From waltzes to video games: 'bad' influences through the ages

Young people through the ages have been at risk of falling prey to new cultural influences like rock 'n' roll, video games and even the waltz.

Blaming popular culture for corrupting youth nothing new

It's been going on for thousands of years: the perceived corruption of our youth by popular culture and new ideas.

Long before the recent failed attempt to ban the sale and rental of violent video games  to children in the U.S., the Greek philosopher Socrates was accused of corrupting the minds of youth with his teachings in fifth century B.C. Athens.

While the Athenian ruling class lay claim to the birth of democracy, the elderly men who ran the city at the time didn't take kindly to moral or critical dissent.

Socrates, credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, was convicted and executed for corrupting the youth of ancient Athens. ((Getty images))
None of Socrates's writings survive, but some of his followers suggested he believed the route to good governance lay in the knowledge and professional competence of the few rather than in the opinions of the many.

The young, he argued, should be critical thinkers and should not just do what they are told. They had a right to raise questions and not blindly follow the dictates of those in power.

Plato's Apology — the philosopher's account of the trial of Socrates on charges of corrupting the youth and disrespecting the gods — quotes him as saying:

"I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but, and chiefly, to care about the greatest improvement of the soul.

"I tell you that virtue is not given by money but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, I am a mischievous person."

He was convicted and executed.

Since then, society has remained committed to containing the corruption of our youth. While teachers have often been the ones accused of trying to turn innocent teens into communists or jihadists throughout history, much of the blame has been laid at the feet of popular culture.

Examples of such cultural scapegoats include:

Video games

Violent video games have been targeted by purported protectors of our youth since the early 1990s, when software advances made games look more realistic. Parents and legislators were horrified at the brutal and graphic violence the games depicted.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board was created as a self-regulatory agency that assigned ratings to games that were similar to the age-based ratings the Motion Picture Association of America assigned to movies.

A recent study by the American Psychological Association concluded that:

"Fears about video game violence also fit into a sociological and historical context of fears of new media."

Rock 'n' roll

In this Sept. 9, 1956 file photo originally released by the Museum of Television & Radio, Elvis Presley performs on the Ed Sullivan Show, in New York. ((Museum of Television & Radio/AP))
When Elvis Presley exploded onto the music scene in the 1950s, religious leaders were horrified. They worried that his gyrating hips would arouse feelings in young women that should be not be stirred.

In August 1956, a juvenile court judge in Jacksonville, Fla., called Presley a savage whose music was undermining the youth of America. He threatened to have him arrested if he shook his body while performing at a local theatre. Less than a year later, Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, filmed from the waist up.

Frank Sinatra — who elicited screams from young female fans as his star rose a decade earlier — was not impressed by the new superstar.

"His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac," Sinatra said. "It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people."

Comic books

In the late 1940s, comic books came under fire in the United States for eating at the minds of youth with their disregard for human life and glorification of crime.

In Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham argued that comic books and life are connected.

"All child drug addicts, and all children drawn into the narcotics traffic as messengers, with whom we have had contact, were inveterate comic book readers. This kind of thing is not good mental nourishment for children!"

A U.S. senate committee was set up to examine the effects comic books had on youth. The comic book industry came up with a code of conduct similar to one adopted by the movie industry after it, too, came under fire for corrupting youth. The Comics Code Authority was a tool for the industry to self-regulate the content of comic books. The code included: 

  • Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals. 
  • If crime is depicted, it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity. 
  • Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation. 
  • In every instance, good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds. 
  • No comic magazine shall use the word "horror" or "terror" in its title.

By January 2011, all comic book publishers had abandoned the code in favour of ratings systems based on age.

The waltz

Elements of English society were horrified when a foreign dance, the waltz, was introduced. In 1816, the London Times warned people of its evils:

"It is quite sufficient to cast one's eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressure of the bodies ... to see that it is far, indeed, removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females.

"So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is ... forced on the respectable classes of society by the evil example of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion."