growing up in a culture of fear: from Columbine to banning of MySpace

I’m tired of mass media perpetuating a culture of fear under the scapegoat of informing the public. Nowhere is this more apparent than how they discuss youth culture and use scare tactics to warn parents of the safety risks about the Internet. The choice to perpetually report on the possibility or rare occurrence of kidnapping / stalking / violence because of Internet sociability is not a neutral position – it is a position of power that the media chooses to take because it’s a story that sells. There’s something innately human about rubbernecking, about looking for fears, about reveling in the possibilities of demise. Mainstream media capitalizes on this, manipulating the public and magnifying the culture of fear. It sells horror films and it sells newspapers.

A few days ago, i started laying out how youth create a public in digital environments because their physical publics are so restricted. Since then, i was utterly horrified to see that some school officials are requiring students to dismantle their MySpace and Xanga accounts or risk suspension. The reason is stated simply in the article: “If this protects one child from being near-abducted or harassed or preyed upon, I make no apologies for this stance.” OMG, this is insane.

In some ways, i wish that the press had never heard of these sites… i wish that i had never participated in helping them know of its value to youth culture. I wish that it remained an obscure teenage site. Because i’m infuriated at how my own participation in information has been manipulated to magnify the culture of fear. The culture of fear is devastating; it is not the same as safety.

Let’s step back a few years. Remember Columbine? I was living in Amsterdam at the time and the coverage was brilliant – the Dutch press talked about how there was a school shooting by kids who felt alienated from their community. And then the US coverage started pouring in. Goths (or anyone wearing black, especially black trench coats) were marked as the devil incarnate. Video games were evil and were promoting killing. Everything was blamed except the root cause: alienation. There were exceptions though. I remember crying the first time i read Jon Katz’s Voices from the Hellmouth where numerous youth poured out their souls about how they were treated in American education systems. Through his articles, he was able to capture the devastation of the culture of fear. My professor Henry Jenkins testified in Washington about how dangerous our culture has become, not because there are tools of rage, but an unchecked systematic creation of youth alienation. He pleaded with Congress: “Listen to our children. Don’t fear them.” And yet, we haven’t. In response, youth went underground. Following one of his talks, a woman came up to him dressed in an array of chaotic pink. She explained to Henry that she was a goth, but had to go underground. What kind of world do we live in where a color symbolizes a violent act?

We fear our children. We fear what they might do in collectives. We ban them from public spaces (see “Mall won’t allow teens without parents”). We think that we are protecting them, but we’re really feeding the media industry and guaranteeing the need for uncountable psychiatrists. Imagine the weight that this places on youth culture. Imagine what it’s like to grow up under media scrutiny, parental protectionism and formalist educational systems.

During the summer of 1999, i was driving cross-country and ended up at an outdoor rave outside of Denver, Colorado. I was sitting in my tent, writing in my diary when a group of teens wrapped at my door asking if they could come in and smoke because it was too windy outside to light the damn thing. I invited them in and we started talking. They were all from Littleton and had all dropped out of school shortly following Columbine and were now at a loss for what to do. I asked them why they dropped out, expecting that they would tell me about how eerie the school was or how they were afraid of being next. No. They dropped out because the media was hounding them everywhere they went. They couldn’t get into the school without being pestered; they couldn’t go to the mall or hang out and play basketball. They found underground venues for socialization. Here we were, in the middle of a field outside town at a rave, the only place that they felt safe to be themselves. The underground rave scene flourished in the summer of 1999 outside Denver because it was a safe haven for teens needing to get away from adult surveillance and pressure. Shortly later, the cops busted the party. I went and pleaded with them, asking them to let the kids camp there without the music; they had the permits for camping. No; they had heard that there were kids doing ecstasy. Let’s say they are – you want them to drive on drugs? Why not let them just camp? The cops ignored me and turned on bright lights and told the kids that they needed to leave in 10 minutes or they would be arrested. Argh! I’m not going to condone teenage drug use, but i also know that it comes from a need to find one’s identity, to make sense of the world removed from adult rules. These kids need a safe space to be themselves; overzealous police don’t help a damn thing.

