Child psychologists say that conspiracy theories filtrated through parents can cause kids to experience fear, anxiety and possibly catastrophic paranoia.
Tech giants Apple, Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube have effectively banned conspiracist Alex Jones from its platforms. Jones, the man behind the far-right media organization InfoWars, may be America’s most prominent conspiracist. He has claimed, at various points, that the government staged the murders of children at Sandy Hook to garner support for gun laws, that the U.S. has a weapon that can steer tornadoes, and that Bill Gates is attempting to wipe out minorities. But with the recent bans, Jones’ theories and theatrics will no longer reach his once massive audience. And that’s a very good thing for kids because exposure to conspiratorial thinking and easily disproved theories can be injurious to children.
“Even if kids can’t understand the words, they can understand tone and the way their parents are talking,” says Dr. Brian Johnson who co-authored Warning Signs: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence with Dr. Laurie Berdahl. “If their parents are becoming agitated by what they’re seeing or hearing it could create a reaction that’s potentially harmful.”
This is largely due to the fact that a child’s brain is still developing the tools it needs to separate fact from fiction. This continues well into the late teen years. For the same reason young children are prone to believing in the Easter Bunny, they’re open to believing far-fetched, politically charged flights of fancy.
Importantly, Jones isn’t the only conspiracy peddler on popular internet media platforms. There are plenty more conspiracy theorists from both the extreme right and left littered across Facebook and YouTube. Want to explore whether or not 9/11 was an inside job orchestrated by G. W. Bush? A video is easily found. Want to feel vindicated about your feelings that the White House is covering up Donald Trump’s growing senility? There’s a Facebook page for that.
Even if it’s ultra-leftists paranoia, it’s still a bad thing for children when parents buy in, according to Johnson. “Kids will believe anything an adult tells them. Particularly a trusted adult,” he says.
“Children don’t have the cognitive resources yet to process information in a healthy way,” explains Berdahl. “And studies show they are not good at all in assessing the credibility of that information.”
But the danger truly begins when that information starts to sew paranoia in the home. Conspiracy theories are made to destabilize. The belief that pure malevolence has infiltrated the highest levels of government, for instance, creates profound distrust in institutions and other people. For children, this means that the world can begin to look like a dangerous place.
“Children really need to feel like their parents have control over their safety,” says Berdahl. “They need certainty and predictability. Fear about the world is very damaging psychologically.”
The doctors note that when anxiety is left unchecked, research shows it can often lead to a downward spiral. Anxiety can be generalized to become agoraphobia. Or it can combine with depression, which can lead to substance abuse as well as relationship and job problems. “The general trajectory of untreated anxiety problems is not a happy situation,” says Johnson.
But anxiety is not the worst situation borne of exposure to conspiracy theories, by far. Berdahl suggests that the internalized fear, anxiety and paranoia from parents, or direct exposure to conspiratorial information, could promote “aggrieved entitlement.” Berdahl characterizes aggrieved entitlement as a psychological state that elicits strong violent reactions to perceived injustice. The term was coined by sociologist Michael Kimmel to describe a sentiment often harbored by terrorists and mass shooters. “When an entitled young person perceives they’re being treated unfairly or cruelly by a class or group of people, this grievance can cause rage and result in violent revenge,” Berdahl says. And the root of the most tenacious conspiracy theories tends to be a lack of fairness and overwhelming cruelty at the hands of some unseen other.
So, yes, removing Jones from his bully pulpit is a good first step in protecting children and possibly even inoculating society at large from aggrieved and violent individuals. But it’s only a first step. The big media platforms still harbor harmful theories built on paranoia and they’re just as bad as Jones ever was. More should be done to keep the conspiratorial poison at bay for the sake of truth and kids everywhere.
The Four-Pronged Approach to Conspiracy Theories
- Beware of using conspiratorial words around your child. While they may not understand the actual words, they will start to clue in on your tone and behavior.
- Reduce the attractiveness of conspiracy theories by reinforcing the idea that believing in conspiracies is not unique.
- Avoid telling or exposing your child to outlandish conspiracy theories. A child’s brain is still developing, and they will believe what a parents tell them.
- Teach them critical thinking skills, as it will protect them from manipulators who leverage conspiracies to instill fear and anger.
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