“The Choking Game” as a Moral Panic

It is not difficult to think of examples of moral panics in the media. Here I will discuss the idea of moral panics generally, and then I will talk about a specific case study and look at some other contributing concepts.

Stanley Cohen gives a definition of moral panics in his chapter “Deviance and Moral Panics.” He writes that a moral panic appears when,

“a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become define as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then appears, submerges or deteriorates and become more visible” (p.1)

Cohen says quite a bit in that definition, but the basic timeline that he lays out is that a moral panic: emerges, becomes defined, covered stylistically by mass media, talked about by experts who give solutions, and then essentially disappears from the media. As I mentioned, it is not hard for us to think of huge news stories that seemed like a big deal but are no longer even mentioned. This is because this cyclical process repeats itself over and over.

Here I will focus on the concept of “the choking game” and how it was covered by news media. “The choking game” or “fainting game” refers to when an individual intentionally cuts off the oxygen to the brain with the goal of inducing euphoria (a “drug-free high”). Multiple children have died from this, and it is sometimes hard to tell whether it was a suicide or an accidental asphyxiation. An important part of moral panics is that while they may stem from a legitimate issue, one that should be addressed as such, it is reported on in a way that makes it seem as though it is much more widespread than it realistically is. Of course this “game” was a problem and some teens and pre-teens did die from it, but here I want to talk specifically about how it functioned as a moral panic and how the media portrayed it.

There are a lot of things that could be said in relation to the news coverage in the United States, but I will try to stick to the facts here. It is incredibly easy to see Cohen’s ideas happening in the Fox 13: Salt Lake City news story (here) on the subject. Almost immediately in the telecast, they bring out Scott McKane, who is presented as an expert on the subject of “the choking game” but it is not entirely clear how he became one. More ‘experts’ are also brought in in this telecast, including the mother of a boy who died of accidental asphyxiation and a detective who they literally call ‘a de facto expert’ because he was once called to the scene of a death by “choking game”.

The media coverage of this problem was just as Cohen explained: the reporters would lay out the issue and then switch to an “expert” who would offer reasoning behind the behavior and solutions for avoiding it going forward. They mostly suggest that parents should educate their children and themselves, and look for warning signs. McKane lays out simply the goal now: “to educate children about the dangers and have parents look for potential warning signs” (0:55).

It also appears that this news coverage definitely goes through cycles like any other moral panic. When I googled it, there was coverage from around 2006 and then around 2012, indicating that it was covered a lot during those two time periods but quickly died out and left public consciousness because it left the mass media.

The idea and format of moral panics speaks a lot to how American media (and possibly international media) functions generally, and how it affects society. Society focuses on what media focuses on, and while this is probably usually a good thing, it leaves room for the erasure of huge identities, events, and other potentially important stories.

In “Three Theories of Moral Panics” by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda, they propose a theory about moral panics that has a very specific layout. They write that there are, “three levels of society- the elite, the middle level, and the general public or grassroots” (p. 125). They go on to say that each panic is started by one of these levels of society with either morality based motives or status/economic based motives. In the case of “the choking game”, it seems that the panic began when children started to participate in the practice, but was perpetuated by the masses. Further, this panic is completely morally motivated, because there is nothing monetary or status-related that could be gained.

It is easy to see how this moral panic became widespread, as it is easy to see why parents might be worried about their young children engaging in this risky behavior. This idea relates to the article “Risk Anxiety and the Social Construction of Childhood” by Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott. One of the key points in this piece is about how children are at risk while also being risky. They write that, “risk anxiety helps construct childhood and maintain its boundaries — the specific risks serve to define the characteristics of childhood and the ‘nature’ of children themselves” (p. 86–87). “The choking game” is an excellent example of this dichotomy. Children are risky because they are the ones who are participating in this behavior, but they are also at-risk of being coerced into the behavior by their peers. They need to be protected from everything, including themselves and others their age.

“The choking game” is something that will undoubtedly be in the media again. While it is hard to know exactly what motivates children to participate in such a game, it is not as hard to understand how it functions as a moral panic. The news coverage of the topic is largely predictable, so it follows that it is also predictable the way the masses will react. Moral panics give good insight into how society functions as a whole and how news media impacts those functions.

Works Cited:

Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. (1994). Three Theories of Moral Panics: In Moral Panics: The social construction of deviance, pp. 124–143. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

McKane, Scott. “Parents Fighting Deadly ‘choking Game’ Epidemic.” Fox 13 Salt Lake City. 8 Nov. 2012. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <http://fox13now.com/2012/11/08/parents-police-fighting-deadly-choking-game-epidemic/>.

Stanley Cohen. (1976/2002). Deviance and Moral Panics. Folk Devils and Moral Panics (3rd edition), pp. 1–15. New York: Routledge.

Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott (1999). Risk anxiety and the social construction of childhood. In Deborah Lupton (ed.) Risk and Sociocultural Theory, pp. 86–107). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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