August). The critics need a reboot: The Internet hasn’t led us into a new dark age. Wired Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/16-09/st_essay


Mickel is an MLIS and the creator of Library Currents. His inspiration for the blog was the SJSU course "The Hyperlinked Library" taught by Dr. Michael Stephens, a course that is also a worldwide MOOC. If you wish to contact him, feel free to write to Mickel Paris at librarycurrents1@aol.com.


  1. michael

    October 18, 2012 at 11:44 am

    You craft a strong argument here. I tend to be more on Wolman’s side, irked that the media and and folks in education etc so easily play up the negative stories of negative actions played out via social tools. Facebook isn’t a bully but someone using it can be.

  2. Pamela Hawks

    October 18, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    Well, you’ve convinced me! A very well-written post. What you say at the end makes me ponder the national debate about the “crisis in education” and how off-base some of the solutions are to our declining competitive edge. How many educators in positions of power understand or are following these arguments? … that young people’s brains are wired differently and people simply learn differently than previous generations. A new batch of standardized tests does very little to address this.

  3. Katie Hom

    October 19, 2012 at 1:00 am

    I like to think that moral panic is similar to wordsmithing – they both take so much time and energy out of a person, and for what? One example that comes to mind right now is the notorious “libraries are becoming obsolete now that we’ve entered the Digital Age” debate. Clearly, after all we’ve learned in this and other LIS classes, libraries are far from becoming obsolete. Having a positive mindset and being adaptable goes a long, long way when it comes to recognizing and appreciating environmental changes. People can argue and spread moral panic all they like, but they can’t stop time from moving forward.

  4. Jessica

    October 19, 2012 at 1:38 am

    Fantastic post – I read through it twice.
    I, too, just learned about the Digital Natives debate this week.
    When I watch my fifth-grade daughter with her iPad, I can now put a name to what I see.
    Instagram is a big business with her and her peers and though I struggle with it, I have to remember that I grew up in the 80’s with the benefit of answering machines and VCR’s that MY parents were deprived of in their day. That was my way of staying connected to my friends and being glued to a screen.
    I think it may be very difficult to make predictions on how these technologies will pan out with regard to potentially eradicating future generations of their critical thinking skills (kidding here, sort of) but I can’t say that HBO or walkmans ruined my life, except for the periods my family was unable to afford them. Still, I’m not beneath saying “Devices down!” when I have to ask a fourth time for my daughter to set the table or for instituting a “device-free” day.
    I always tell my daughter to make sure she knows what the sky looks like and make time in her day for activities that are independent of WiFi (and devices in general).
    These emerging generations of Digital Natives will invariably work their way into positions of power, and hopefully some will be able to tell you the weather by looking up vs. looking it up.

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