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Moral Panic and Neknominations in Great Britain

William Webb[1], Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada


In early 2014, the neknomination drinking game rose in popularity among young people in places such as the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, and Canada. In response, news media, alcohol awareness charities, citizens, and government officials raised moral and health concerns about the drinking game. This article offers a case study of the neknomination drinking game in Britain. In particular, the neknomination craze is examined in relation to British binge-drinking narratives from moral panic theory and moral regulation theory. For this case study, discourse analysis was used to examine newspaper articles, statements issued by government officials, and responses by alcohol awareness charities. The findings indicate that while the neknomination craze exhibits many signs of a moral panic, such as concern, consensus, disproportionality, and volatility, it lacks a convincing folk devil. Moreover, the neknomination moral panic reflects a qualified intermediary instance of risk discourses within a longer process of moral regulation. This research shows the usefulness of Goode and Ben-Yehuda's attributional model of moral panic despite recent challenges claiming the contrary, and the merit of Critcher's (2008) adaptations to moral regulation theory.

keywords: Moral panic, moral regulation, governmentality, neknominations, alcohol abuse, binge drinking.


In 2014, several issues surrounding youth and binge drinking in Britain were revisited with the arrival of a new drinking game craze – 'neknominations'. In this article, I examine the neknomination craze in relation to binge-drinking narratives in Britain from theories about moral panic and moral regulation. I argue that while the neknomination craze exhibits many signs of a moral panic, it lacks a convincing folk devil. Furthermore, I claim that the neknomination moral panic reflects a qualified intermediary instance of risk discourses within a process of moral regulation. In particular, discourses surrounding neknominations in Britain represent the craze as a mid-level panic in relation to being amenable to 'social control' and the imperative of 'self-regulation'. Discourses surrounding the craze, however, characterise neknomination participants as posing a relatively low threat to the 'moral order'.

In the first section of this article I discuss theoretical debates surrounding moral panic and moral regulation. Next, I provide an account of the binge-drinking narrative in Britain. I then outline the methodology used in this study. In the following section I examine the neknomination craze from moral panic theory and moral regulation theory. I conclude by noting the significance of this study in relation to theoretical debates about moral panic and moral regulation.

Theoretical framework: moral panic and moral regulation

Cohen (1972) is credited with popularising the concept 'moral panic' with his study of the Mods and Rockers – two youth factions who vandalised a section of seaside property in Clacton, England, in 1964. Cohen's now classic definition of moral panic is as follows:

A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by [...] right-thinking people [...] Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight.
(1972: 9)

Also central to Cohen's theory are 'folk devils', or those who come to be viewed as enemies of respectable society. Influenced by Cohen, Goode and Ben-Yehuda developed an alternative model of moral panic in the light of a number of sociological concerns. One of the foremost criticisms called into question the assumption that it was in fact possible to define and measure social problems (Spector and Kitsuse, 1977). Due to concerns of this nature, emphasis was increasingly placed on how social problems were constructed. Despite their differences,[2] constructionists agreed about the importance of 'claims making' – the idea that 'social problems [are] constructed by how successfully individuals and groups with vested interests [make] claims about their nature and prevalence' (Critcher, 2008: 1131). Drawing from this debate, Goode and Ben-Yehuda developed a model of moral panic that examines the role of claims-makers, such as elites, interest groups, and grassroots. Their model stresses the importance of the latter two groups, claiming the grassroots model allows us to see 'what fears and concerns are made of, while the interest-group model enables us to see how this raw material is intensified and mobilized' (2009: 71). Goode and Ben-Yehuda's model also identifies five key criteria of moral panics: concern, hostility, consensus, disproportionality, and volatility.[3]

In addition to using Goode and Ben-Yehuda's attributional model, I draw on the theoretical connection between moral panic and moral regulation. The concept 'moral regulation' has its origins in the work of Corrigan and Sayer, who define it as 'a project of normalizing [...] what are [...] ontological and epistemological premises of a particular and historical form of social order' (1985: 4). For Corrigan and Sayer, the role of the state is paramount in processes of moral regulation; not only are states legitimated by a particular moral ethos that is seen as natural and inevitable, but their formation is also co-extensive with moral regulation (ibid). One of the main criticisms lodged against Corrigan and Sayer is that their concept of moral regulation overemphasises the role of the state, and fails to account for non-state processes of self-formation (Dean, 1994: 145). In order to remedy this problem, Dean suggests that moral regulation should be replaced with Foucault's concept of 'governmentality'. Dean notes that unlike moral regulation, governmentality does not reduce questions of 'political subjectification to government' and acknowledges the importance of non-governmental, ethical practices (1994: 165).