How do youth come of age in this society? What good is it to restrict every social space that they have? Does anyone actually think that this is a good idea? Protectionist actions tends to create hatred, resentment. It destroys families by failing to value trust and responsibility. Ageist rhetoric alienates the younger generation. And for what purpose?

The effects are devastating. Ever wonder why young people don’t vote? Why should they? They’ve been told for so damn long that their voices don’t matter, have been the victims of an oppressive regime. What is motivating about that? How do you learn to use your voice to change power when you’ve been surveilled and controlled for so long, when you’ve made an art out of subversive engagement with peers? When you’ve been put on drugs like Strattera that control your behavior to the point of utter obedience?

We drug our children the whole way through school as a mechanism of control and wonder why drug abuse and alcoholism is rampant when they come of age. I’ve never seen as many drugs as i did at pristine prestigious boarding schools. The wealthy kids in our society are so protected, pampered. When given an ounce of freedom, they go from one extreme to the other instead of having healthy exploratory developments. Many of the most unstable, neurotic and addicted humans i have met in this lifetime come from a position of privilege and protectionism. That cannot be good.

We need to break this culture of fear in order to have a healthy society. Please, please… whenever you interact with youth culture (whether you’re a parent, a schoolteacher or a cafe owner), learn from them. Hear them from their perspectives and stop trying to project your own fears onto them. Allow them to flourish by giving them the freedom to make sense of their identity and culture. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t risks – there are. But they are not as grandiose as the press makes them out to be. And besides, youth need to do stupid things in order to learn from their own mistakes. Never get caught up in the “i told you so” commentary that comes after that “when i was your age” bullshit. People don’t learn this way – they learn by putting their hand in the fire and realizing it really is hot and then stepping back.

Post-Columbine, we decided to regulate the symptoms of alienation rather than solve the problem. Today, we are trying to regulate youth efforts to have agency and public space. Both are products of a culture of fear and completely miss the point. We need to figure out how to support youth culture, exploration and efforts to make sense of the social world. The more we try to bottle it into a cookie-cutter model, the more we will destroy that generation.

In line with Henry’s claim to Congress, i want to plead to you (and ask you to plead to those you know): Listen to the youth generation – don’t fear them and don’t project your fear onto them.

(Note: my use of the term “kids” references the broader youth population using a slang very familiar to subcultures where an infantilized generation reclaimed the term for personal use. I am 27 and i still talk about my friends as kids. What i’m referencing is youth culture broadly, not children and not just teens.)

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36 thoughts on “growing up in a culture of fear: from Columbine to banning of MySpace

  1. Lee Bryant

    Nice one danah – well put. Alientation compounded by fear of youth is a very dangerous combination; here in Brixton and similar places around the world it fuels real social problems.


  2. Michael

    Great post. I wonder if there is something specific about fear of kids or if it’s generally a fear of the other? Your post reminded me of an article I saw this weekend about poisoned Halloween candy which claims that Halloween candy poisonings are an urban myth.

    The only recorded cases of poisoning of candy was done by the parents. At the end of the article it says: “This is perhaps the saddest part about this myth: children are given the message that their neighbors might try to poison or hurt them. In fact, a child is in far more danger from his or her own parents than from strangers.”

    And so kids are taught to fear their community and, after they begin to mature, they become objects of fear.

  3. Nick Douglas

    That was amazing. This expresses so much that my friends and I have felt for years — this fight for a place and way to be myself shaped me from junior high and now through college.

    Thank you so much for writing this.

  4. Kathy Sierra

    Thank you for this danah; I almost never hear this perspective. I moved to Colorado with my two teenage daughters two months after the Columbine shootings, into the same school district. Not a pleasant situation at first (they initially had to wear photo IDs around their neck each day just to get into school).

    On the fifth anniversary of the Columbine High murders here in Colorado, the news media was digging for an appropriate scary-could-it-happen-again story, and when they couldn’t find one… they basically “created” one.

    Someone tipped off the local media that my co-author (who teaches English and video production at Boulder High School) had a couple of students whose class project movies contained “simulated violence”.

    You can imagine what happened next… the local news media had “Student videos shockingly similar to those made by Columbine killers–details next…” all over the place, with clips (out of context of course) from the videos highlighting the “chilling similarities” to the movies made by the Columbine boys, and speculation about how these parents could be so unaware — just like before, etc.

