Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Screen Panic (2)

“Panic, rare before 20th Century.” Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1827, “to affect with panic; to scare into a hasty or rash action.” Panic is a contemporary phenomenon of profound power. It invokes deeply felt emotions with intensity and zeal that overcome reasoned thought. The contemporary world is driven by various degrees of panic, some frightening (Ebola) and some entwined with, and dependent upon, hypochondria. There is an underlying melancholy to the heightened emotions of panic. The word itself is derived from a fear of Pan, the Greek god, a fear of the capricious and the unreasoned. Hypochondriac experiences are built on a foundation of dread, as if disease has taken over, even if there is no evidence of illness.    

Screen panic is characterized by parental and societal anxieties and fears about the experiences of children in a world supposedly overwhelmed by danger and the potential for harm. The process invokes grief before any damage has been done. It anticipates injury before any exposure to the agents that might cause damage. It is an aggressive response, a presumably preventative one and most importantly, in contemporary terms, it allows parents to simulate the outcomes of children’s experiences before they are exposed to all the supposed dangers of the world around them.

Screen panic provokes parents to anticipate and control the images their children will view before children have had the chance to look and evaluate the screened images to which they will inevitably be exposed. After all, images have always invoked fear in the midst of intense attraction largely because of their artifice — because it seems as if images are imitations and not real. Images are effigies and as such lack originality even as their ubiquity unveils and sustains their power. Yet, it is images and screens that are the primary means of communications in the modern age. Those who rail against them use images and screens as the mediums to proclaim their danger.

The present generation of children now in their early teens is the most observed and also the most watched (imaged) — presumably, because their lives need to be framed if not determined well before they will become engaged in figuring out their own direction. They have been observed in schools, at home and in controlled social and cultural spaces. The surveillance of children reaches its apogee with cameras becoming an integral part of all bedrooms, so that sleep itself will not pose some hidden danger.

Yet, and quite ironically, this is also the generation that is sexting to a degree and with an intensity that contradicts and overwhelms the parental control mechanisms that they have experienced.

As I said in the first part of this series, the data on the impact of screens and images is at best poor, with efforts at meta-analysis even more questionable because so many of the studies use small samples to draw major conclusions. The paradox is that so little evidence is needed to produce panic and fear. Perhaps, we are seeing the end of reason or at a minimum, reasoning that no longer connects to history. As I also said, there is a profound need to understand how images connect and disconnect people to each other. There is a need to be critical and learning how to be critical is a far more complex task than the swirl of emotions surrounding panic ever permits. (More in part three of this series.)