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QAnon, the Satanic Panic, and how to talk to kids about the scary things grownups believe

Are kids scared about QAnon?

Of course not. They don’t read the news. They don’t listen to FOX. They don’t care what politicians are saying. Hopefully they are staying off of social media. Kids are kids. They don’t worry about that stuff.

That’s what I thought. But now I’m not so sure.

In recent months the Q phenomenon has spilled over from the fringes of the web into the very center of the global discourse. Kids, even those who aren’t paying attention to the news, have probably heard the term “QAnon” even if they aren’t sure what it is. Some may have heard weird details. Some may have heard that it has to do with secret societies. Child kidnapping. Abuse. And worse.

The situation kids are in now seemed strangely familiar to me, but I could not understand why. Now I figured it out. I was once a worried kid myself. And that was because of another weird conspiracy theory that seized the nation. One that had to do with child abuse. With secret organizations. With evil people doing evil things all around us.

The satanic panic of the 80s.

In the 80s a rash of supposed Satanist cults were stealing children and abusing them, or worse. The offenders were punks, heavy metal fans, people with safety-pinned jean jackets and wild hair, and sometimes even your average neighbor harboring an evil secret. Police, psychics, and religious leaders all banded together to fight the scourge of satanists infiltrating our PTAs, preschools, and scout dens. Charismatic quaffed politicians campaigned on platforms promising to rid the community of these evil cabals of satanists bent on getting their hands on children. Preachers railed against them from their pulpits. The result? Pictures of missing children on school lunch milk cartons. After school specials on stranger danger. And a bizarre miasma of fear that artists tapped into with amazing precision (watch any scary movie from the 80s or read just about any Stephen King book from that era to see what I mean). Seeing the missing children everyday on my milk cartons at lunchtime only drove home the danger. Like most kids I wasn’t sure what everyone was scared of. I didn’t know any of the details. But I was convinced that if I wasn’t careful I would be the next kid on the milk carton. After all, the grownups seem to think something scary was going on. So why shouldn’t I?

And that happened without me ever reading a newspaper, watching a news program, or listening to a politician. No adult ever told me about any of this. It was never discussed. I simply absorbed it from the zeitgeist. And because I was passively absorbing it in a way that wasn’t obvious, no adult ever stopped to check and see it if registered with me and to reassure me that none of it is real. No one explained that it was BS. I am sure that if they knew, they would have told me exactly that. But kids, we adults think, are in an innocent world where such ideas have no place. Often we are right.

But sometimes we are wrong.

That is why it is helpful to check in with your child about QAnon. If you do you may find that they have heard some rumblings about it. They may even be scared. If that is the case, I encourage you to emphasize five points:

  1. You are there for them and if they have any questions you will not judge them or make them feel bad for asking.
  2. QAnon is not real. The whole thing is a hoax.
  3. They are safe. And you’re going to make sure that they stay that way.
  4. Teach them about the milk carton effect: Just because something is in the news, or being talked about by supposedly important people, doesn’t make it real or true.
  5. Critical thinking is the solution. That is why it’s important to doubt weird conspiracy theories and ask lots of questions.

We are living through a replay of the 80s satanic panic. This time though, we 80s kids are the parents. We can do it different and make sure our kids get the best information and reassurance. With the knowledge we have, history might rhyme, but it doesn’t have to repeat itself.

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