    The newspapers jumped in too. It was horrible–without even *interviewing* the parents (let alone the kids), everyone was accusing the parents of unwittingly harboring the next set of troubled teen slayers.

    Total, surreal, witch hunt — within 48 hours people were demanding my co-author’s resignation, and even the national news media started sniffing around — so the school held a press conference/public meeting with the teacher, the two students in question (and their parents), and the media and public were invited.

    It was amazing… the two kids got up stage, queued up their films, and said, “Everyone keeps speculating about what we’re thinking… so, do you REALLY want to know? We’ll tell you… in this shot here…we were duplicating that famous shot of Hitchcock’s from… and over here, we used the same technique Spielberg used to make it appear that….” and on they went, shot by shot, showing the techniques used, why they did them, and how they might like to get into film school. As for the “violence”, I gave several reporters copies of interviews with beloved directors Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg, who both claimed that the first movies THEY made as kids (even younger than these two students) were… rather violent.

    Apparently the news media expected teenage boys to be filming something more like, “My Dinner with Andre.”

    After the press conference, several of the newspapers publicly apologized, but of course the television news channels never did.

    It was a nightmare for the teacher, all the students in his program, and *especially* awful for the two future filmmakers and their parents. And all because there wasn’t anything *bad* enough happening to mark the fifth anniversary of Columbine.

    Sorry this is so long… like I said, your post really hit a sore spot for my family — my youngest daughter was the teacher’s assistant on that video production program.

  5. Kevin

    …one of the best choices I ever made was leaving the USA. I grew to understand we are a planet of nations that are comprised of people. I think it should be mandatory that every American Teenager travels abroad for a year. I hear so often the excuse…I don’t have the money—- that’s right and kids in Australia and Canada do? I hear all the time, So when are you coming home? As if where ever I live isn’t home… America is a land of closed off places we are prisoners in our own homes. Many people don’t even know their neighbors…as Rome fell within so shall many repeat that folly…only I hope our great land is not. The barbarians are at the gates. Ian Angells book is coming to pass.

    Thanks for this.

  6. Howard Roark

    I could not agree with you more. The power of the press to influence the minds of the people.
    Reminds me an awful lot like Mein Kampf. TRADGEY!

  7. Irina

    At a recent conference in Chicago, I heard a talk by Sonia Livingstone on her project on child and teen use of technology in Britain – UK Children go Online . One of the brilliant comments she made in response to a question was that there is definitely a stark difference in adult attitudes towards children vs. teenagers: “we are afraid FOR our children but we are terrified OF our teens” Her work evaluated the rhetoric of the media together with what children and teens said in surveys and interviews and with what their parents said.

    I wouldn’t constrain the “culture of fear” to the US alone, but I do think there is a lot to the idea of “fear”. A recent Sielbel scholar conference the talk was about methamphetamine epidemics and how to combat high levels of use. Most of the ideas tried to find ways to innovatively scare teens at risk into not using it… it seemed like the easiest way to go… is it?

  8. Ken

    While I agree that the “dogpile effect” of what passes for a free press in this country often produces truly idiotic outcomes, I’m much more concerned about the fools whose actions they report.

    How is it that a school has any right to say what a student says (or where they say it) outside of school? Did I miss a footnote to the Bill of Rights? If the schools are so concerned about predators, why not educate the students about online safety, or even provide a “safe” free speech zone.

    But in more basic terms, how do they expect to monitor their own rule? Have they never heard of pseudonyms?

    A ship of fools.

  9. Anastasia

    Great post danah. I totally agree that talking and building real relationships is the way to go vs. fear and protectionism. If the relationship is there with an adult, I think they (adults) will be surprised at how much teens will confide in them voluntarily and look to them to provide the common sense boundaries that teens really do need. Just as important, adults will learn a lot from teens, too.

    Also, in response to Ken, student speech is very censored in high school — blocking sites is an extension of principals vetoing important student journalism about issues like abortion or homosexuality that are deemed “inappropriate” by high school administrations and conservative parents.

  10. Nicholas

    I loved this article, found it thru YPulse. Teens need a voice that lets them know they are respected, free and equal in our society.

    My only issue is when kids “put their hands in the fire” that, sometimes, instead of pulling out and learning not to do it again, they can also continue to participate in activities that are not good for them: heavier drug use, for example.

