Struggling with a Moral Panic Once Again

danah boyd
4 min readApr 18, 2024


I have to admit that it’s breaking my heart to watch a new generation of anxious parents think that they can address the struggles their kids are facing by eliminating technology from kids’ lives. I’ve been banging my head against this wall for almost 20 years, not because I love technology but because I care so deeply about vulnerable youth. And about their mental health. And boy oh boy do I loathe moral panics. I realize they’re politically productive, but they cause so much harm and distraction.

I wish there was a panacea to the mental health epidemic we are seeing. I wish I could believe that eliminating tech would make everything hunky dory. (I wish I could believe many things that are empirically not true. Like that there is no climate crisis.) Sadly, I know that what young people are facing is ecological. As a researcher, I know that young people’s relationship with tech is so much more complicated than pundits wish to suggest. I also know that the hardest part of being a parent is helping a child develop a range of social, emotional, and cognitive capacities so that they can be independent. And I know that excluding them from public life or telling them that they should be blocked from what adults values because their brains aren’t formed yet is a type of coddling that is outright destructive. And it backfires every time.

I’m also sick to my stomach listening to people talk about a “gender contagion” as if every aspect of how we present ourselves in this world isn’t socially constructed. (Never forget that pink was once the ultimate sign of masculinity.) Young people are trying to understand their place in this world. Of course they’re exploring. And I want my children to live in a world where exploration is celebrated rather than admonished. The mental health toll of forcing everyone to assimilate to binaries is brutal. I paid that price; I don’t want my kids to as well.

I have no way to combat the current wave of fear-mongering that’s working its way into schools under false pretenses of science. I don’t know how to stop a tidal wave of anxious parents seeking a quick fix. But I did decide to spend some time talking with some thoughtful reporters about “kids these days” in an effort to center youth instead of technology.

Taylor Lorenz’s “Power User”

  • Episode: Is Social Media Destroying Kids’ Lives? (+ Elon’s Secret X Account)
  • You can watch in two ways: (video version) (podcast version)

I continue to be impressed with Taylor’s ability to stand up to the trolls and offer thoughtful and nuanced takes on our sociotechnical world. So I was super honored when she reached out to see if I would be willing to talk about the latest moral panic with her. Hopefully this conversation can be a source of calm for the generation of anxious parents out there.

Detroit Public Radio’s “Created Equal”

Stephen Henderson is genuinely curious to unpack why the focus on legislation isn’t the right approach to mental health. So we dove in together to talk this through. Hopefully his thoughtful questions and my responses will provide insights for those who are hoping that regulation can make a dent in this whole thing.

There is a Path Forward…

In both of these conversations, I offer some thoughts for different audiences out there, including parents, regulators, teachers, and even kids. I’ve said many of these before, but I want to highlight a few that are top of mine just in case you’re reading this but don’t have time to listen to our conversations. I’m going to keep them brief here, but I hope I can continue to unpack them more and more over time.

1. Parents: Ensure your kids have trusted adults in their lives. It really does take a village. Kids need to be able to turn to other adults, not just you, especially when they’re struggling. You can really help your kids by ensuring they have a trusted network of aunties and coaches and mentors and other such adults. Build those relationships early and allow your children to develop strong independent relationships with adults you trust.

2. Adults writ large: “Adopt” other youth into your life. Be a mentor, a supporter, a cheerleader, a trusted person that they can turn to. You can do this through formal mentoring programs or just being an auntie to friends’ kids. You can really make a difference.

3. Regulators: Fund universal mental health access, ffs. It should not be so hard to get access to quality care when you’re in a crisis. And it should not require parental permission to seek help. Make mental health care access easy! And not just crisis care — actual sustained mental health care. Kids’ lives depend on this.

4. Parents: Check your own tech use. You are norm-setting for kids out there. Create a household tech contract with your kids. Listen to their frustrations over YOUR tech use before you judge them. This starts with the tiny ones btw.

5. Philanthropy: Invest in a “digital street outreach” program. Remember when we used to reach out to young people who were on the streets and offer them clean needles, information, and resources? When young people are crying out online, who is paying attention to them? Who is holding them? Who is ensuring that they’re going to be AOK? The answer is ugly. We need responsible people to be poised to reach out to young people when they’re crying out in pain.

Please please please center young people rather than tech. They need our help. Technology mirrors and magnifies the good, bad, and ugly. It’s what makes the struggles young people are facing visible. But it is not the media effects causal force that people are pretending it is.

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danah boyd

researcher of technology & society | Microsoft Research, Data & Society, NYU |