This weekend President Donald Trump promoted a video created by conservative comedian Terrence Williams claiming that the Clintons orchestrated Jeffery Epstein’s prison death. The President, who is no stranger to promoting conspiracy theories, pushed the video to his official Twitter feed in spite of Epstein’s death being confirmed as a suicide by his very own Justice Department. Did he mean it? Probably not. But the harm is still done. What Trump and the “Clinton Body Count” crowd fail to grasp is that conspiracy theories are deeply toxic to families and can have long-lasting detrimental effects on children. They spread a distrust of malignant government and authority that can undermine democracy and even lead to violent ideological extremism.
The theory that conspiracies can harm kids is not, itself, a conspiracy. In fact, it’s based on core principle of the science of parenting: Children look to adults to fulfill developmental needs. Adults help kids understand the world and their place in it. Adults also provide security and stability. When adults are loose with the facts or bend them to their will — like when they espouse conspiracy theories — these developmental needs are destabilized. Kids can’t decipher fact from fiction like an adult. Their world is instead upended.
When adults become conspiratorial, they sow distrust on the government in children. Worse yet, conspiracies can cause children to feel as if they are actively threatened by powerful people, upending a sense of stability. When a conspiracy causes a trusted adult to become paranoid, that sense of instability becomes more acute and result in depression and anxiety. In undermining a child’s mental health, conspiracies can set kids up for poor outcomes later in life. In the worst cases, depression, anxiety, and fear of government and powerful people can lead what sociologist Michael Kimmel calls “aggrieved entitlement” — a powerful sense of humiliation that you are entitled to something that has been denied you. Kimmel has found this state of mind in far-right violent extremists and mass shooters.
Trump, of course, is no stranger to conspiracy theories. He’s championed such intrigues as Senator Ted Cruz’s being complicit in the JFK assassination and “Birtherism”, which attacked Obama’s citizenship. And while many of Trump’s supporters are also conspiratorial minded, Jeffery Epstein’s death has revealed a vein of conspiracy on the left as well. There are plenty of liberal-minded individuals floating the idea that President Trump himself had a hand in silencing his old pal Epstein to protect himself from being implicated in child trafficking and child rape scandal.
Framing the President of the United States as a secretive killer covering up his dastardly deeds with children is a deeply toxic idea. A child who hears these conspiracies and internalizes them could develop a deep mistrust of political leaders that could poison their faith in democracy. And when enough people lose faith in democracy, then the country becomes destabilized.
Of course, that’s the whole point of conspiracy theories. And that is exactly why Russia has weaponized them through social media. The more they spread, the less secure we become.
That makes pushing the Epstein conspiracy theories, either from the right or left, deeply dangerous. On an individual level, it can erode the sense of stability in our children and ultimately their mental health. But on a larger level, it could erode the foundations of our country.
Smart and discerning adults should know better. We should promote facts before we start promoting fear.