Rise in child abuse or a media creating 'moral panic'?

Could the explanation more likely be that we are just allowing the media to stir up our senses?

abuse victim 88 (photo credit: )
abuse victim 88
(photo credit: )
The scarf-covered heads of observant women shielding their identities from the media is becoming a common image in our national consciousness as each passing day we hear of more and more sickening child abuse stories from within our society, especially from inside the ultra-Orthodox community. First it was the religious, Anglo-immigrant family in Jerusalem, where the mother stood accused of physically abusing her two young sons; next the burka-clad woman - apparently part of a Beit Shemesh religious cult - indicted Tuesday by the Jerusalem District Court for inflicting untold violence on six of her 12 children and allowing incest to continue unabated in her family. These two gruesome cases were closely followed by reports of a Ramle couple, where the father routinely stubbed his cigarettes out on his children, and now the Netivot mother of eight, also observant, arrested Tuesday on suspicion of having sex with two of her sons, aged eight and 10. Shocking, shocking and shocking. What is happening to Israeli society and to the haredi community in particular, that people must hurt their children in this way? Has all sense of morality been lost? Have the ultra-Orthodox given up on the stringent family values they were once so proud of? Secular people might even be wondering - when it suddenly seems as though every ultra-Orthodox person is abusing their kids - if something has gone wrong with the religious experiment. But is there anything actually wrong? Of course, one can neither ignore the terrible effects of physical and sexual abuse on these children, nor cast blame for the evils of certain individuals on outside sources, but do all these reports add up to a sudden rise in the number of children being abused? Could the explanation more likely be that we are just allowing the media to stir up our senses? After all, their aim is to sell newspapers, and throughout history, humankind has always enjoyed a good public flogging, hasn't it? Is it that these reports also give us the opportunity to cast our own moral judgments and make us feel good about our own lives? If the answer to these questions is yes, then it is possible that we are in the midst of a "moral panic." Coined in 1972 by sociologist Stanley Cohen, "moral panic" refers to the reaction of a population based on false or exaggerated perceptions that certain behavior - frequently by a minority group or subculture - is dangerous, deviant and poses a menace to society. In his work, Cohen discussed the way in which the media amplifies these feelings, turning them into a national issue. "We have to study [these reports] in more depth to determine if this is a moral panic situation," states Prof. Nachman Ben-Yehuda, from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who has written extensively on the topic of moral panic both here and abroad. "There has always been abuse of children," he continues, "So do these four or five cases mean there is more abuse, or that the abuse is gaining more media attention?" According to Hannah Slutzky, national supervisor for child affairs at the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, there has been no official increase in the number of actual abuse cases, although the type of abuse might be becoming more extreme than in the past. So that leaves us with the moral panic argument, which can best be illustrated by the 1993 murder of three-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool, England, by two 10-year-olds emulating scenes from the 1991 film Child's Play 3. While it was not the first time that children had killed other children, what made Bulger's case into a classic example of moral panic was the national reaction to it and the role of the media in instigating that reaction. At the time, the case was used by print and broadcast journalists to symbolize everything that was wrong with British society, from increasing levels of violence to the effects of television and movies on young children. As the public debate increased, so the moral panic spread to academics and politicians who called for increased legislature and social policy on the subject. When the debate on violence among children eventually slowed down and all talk of the phenomenon disappeared from the public sphere, did that mean child violence had been successfully stamped out? Certainly not - it still comes and goes just like any other hot issue. "There are waves in media reporting," claims Prof. Tamar Liebes from the School of Communication at the Hebrew University. "And the same way these stories explode, they suddenly vanish again without much follow-up." However, in the case of the current wave of public and media interest in child abuse stories, the obsession is unlikely to abate that quickly, observes Ben-Yehuda. "My belief is that we will start to see experts and moral people call for a return to old ideas and values, suggest parenting classes and such - but of course, we've already been in that movie before." And we will most likely see that movie again sometime in the future.