Alex 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. His theories and theatrics reach a massive audience, but the question at the core of the current custody battle between him and his wife is what effect they’ve had on his two daughters. Lawyers have sought to prove that exposure to conspiratorial thinking and easily disproved theories can be injurious to children. According to Dr. Brian Johnson and Dr. Laurie Berdahl, that may be the hard truth.
“Even if kids can’t understand the words, they can understand tone and the way their parents are talking,” says Johnson, who co-authored Warning Signs: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence with 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 the idea that 9/11 was an inside job. “Kids will believe anything an adult tells them. Particularly a trusted adult,” says Johnson.
“Children don’t have the cognitive resources yet to process information in a healthy way,” says 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 starts to look like a dangerous place.
“Children really need to feel like their parents have control over their safety,” says Berdahl. “Children need certainty and predictability. Fear about the world is very damaging psychologically.”
But conspiracy theory proponents say that knowing what’s really going on is exactly what keeps their family safe and many fight fear by prepping for worst case scenarios, including doomsday. Though there’s something psychologically healthy about being empowered to prepare for potential hardship, spending time and energy protecting oneself from imagined threats erect a natural barrier to socialization.
Johnson suggests looking at how the family is positioned in the community. He asks, “What’s the degree to which the parent’s preparation is isolating the child and the family from other people?” He notes that the more isolated families become, the worse the outcomes for children are. “Humans are social animals,” he says. “When families begin to isolate themselves from communication with other people that’s a warning sign for paranoia.”
With paranoia comes anxiety.
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 it’s 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.
The doctors note that parents who have a tendency to ruminate on conspiracy theories need to consider how their beliefs might be affecting their children. They suggest that if survival is truly a parent’s end game for their kid, they’d do best to teach them critical thinking. “It will arm them with a life skill of protecting themselves from manipulators,” says Berdahl.
Does Alex Jones intend to manipulate his children? Only he knows for sure. But, at the end of the day, intent may not matter. Ideas can hurt kids. Bad ideas can hurt kids badly.