“Stairway to Heaven” played backwards supposedly sounds like a satanic message. Rachel Kraus, a sociology professor at Ball State University, grew up in a time when this theory was new. Parents didn’t allow their children to listen to heavy metal music. It was sending them bad messages and had dire consequences.
People feared that heavy metal would draw children and teenagers to cults, which were a real concern to many parents in the 1980s. Rachel remembers hearing myths about cults that would sacrifice animals and babies. Concerned parents believed heavy metal and hard rock music promoted satanic ritual culture.
“Don’t listen to heavy metal or hard rock because you’ll hear satanic messages. They’ll encourage you to kill yourself. They’ll encourage you to use drugs or drink alcohol,” Rachel remembers hearing.
Cult culture was supposed to lead to the destruction of America’s youth. But it wasn’t the first perceived threat to American morality.
Fear of advancement has been present as long as civilization has existed. Socrates warned against writing because it would create forgetfulness as people would use their memories less. With the invention of the printing press, fear spread, as literacy of the masses was suspected to destroy society.
According to a 2015 Gallup Poll survey, 72 percent of Americans believe the United States is in a moral decline. Each era has moral issues that were supposed to be the downfall of society and the corruption of the youth.
In the 1920s, that issue was the invention of the radio. In the 1950s, it was the invention of the television. The 1960s brought rock ‘n’ roll, and MTV’s coverage of sex in the 1980s appalled conservatives. The unifying theme of each of these youth-corrupting new technologies or trends has been this: It has never been the great downfall that was predicted.
“Good evening. This is professor Reginald A. Fessenden speaking to you from Brant Rock, Massachusetts at the tower of the national electric signaling company.”
These were the first words spoken over radio waves. The white noise behind Fessenden’s voice was crackly and harsh.
Fessenden produced about an hour of talk and music for technical observers and amateurs to hear over radio waves in December of 1906. Others experimented with radio over the next couple years, but the trend didn’t stick. It wasn’t until 1908 that regularly scheduled programs started to broadcast.
Radio was considered to be the death of morality of the ‘20s. Radio content was different than any other content people had been introduced to before. The programs discussed contemporary, progressive ideas and political notions. People who listened to the radio began to think differently.
Radio kickstarted what was supposedly the scariest movement at the time period: Progressivism. Progressivists were seen as wanting to reform the government with their liberal agendas. They wanted to enact policies, such as big business control, that caused a need for a bigger, full-time government. Cities were developing, the government was gaining more control, and new technologies were being introduced. Infrastructural changes were coming, and the radio helped spread the progressivist message.
Karon Luther rushed through cleaning the house on Saturday morning. She wasn’t allowed to watch TV until she finished all of her chores. After finishing them all, she plopped herself in front of the basement television set and turned on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“Oh my gosh. Do you have to watch The Ed Sullivan Show?” her dad asked. He was not a fan of the show, which featured politics, comedy, and rock ‘n’ roll.
The King of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis Presley, performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957 and was only filmed from the waist up. Elvis the Pelvis was censored for being “indecent.”
In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the television made its way into American homes. Karon’s mother worked for Magnavox, so their family was able to purchase a television set relatively early on in the TV’s mainstream cycle. Karon, now retired, remembers having a TV for all of her life.
The introduction of the TV caused a decline in use of the radio. But new concerns soon emerged. Children, it was believed, were going to lose all motivation and become lazier than ever. They were going to spend all day staring at a screen, being corrupted by television programs.
Again, the scary “P” word cropped up. Progressivism seeped into the television programs American children watched.
After people calmed down about TVs corrupting their children, a new concern arose—TVs were going to give everyone cancer by emitting radiation. World War II and Cold War propaganda elicited fear of radiation from Russia, and this fear seeped into the homes of Americans.
Kelly Mahoney stood talking on the phone in the corner of her classroom, trying to appease a student’s mother.
“Ma’am, you’re right. The character had a thought about a female character, but the thought was shut down immediately,” she said.
“There’s still too much sex,” the woman on the other end of the phone said.
“All right, we can get your daughter another book to read.”
Kelly is a high school English teacher at Leo Junior/Senior High School in Leo, Indiana and that book with “too much sex” was The Giver. The book in which characters literally took pills to stifle their sexual urges. The book with no sex.
The issue with the written word doesn’t belong to a time period—it’s always stirred up controversy.
The Harry Potter series caused a huge commotion with some Christian parents. They believed the books promoted dark magic and went against God. One concerned parent even went as far as to call Harry’s magic a “satanic practice.”
When kids read Harry Potter books, Kelly believes they’re most likely not connecting them to God or Satan. They read the stories because they relate to the characters. Children aspire to be intelligent and brave like Hermione and Harry. They’re not seeking out dark magic and satanic rituals. There are other books for that.
Since 1982, more than 11,300 books have been challenged to be banned from U.S. schools, according to the American Library Association.
As an English teacher and a mother, Kelly thinks parents who ban books from their children are taking a simplistic approach to something complex. They get scared and are quick to boycott anything remotely threatening. They’re unable to get past the literal.
Currently, citizens are waiting for new technologies and trends to destroy all morality in America’s younger generations.
Kids learn to use an iPad before they learn to talk. Millennials are known as digital natives because they have grown up surrounded by new, digital technology. The average American teenager spends about nine hours engaged with the internet each day. Social media use and obsession with self-promotion are surely a sign of the moral corruption of the youth—right?
Less than a third of Americans think the internet has a positive influence on morality, while almost half believe it has a negative influence.
Bruce Geelhoed, a history professor at Ball State University, uses a flip phone that he doesn’t regularly charge. But he knows that we, as a nation, cannot shield kids from technology. New technology spreads throughout all levels of society, regardless of class or age. If people want it, they will find a way to get it.
So now we wait for the internet or the next big technological breakthrough to corrupt our youth and destroy society. Until it does, maybe we can actually enjoy what technological advancements allow us to do.