Bridging the gap between Corrigan and Sayer and Dean, Hunt (1999) offers an account of moral regulation that incorporates both state and non-state actors. Hunt defines projects of moral regulation as those that 'involve practices whereby some social agents problematise some aspect of the conduct, values or culture of others on moral grounds and seek to impose moral regulations on them' (1999: ix). Hunt, however, rejects moral panic theory on the grounds that it implies that responses to social problems are irrational, and is prone to offering analyses that are just shy of conspiracy theory status (1999: 19). Hunt's accusations have not gone unchallenged. Critcher (2009) concedes that while Hunt's critiques may hold some weight against Cohen or haphazard applications of moral panic theory, they are not pertinent to Goode and Ben-Yehuda's model. For Critcher, Hunt's criticisms are misguided because Goode and Ben-Yehuda define moral panics as 'consensual, volatile and disproportionately hostile reaction to a nominated group: not rational in the conventional sense but not without its own logic' (2009: 22). Critcher also notes that Goode and Ben-Yehuda explicitly reject conspiracy models given that they downplay the role of the media and dismiss the elite model of moral panic.

In another influential reconceptualisation of moral regulation, Hier (2002; 2008) proposes that moral panics should be thought of as volatile manifestations of ongoing processes of moral regulation. Hier refers to this idea as the 'volatility of moralization' (2008: 174). Central to Hier's theory is the idea the volatility of moralisation is not disproportional to forms of social action, but instead is a 'more routine extension of everyday life through [...] configurations of risk and responsibility' (2008: 175). Hier rejects disproportionality, claiming that there is no measure that can reliably indicate what is a realistic or reasonable level of social concern (2008: 178). Drawing on Cohen (2002), Critcher (2009) responds by arguing that disproportionality is viable insofar as the project of moral regulation is a political endeavour. Cohen argues that while the resonance of a social problem cannot be measured as clearly as its reality, a judgement call can and must be made between the two (2002: xxix). Cohen and Critcher both agree that if there is no way to acknowledge the difference between the reality of a social problem and its representation, then the political point of moral panic theory – the imperative to social justice – is lost.

While some (Critcher, 2009; Yeomans, 2013) are sympathetic to Hier's project, they note that it lacks the conceptual mechanisms to navigate the relationship between cases of moral panic and cases of moral regulation. Following this, Critcher argues for a theory that recognises 'moral panics as extreme forms of risk discourses integral to the process of moral regulation' (2008: 1139, emphasis in original). To overcome Hier's deficiency, Critcher (2009) outlines three concepts to differentiate instances of moral panic within processes of moral regulation: (1) perceived threat to the 'moral order', (2) the extent to which an issue can be 'socially controlled', and (3) 'self-regulation' or the balance between moral regulation and ethical self-formation. Critcher's aim here is not to offer a wholesale replacement of moral panic theory, but to widen its focus by providing conceptual tools that can connect moral panic analysis with questions of moral regulation.

Context: binge drinking and neknominations

From the 'gin craze' in the early eighteenth century (Warner, 2003) to the temperance movement during the First World War (Yeomans, 2013), concern about alcohol is nothing new in Britain. In the past twenty years, concerns about alcohol and young people have resurfaced in the form of issues related to binge drinking. In the early 2000s, the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit (2003) defined 'binge drinking' as the consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol (six units for females and eight units for males) on one occasion. [4] The Prime Minister's Strategy Unit (2004) determined that young people binge drink the most in comparison with other age groups; among those between the ages of 18 and 24, only one-quarter of women and one-sixth of men reported that they do not participate in binge drinking (Critcher, 2011). Measham and Brain (2005) note four central developments in the trend towards a 'new culture of intoxication' in Britain during the 1990s and early 2000s: (1) the rebranding of alcohol as a psychoactive drug in order to compete with rave drugs; (2) the creation of new alcoholic drinks, such as alcopops, buzz drinks, and shots; (3) drunkenness becoming a desired state, especially among young people; and (4) the growth of night-time economies which provided young people with more opportunities to consume excessive amounts of alcohol. Government officials and alcohol awareness charities raised concern about this trend, focusing on health issues, such as alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related injuries, and the connection between young binge drinkers and disorder and violence (Jayne et al., 2006; Hobbs et al., 2005; Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, 2004).