    When I was in high school a group of very privaleged students thought it would be fun to “surf” on a car rooftop. One guy fell off the roof onto the ground and is permenantly damaged, both mentally and physicaly.

    It’s these kinds of activities that, even when not blown out by the media, stick with you and make you cautious about kids behavior. I agree, I think the media instills fear in all of us – about rape, murder, fire, cars, scams, weather, etc. the real request here is not that the media needs to stop reporting on ways to take care of ourselves and be aware of negative actions in our communities, but they need to do more on presenting a smarter more undertsanding view abotu and to teens.

  11. squires

    In similar news, I was surprised when UVA recently issued a warning letter to all students about the dangers of putting personal information on Facebook. It gives good advice about what NOT to put online (phone number, for instance), but the overall message is definitely SCARE.

    I love the argument for banning social networking sites that claims, “They also are venues for cyber-bullying and harassment.” ‘Cause your playground is NOT a venue for bullying and harassment? Or your cafeteria? Or your hallways? Or the phone line, by which people used to make threatening prank calls before they sent threatening prank IMs? The technology is obviously not the problem here.

    Someone in the article mentions that if the school is so worried about students divulging personal information, they should *teach* students what is and is not appropriate to put online. Whatever happened to the notion of *teaching* people things rather than just *telling* them?

    All of this said, there’s also an argument about the need to create spaces that are separate for younger age cohorts – 14 and up (Myspace’s thing) seems a rather broad category. Not that a site can regulate the actual ages of its users, anyway, but it seems there ARE some ways in which a parent could legitimately be concerned for their young teen hanging out online amongst older people who are unknown quantities (just like IRL).

  12. jen

    have you heard about the ISU student (Illinois State University) who went missing mid-October and a week or so later they found her body in a burned-out chicken coop in Mississippi? Her car was found in Atlanta. Persons are being questioned.
    BUT… from the reports in the papers, she was very easy to track on Myspace. With a wide array of pictures up clearly showing her face, and her talking about where she goes to school and where she works on the weekends (Ruby Tuesday), anyone with any intent to stalk or harm her could do so easily. All she could’ve done to make it easier was to say the make and model of her car, and what shifts she regularly worked.
    While at Ohio University, anyone at all could look up your information, specific dorm room and dorm phone number, and find out about you.
    I know that this culture of fear isn’t good, but this age of the internet, kids feeling safe with putting out specific personal information isn’t good either. Online communities for “outcast” kids to bond is a great idea, but putting any detailed personal information out there (even a last name, especially if you have an unusual/rare one) is bad.

  13. Kevin Bjorke

    Promptly forwarded to the principal of our local high school, who just a few days ago sent out an ominous mass-mailing about MySpace to the community, a letter whose message really did seem to be “you are trusting your kids too much” but based its assertions entirely on innuendo

  14. ana ulin .org

    Growing up, protectionism and fear

    danah boyd has a great post, Growing up in a culture of fear: from Columbine to banning of MySpace, where she shares some interesting thoughts (and experiences) about the difficulties of growing up over-protected. Here’s a snippet:The wealthy…

  15. scribbles

    A More Perfect Nation

    Judah and I discussed recently about one of the problems with America: We want every goddamned thing to be perfect. That is, if we hear in the news that some kid died from riding his bicycle, we suddenly place a…

  16. Adam

    What a fabulous post, danah! As someone who was a geek-outcast for much of high school, I wish I had had a lot of the reaching-out e-tools available back then to boost my confidence, more easily identify people of like-mind to befriend, and so on.

    And Squires… I’m sorry, but I completely disagree with your conclusion. The fact that someone was harmed (ostensibly) as a result of her online participation is no more a commentary on online info divulgence IMHO than it is on the general dangers of society. We live in an unsafe world, and scaring the crap out of people to force them to limit their interactions with and availability to GOOD people is not a worthy tradeoff to gain a theoretical extra smidgen of protection.

    I mean, sure, we can all get unlisted numbers, stay home all the time, never get in a car, never love anybody, and live vicariously through fictional TV characters and we’d be safer… but at what cost?!

  17. zephoria

    Kathy – OMG, that makes me soooo sad. I cannot believe that nothing has changed.

