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Systems-theoretical observations of moral media panic debates

Jesper Tække (School of Communication and Culture, Aarhus Universitet, Aarhus, Denmark)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 9 April 2021

Issue publication date: 29 March 2022




The purpose of this paper is to examine and analyse the fierce debate regarding children and young people’s use of digital social media, going on in Denmark (and in many other countries) in both mass media and social media. The overall question is what this panic is about and why the mass media and the public do not listen to the media sociologists than to self-appointed experts?


Using a systems-theoretical angle, this paper analyses the debate and answers the following questions: Why are researchers not taken more seriously, and why are their views neglected and criticised? What part does morality play in such debates? How and why do the mass media act as they do, for instance, listening more to debaters than to the researchers? 4) What is the role of the so-called social media? And are these debates best understood as conflicts?


The scientific code is only one among several other codes. The mass media also communicates about truth but only as a result of their own code and programs, which also counts for other functional systems such as the juridical and the political system. In the code and programmes of a given mass medium, it has information value that different actors has different truths, to which comes that conflicts between different opinions of truth is a direct selection criterium. This is the function of the mass media, and nobody would like to live in a society without (except for dictators and their henchmen). Finally, science is very programmatic and communicates only through its own code and programs why research results seldom reach the public in its own form (scientific books and articles) but through the lens of mass media organisations and the debaters. When science is observed from other systems, it happens through their codes and programs why science often does not count more than ordinary people’s meanings.

Research limitations/implications

The debate is polarised: on the one hand, there are debaters (self-appointed experts), whereas on the other hand, there are media researchers especially media sociologists. It turns out that the debaters have better communication possibilities than the researchers, as the scientific code does not trigger the news criteria as good as the often alarming statements from the debaters, who also use the moral code of communication that the researchers do not, as they are obligated to communicate solely in the scientific code.


There is no other systems-theoretical analysis of the moral media panic debates. The application of Luhmann’s systems theory is well suited, as it is both a communication theory and a sociological theory, whereas it is including both the relevant functional systems, such as the mass media, and the relevant communication codes, such as the news criteria of the mass media.



Tække, J. (2022), "Systems-theoretical observations of moral media panic debates", Kybernetes, Vol. 51 No. 5, pp. 1724-1737.



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