The neknomination craze connects with the binge-drinking narrative in Britain. In early 2014, the neknomination drinking game rose in popularity in Australia and the United Kingdom, eventually spreading to other parts of the world, including the United States, and Canada. The drinking game was popular among young people, and involved recording a video of oneself 'neking' or rapidly consuming alcohol in an extreme or wild manner. The drinker would then upload their video to social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, and nominate others to repeat the process within 24 hours. The drinking game raised concern among government officials, police, alcohol awareness charities, and citizens. Some concerns about the drinking game centred on moral issues, such as responsibility, decency, and family values, while other concerns dealt with health risks, such as alcohol poisoning, death, and injuries resulting from risky behaviour.


For this study, I conducted a discourse analysis of newspaper articles, statements issued by government officials, and statements and facts sheets issued by alcohol awareness charities. I examined 28 articles from the Daily Mail, 58 articles from the Daily Mirror, and 34 articles from the Sun.[5] Purposive sampling was used to select articles that related to the topic of neknominations. All primary data selected for this study was produced between January 2014 and December 2014. Discourse analysis was selected for data analysis following Critcher's (2008; 2009; 2011) theoretical developments of moral panic and moral regulation, namely that moral panics should be seen as instances of risk discourses within processes of moral regulation.[6] Primary data was examined by covering three areas typical of discourse analysis: (1) central and re-occurring themes; (2) disruptions, variations, and disagreements; and (3) implicit exclusions and silences (Tonkiss, 2004: 378). The following analysis looks at discursive formations surrounding the neknomination craze and binge drinking in Britain.

Analysis: moral panic and moral regulation

Moral panic: the attributional model

Goode and Ben-Yehuda claim that during a moral panic there is 'a heightened level of concern over the behaviour of a certain group' (2009: 37). Concern is indicated by several measures, such as media coverage, public commentary in news media, lobbying activity, opinion polls, social movement activity, etc. Several of these measures were present with the neknomination craze. Following the first neknomination-related death in February 2014, the drinking game received significant news coverage for the remainder of the month; neknominations were featured in ten articles in the Daily Mail, 44 articles in the Daily Mirror, and 26 articles in the Sun. Public commentary was present in news media coverage of the craze, especially from family members of those whose death was connected to the drinking game. Family members drew upon moral narratives of decency, respect, and family values when pleading others not only to refrain from playing the game, but also to join their efforts to have the game banned (Layton, 2014; Carty, 2014). Alcohol awareness charities such as Alcohol Concern, Kaleidoscope and Drink Aware used health concerns surrounding the neknomination craze in order to lobby for 'minimum unit pricing' of alcoholic beverages, and for social media to ban the posting of neknomination videos and any groups that promoted the drinking game (Chorley, 2014a). The UK health minister and the UK Local Government Association (LGA) issued public warnings about the health risks of the drinking game, and called on social media to post warnings about such dangers (Chorley, 2014b; Richards, 2014).

The second feature of any moral panic is hostility towards a deviant group who are 'collectively designated as the enemy [...] of respectable society' (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2009: 38). This dichotomisation often involves stereotyping and generates 'folk devils' and 'folk heroes' in a 'morality play of good versus evil' (2009: 38). The neknomination craze, however, lacks any such clearly defined or convincing folk devil. Before proceeding, we should consider the context of binge drinking. Critcher argues that binge drinkers are not compelling folk devils because otherwise ordinary and even respectable citizens would also be considered folk devils (2011: 182). Critcher adds that binge drinkers do not significantly threaten the 'moral order'. For instance, while paedophiles are convincing folk devils because they can be portrayed as evil and as posing a serious threat to the moral order, binge drinkers are not convincing folk devils because they are not 'intrinsically' threatening (2009: 26).

The neknomination craze parallels several of Critcher's claims about binge drinkers and folk devils.[7] First, those who participated in the neknomination craze do not qualify as evil in virtue of their participation in the craze. Instead, claims-makers, such as police, government officials and concerned parents, deemed those who took part in the craze to be 'reckless', 'irrational' and 'stupid' (Richards, 2014; Gye, 2014). Moreover, those whose death was linked to the game were portrayed by family members as respectable citizens: 'he was kind, generous and funny, everybody loved him [...] he would do anything to help anybody' (Ellicott et al., 2014). Thus the craze included people who were constructed as reckless, ordinary, or even respectable citizens. Second, given that participants of the drinking craze are not constructed as evil, it is doubtful that they can be seen as posing a significant threat to the moral order or basic values. This is not to say that participants did not pose some (minimal) moral threat. Indeed, their 'reckless' behaviour had potentially negative consequences (e.g. death, alcohol poisoning, bodily injury, etc.) that would affect their friends, family, and themselves. As the father of one participant whose death was linked to the game put it, 'our [family's] lives will never be the same again [...] for us, life is virtually over' (Wetzel, 2014). Similar to the concern raised about disorderly behaviour by binge drinkers in city centres at night (Measham and Brain, 2005; Szmigin et al., 2008), neknomination participants also posed a threat to public space, albeit to a lesser degree given that their threat was not predicated on violent behaviour. Instead, neknominations occasionally resulted in the disruption of everyday activities through obscene behaviour such as stripping down to one's underwear in a public place (Beal, 2014). As with binge drinking, however, the behaviour of neknomination participants and its ramifications 'simply [did] not touch enough people on a day-to-day basis for them to feel it [had] sufficient resonance' (Critcher, 2009: 26).

Third, Goode and Ben-Yehuda note that in any moral panic there must be consensus across certain segments of society that there is a real or serious threat caused by the members of the wrongdoing group and their behaviour (2009: 38). While the neknomination craze lacks a convincing folk devil, there was still consensus across certain sections of society about (1) the problematic relationship between young people and alcohol, and (2) the solution of banning neknominations on social media. In particular, four groups demonstrated consensus about these problems and solutions: news media, citizens, interest groups, and political figures. First, as previously noted, news media covered the neknomination craze extensively in 2014. Second, several of the news articles about neknominations were shared via social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and GooglePlus, thousands of times; the top three articles were shared 49,762, 48,983, and 22,279 times, respectively (Ellicot et al., 2014; Hartley-Parkinson, 2014a; Daily Mail Reporter, 2014). Family and friends of those who died from the craze started a Facebook group titled 'Ban Neknominations', which was 'liked' by over 28,000 people between February 2014 and March 2014. Third, alcohol awareness charities, such as Kaleidoscope, Drink Aware and Alcohol Concern, either released statements or fact sheets about the health risks associated with the game, and advised ways in which action could be taken against the game, such as by refusing to participate, untagging oneself from neknomination posts, and by calling on social media to review their policies (Drink Aware, 2014; Ellicott, 2014; Hartley-Parkinson, 2014a). Fourth, the UK health minister and the UK LGA released statements about the health risks of the game, and called on social media to review their policies. Given the sources of consensus, the craze reflects a hybrid interest group and grassroots model because alcohol awareness charities and concerned citizens were the primary campaigners of neknomination-related issues; government officials played a lesser role in that they only released brief press statements.[8]

Goode and Ben-Yehuda claim that concern about the threat posed by deviant actors and behaviours must be disproportional or in excess of what would be appropriate if concern were proportional to objective harm (2009: 40). Disproportionality during the craze was evident in at least two ways.[9] First, some news articles portrayed binge drinking and drinking-related deaths as a 'worsening problem' in the UK (Chorley, 2014a). In actuality, however, not only have binge-drinking rates decreased among young people in the UK since 2007, but the number of drinking-related deaths have also decreased over the past ten years (Office for National Statistics, 2014; Institute of Alcohol Studies, 2013a; Institute of Alcohol Studies, 2013b). These disproportional claims are similar to those made during the onset of widespread public anxiety about binge drinking in 2004, when binge drinking was constructed by the media as being 'out of control', when in reality there was a 'sustained decline in average British alcohol consumption' (Yeomans, 2013: 111). Second, news coverage of neknomination-related deaths far surpassed coverage of other, more serious issues about alcohol and death during this time period. News coverage of the craze focused mainly on short-term risks of drinking large quantities of alcohol on one occasion (e.g. alcohol poisoning and accidental injury or death), while other, more substantial and long-term health issues were overlooked. Deaths related to 'accidental poisoning by and exposure to alcohol' only account for 20.5% of alcohol-related deaths for people aged 20–29, whereas long-term effects such as alcoholic liver disease account for over 60% of deaths for people aged 20–29 (Office for National Statistics, 2014). Not only was alcohol-related liver disease only mentioned in two articles about neknominations in 2014, it received minimal news coverage during the height of the craze between February 2014 and March 2014. Including articles about neknominations, alcohol-related liver disease was only discussed four times in the Daily Mail, three times in the Daily Mirror, and three times in the Sun.[10]

The final feature of moral panics that Goode and Ben-Yehuda outline is 'volatility'. They claim that moral panics 'erupt fairly suddenly (although they may lie dormant [...] for long periods of time, and may reappear from time to time) and, nearly as suddenly, subside' (2009: 41). With neknominations, several concerns surrounding binge drinking, such as moral issues and health risks, re-emerged. However, there was no mention of other, previous alcohol-related issues, such as alcohol-related violence. Concern about neknominations skyrocketed in February 2014; prior to February, the drinking game was only discussed in one article by each the Daily Mirror, the Daily Mail, and the Sun. In March 2014, media coverage of the craze dwindled to only being covered in two or fewer articles by each in the same three newspapers. With the exception of a few news articles in August and September and a statement released by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) that criticised those who had committed animal cruelty in their neknomination video (West, 2014), discussion of the craze remained minimal for the remainder of 2014. Moreover, the 'Ban Neknomination' Facebook group steadily decreased both in the number of people discussing the group and liking the group since its creation in early February 2014. In 2014, the average number of discussions about the group on Facebook dwindled from several hundred per day in February and March to approximately one hundred per day in April, and the average number of likes decreased from several hundred per day in February to approximately ten to thirty likes per day in April. Following this, the group only made two posts, both of which received negligible attention from Facebook users.

Moral regulation: moral order, social control and ethical self-regulation

In addition to questions about moral panic, we can extend our scope of analysis about the neknomination craze to include questions of moral regulation. In what follows I argue that the neknomination panic is a qualified intermediary instance of risk discourses within a process of moral regulation.[11] Having already argued that neknomination participants posed a low threat to the moral order, I focus this sub-section on Critcher's other features of moral regulation.

The second concept that Critcher identifies for differentiating issues of moral regulation is 'social control'. This criterion focuses on the extent to which issues of moral regulation 'are discursively constructed as amenable to resolution by mechanisms of social control' (2009: 27). Critcher outlines a threefold typology for differentiating cases of social control. First, there are high-ranking cases in which social control is an effective measure because legislation can be passed that secures punishment, such as in the case of violent crime. Second, there are mid-ranking cases in which 'social control is problematic' since laws are seen as 'inappropriate in principle or difficult to implement', such as with recreational drugs 'where punishment is known not to be a deterrent' (2009: 28). Third, there are low-ranking cases in which social control via legal measures are not feasible ways of securing compliance, such as in the case of obesity.

The neknomination craze best reflects the mid-ranking category of social control. For one, concerns about the negative effects of binge drinking from the craze coincide with the use of recreational drugs because (potential) legal consequences are also relatively ineffective deterrents of binge drinking (Critcher, 2011), and because the game itself does not require consuming 'excessive' amounts of alcohol. Furthermore, legal consequences may not be warranted for the neknomination craze given that the game may take place in private spaces where intoxication is legally permissible. Nevertheless, neknominations have involved individuals being disorderly in public, drinking in public, and/or intoxicated in public spaces in an attempt to carry out wild or extreme stunts (Garratt, 2014; Webb, 2014). In one article, a lawyer raised concerns about the possibility that nominators could be prosecuted if the nominee was harmed from participating in the drinking game (Wheatstone, 2014). Law enforcement officials cast doubts on the likelihood of such cases taking place (ibid), and it turned out that no charges of this nature were filed against nominators. While those who committed acts of animal cruelty against goldfish, frogs, and lizards in their neknomination were charged (Perrie, 2014a; Boyle, 2014), such acts are not necessary features of the game, and were only performed by a small minority of neknomination participants. Efforts to ban the posting of neknomination videos on social media were also unsuccessful. In response to those who called for the banning of neknomination videos, Facebook issued the following statement: 'We do not tolerate content which is directly harmful [...] but controversial or offensive behavior is not necessarily against our rules' (Daily Mail Reporter, 2014). Thus while the drinking game could be banned in principle, efforts to ban it failed in practice.