    Nicholas – the trick is to teach children, not to regulate or protect them. You can keep small children away from fires but they will still burn themselves when they first try. And if you’ve used scare tactics, they will be even more curious about whether or not it’s that bad. Nothing was worse from drug education than the scare tactics “this is your brain on drugs” bullshit. Most teens realized the first time they tried marijuana that you didn’t turn into an egg. So then, why listen to anything anyone has said about drugs? I’m a strong proponent in drug education, not drug regulation. The responsibility of a parent is to build trust, to build a relationship where kids can get honest advice and then make their own decisions. This is terrifying as a parent but far more healthy in the long run. There is no doubt that accidents happen because of stupidity but if you base all of your engagement with youth on that, you will see a pretty messed up society.

    Jen – i’m not saying don’t educate about information spread. But seriously, there are a bazillion ways to get stalked without the Internet. Hell, i still remember coming home to an unexpected (and very unwanted) visitor my freshman year because he sweettalked his way into the Residential Service’s database and got my dorm room number and then picked the lock. When someone is intent on going after you, they will and they can. Period. It’s not a matter of feeling safe, but of not caring. It’s the brain on drugs thing – you’ve never known anyone to be harmed so you resent being told not to.


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  19. genY

    Brilliant. Ive printed this off and am giving it to my philosophy professor. Im a gen Y youth myself, born in ’82 so im one of the older ones. As a child I grew up in the oppressive institutionalized public education system and now have realized all the fallacies and faults thereof. We are not allowed to speak our minds these days. We are told what to say and what to think, and also where to think and say it at. This country has went from freedom to fear. Worse yet is that even after high school we cannot enjoy freedom. At college we have a designated free speech zone in which we may protest as defined by the Student Guidelines. Any protest on campus outside of this zone is forbidden. As I recall, the constitution states that all of America is a free speech zone. What does the school have to say about this? “We don’t necessarily abide by the constitution.” This is a state funded school mind you. This is only one of the many policies that older Americans are instating trying to ‘protect’ us youth. This is a path that is leading to the destruction of America. Now and into the future it is going to be the job of todays youth to either restructure this country or witness its demise just as Rome fell. God help us, because there is no one else that will.

  20. Brent MacKinnon

    Your article was spot on Dana, thanks for expressing so well your feelings and point of view. I’m working at introducing more blogging into the school where I manage a community program and the fear factor always comes up. I think that the media over magnifies this aspect to the extreme. Fear of the lurking perves is a handy excuse for continuing an adultism need to control. Not to say it’s important to be dilegent, but so many adults depreciate what youth are trying to do on-line and use safety as an excuse for limiting or eliminating access.

  21. Anonymous

    this was a great perspective on a culture of fear and really helped me think about what its actually like in our society. I has helped me with some thoughts that I could possibly elaborate on in a school assignment I am doing. Thanks very much

  22. Visitor

    You are all missing the entire point…it is not about ‘youth freedom’ or ‘aegist oppression. MYSPACE.COM is about money and the massive manipulation of a segment of culture in order to generate that money.

    There is no love of the social freedom of youth involved here. It is simply a taking advantage of youth and all that is involved in their culture, physically, emotionally, and mentally in order to make some money.

    It is social engineering of the highest form. The forms/templates by which myspace participants ‘create’ their own unique spaces are already determined and made available by an existing group of adults. The questions and profiles and surveys automatically direct young people into a mold that determines their myspace shape.

    The FEAR that all should be feeling is the shaping of an entire generation of young people by .coms! Faceless corporate executives who are deciding what a myspace generation will look like.


  23. BroadwayBaby

    I believe the face of Myspace is Tom.
    As to everything being a faceless corperation…this is America. Get used to it.

  24. Adriane

    In the worlds view no one becomes a human being until they hit drinking age which is insane. I have been told many times by my parents, teachers, and random adults that my opinion does not count and that’s a load of crap.
    People are scared to death that their kids will do drugs because “all their friends are”. Well, as a teen of today let me tell you one of the reasons teens turn to drugs and alchol is because they think or know that their parents don’t know or care about them. Most parents will swear they have a great relationship with their kids but then know nothing about them. They are either too blind or too ashamed to say the truth. And for God’s sake don’t try and buy our love cause it just causes trouble.

  25. Lisa

    Great post! I see it too, and have often equated our country with Rome, but apparently nobody was paying attention in History class. I only have 3 things to say.
    1. Children are our future… not something to be feared. My daughter is 17 months old, and I’m already being told how to best rear her. I’m her mother, and I’ll not raise her to be afraid. (I have a lot more to say about child-rearing, but this isn’t the apropriate venue.)
    2. MySpace (and the internet in general) is not dangerous in and of itself. It’s like saying guns kill people. MySpace isn’t telling you not to post there… it just wants to know who is posting, because it’s supposed to be a community for people to get to know each other. Posting anonymously defeats the very purpose of MySpace.
    3. I agree that the media is purpetuating the culture of fear. Media isn’t a news source, it’s a business. News is like their stock.. if there’s nothing major to report, there’s little stock, and it shouldn’t be that way.

  26. Vern

    I’m 42, and I agree completely with the authors point of view. My own sons are 16, and 12 and they will always be allowed to express themselves, will always be allowed to learn by mistakes, and will never be stifled in the name of safety or political correctness. Our kids should be our friends, not an entity to be molded to a cookie cutter pattern.

  27. Larry Schmidt

    “Please, please listen to the children, they are the ones that will rule the world.”–Jim Morrison

    It is amazing that one generation never seems to learn from the previous. Great writing, if only the massses would pay attention.

  28. Kevin Farnham

    Danah, this is a great article. My wife and I are about to publish a book titled “MySpace Safety: 51 Tips for Teens and Parents.” In the introduction and at the end of the book, we strongly warn parents against the idea of “banning” MySpace. We encourage them instead to join and share the experience with their teens. It’s one more part of life and community in today’s world, and is an integral part of community for young people.

    Interaction and communication using sites like MySpace is “normal” for teens and young adults, and any parent who tries to ban “being normal” is making a big mistake, in our view. We’re trying to get that message out with our book — along with getting the message out to teens about the risks that are indeed there.

    MySpace and the online world have a component of risk, just as a swingset and slide at a playground have a component of risk. Unfortunately, we understand the playground risks almost intuitively. With the online world, “common sense” still remains to be developed.

    I sent a trackback from our publishing site/blog,, where we’re posting excerpts from the book as we write it.

  29. Chris Raab

    From the beginning � to the end, from birth � to death, I like to think that each little tidbit of knowledge that you acquire is like a putting a sentence in a personal textbook. As human beings grow, they are constantly adding to their own textbooks.

    – Sometimes they have to stop and refer back to their own textbook to remember how to do something�
    – Sometimes they are invited to refer to someone else�s textbook for knowledge, whereupon that knowledge becomes part of their own.
    – Sometimes they don�t remember where the textbook is, and yet they remember parts of what was written there�
    – Sometimes they forget that they wrote this piece of knowledge down already, whereupon it gets written into the book again

    Wisdom is what you gain when you apply the knowledge that you have acquired in your personal textbooks. It can be likened to the crib notes that you might have written in the margins next to some particularly important passage. It�s an insight into the tidbit of knowledge, sort of a �how to use this piece of information�, and it also grows as you age.

    With that said, most teenagers� textbooks are not as thick as they think it is� they have had very little time (comparatively) to gain their own wisdom about the world and the way it works� other than from their rather limited perspective�

    Does that mean that they have nothing to offer?? Absolutely, unequivocally not. Try to understand this though:

    Our wisdom as parents, as adults, and as friends has, more often then not, been hard-won. And part of our knowledge and wisdom as parents and as adults is still being acquired. For example: �How do I get them (the teenagers) to understand that I might have some important knowledge and wisdom to give them so that they don�t have to make the same mistakes that I did (or nearly did)?�

    I was in the same place as you once. I vowed that once I was an adult I would not make the same mistakes that �my� adults were making by not listening to the teenagers and young adults. And my textbook continued to fill up. And I endeavored to fill in the crib notes in the margins. Only to find myself standing here listening to a new generation of teenagers and young adults say the same things that I used to say. And finding myself lumped into that category of adults.

  30. Andi

    great article! Have you read the book ” The Culture of Fear” why Americans fear all of the wrong things? I just finished it and thought it was amazing!

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