The third concept that Critcher identifies for distinguishing issues of moral regulation is 'self-regulation'. Self-regulation is concerned with 'the discursive construction of the balance between (externally imposed) moral regulation and (internally generated) ethical self-formation' (2009: 28). The distinction between moral regulation and ethical self-formation comes from Foucault, whereby the former designates formal activities that are directed at the other, and the latter points to the ways in which one monitors actions of the self (ibid). In this way, the third concept is related to 'governmentality', or the extent to which the moral regulation of others is constructed as requiring ethical self-formation (2009: 26). Critcher also outlines a threefold typology for self-regulation. First, there are high-ranking cases in which ethical regulation involves governing oneself 'based on exhortation that does not involve the control of others', such as in the case of health issues (e.g. obesity) (2009: 29). Second, there are mid-ranking cases in which regulation involves a balance of actions directed at the self and at others, such as with binge drinking. Third, there are low-ranking cases in which regulation is directed towards others' actions, but are only rarely and implicitly directed at the self, such as with paedophilia.

The neknomination craze reflects the mid-level category of ethical self-regulation because the problems associated with and the proposed solutions to neknominations were directed both towards the self and towards others. Concerns about health risks associated with neknominations, such as death, alcohol poisoning, and bodily injury, invite one to consider the potentially negative consequences of participating in the craze. Other concerns that invited ethical self-regulation focused on the risk of failing to secure employment due to involvement with the drinking game (White and Burrows, 2014). In regards to governmentality, the promotion of 'responsible' drinking as a solution to the neknomination craze (Drink Aware, 2014; Hartley-Parkinson, 2014b) is 'an invitation to subjects to monitor and "adjust" their own behaviour' (Critcher, 2008: 1141). Other proposed solutions that require individuals to monitor their own behaviour included removing oneself from neknomination-related Facebook posts (Drink Aware, 2014). Not surprisingly, responses to the neknomination game echo discursive constructions of the binge-drinking problem in the early 2000s, where policies such as 'Safe, Sensible, Social' by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) proposed solutions that included sensible and responsible drinking (Hackley et al., 2008).

Problems with neknominations also included the consideration of others. By participating in the drinking game one 'threatens' others not only in terms of empathetic responses from friends and family at the potential of harm incurred by oneself, but also because participation in the game requires nominating others to follow suit. After completing the neknomination, one is required to nominate others to engage in the same 'risky' behaviour, and thus one is invited to consider the ways that their actions might have negative consequences for others. One of the proposed solutions to neknominations – banning the game on social media – called upon 'responsible' others not only to 'like' the Facebook group, but also to promote the group to others in the hopes that a collective effort would help do away with the 'risky' drinking game. Likewise, the Sun and concerned citizens jointly spearheaded an effort to revamp neknominations into a 'morally praiseworthy' activity. With the slogan 'Can YOU follow suit?' (Perrie, 2014b), they called on others to replace neknominations with 'nicenominations' – a game in which one is challenged to do a 'good deed' instead of neking a drink and then is encouraged to 'nominate a pal to do the same' (Quinton, 2014). Both the problems with and solutions to the neknomination drinking game drew on themes present in binge-drinking policy discourses in the early 2000s, which included '"shared responsibility" for implementing a "cultural change"' (Hackley et al., 2008: 61). Neknominations were not only seen as symptomatic of Britain's problem with binge drinking, but proposed solutions to the game also evoked themes of collective responsibility in order to prevent further neknomination-related harms in the form of bans and efforts to redefine the game.


In this article I have argued that while the neknomination craze exemplified many criteria of a moral panic, it lacked a folk devil. These conclusions can be used to defend moral panic theory against several of its critics. For one, despite those who argue that moral panic is not a useful concept for understanding binge drinking (Plant and Plant, 2006), it has proven fruitful for exploring neknominations within the broader binge-drinking narrative.[12] Furthermore, 'disproportionality' still has conceptual merit for examining instances of a moral panic in spite of those who argue we ought to do away with such a criterion (Hier, 2008; Hunt, 1999). In regards to neknominations, disproportionality has proven useful for scrutinising how claims-makers have represented the drinking game by making incorrect statements and by focusing on arguably less serious health risks. The neknomination craze also serves as an example that can be used to defend Goode and Ben-Yehuda's attributional model against those (Hunt, 1999) who claim that moral panic theory tends towards offering conspiracy theories. Far from being a phenomenon constructed by an elite, the neknomination craze was driven primarily by concerned citizens and interest groups.

In order to further moral panic analysis, we should follow Critcher's proposition to view moral panics as instances of risk-oriented discourse within broader processes of moral regulation. Conceptualising moral panics in this way can help address the ways in which some panics have deviant actors that fail to fit the standard folk-devil typology. In the case of neknominations, while participants were not intrinsically threatening, their behaviour still evoked a degree of societal anxiety, marking them as a relatively low threat to the moral order. The craze also acts as a confirming instance of the usefulness behind the other two concepts that constitute Critcher's approach to moral regulation. In particular, neknominations ranked in the mid-range section of the threefold typology for both social control and ethical self-regulation. Accordingly, I conclude that the neknomination craze is a qualified intermediary instance of risk discourses within a process of moral regulation against excessive alcohol consumption in Britain.


I would like to thank Dr Penelope Ironstone and the reviewers of Reinvention: An International Journal of Undergraduate Research for their helpful comments on this article.


[1] William Webb is a student and teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, and Co-Editor-In-Chief of the Laurier Undergraduate Journal of the Arts.

[2] Constructionists tended towards either 'strict constructionism', which rejected objective accounts of social problems and emphasised definitional processes, or 'contextual constructionism', which focused on both the reality behind the constructions of problems and the constructions themselves (Critcher, 2008: 1131).

[3] These criteria will be explained in the following section.

[4] Units are calculated by multiplying the 'number of millilitres in a drink' by 'the alcohol by volume (%)' (Institute of Alcohol Studies, 2013). Academics, however, have criticised the term 'binge drinking' due to its 'pseudoscientific definition and negative connotations' (Critcher, 2011: 177).

[5] This study examines tabloid print sources, and not broadsheets. From the ten most widely circulated tabloid newspapers in Britain, three were randomly selected for analysis. It must be noted that tabloids are geared to more sensationalistic news stories than broadsheets, but the analysis still holds given that (1) it provides a deeper analysis of these news sources than simply deeming them sensationalistic, and (2) several other types of sources are also examined (e.g. reports from alcohol awareness charities, statements from political figures, initiatives by citizens, etc.).

[6] Scholars such as Hunt (1999), Hier (2008), and Yeomans (2013) also emphasize the importance of analysing discourse.

[7] It should be noted that other possible folk devils, such as the alcohol industry or social media companies, were not constructed as such in the primary sources examined in this study.

[8] The LGA claimed it would launch an internet safety campaign that would offer advice and support for parents and young people on alcohol-related issues (Local Government Association, 2014). This campaign, however, has yet to launch. Accordingly, it is not considered a significant factor that contributed to the neknomination panic during its height in February 2014.

[9] This is not to suggest that some of claims made about neknominations by alcohol awareness charities and government officials did not raise legitimate concerns about binge drinking. For instance, the leading cause of death for 20–34 year olds in England and Wales is suicide and poisoning, of which one of the main contributing factors is 'alcohol misuse' (Office for National Statistics, 2013a).

[10] It might also be argued that claims that the drinking game would likely result in death or serious health injuries were disproportional to the actual harm brought about by the game. This is not to claim that no harm or deaths resulted from the game, merely that these claims were disproportional to the reality of the risk. Such a point, however, exceeds the primary source material covered in the scope of this paper.

[11] The drinking game craze is 'qualified' in the sense that neknomination participants rank low in terms of threat to the moral order.

[12] See Critcher (2011) for a defence of moral panic theory and binge drinking against critics such as Plant and Plant (2006) and Measham and Brain (2005).


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To cite this paper please use the following details: Webb, W. (2015), 'Moral Panic and Neknominations in Great Britain', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 8, Issue 1, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.