Targeting Demographic Data to Skew Reality: Book Censorship News, February 16, 2024

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

We know that the groups and individuals behind book bans are angling for more than just books. The books are an easy target since they require significant investment on behalf of schools and libraries to move through a review process. Books have always been low-hanging fruit for censors throughout history because they represent information, they represent ideas, and they represent the world around us. We must keep in mind that while book banning is one big issue unto itself, it’s but a branch on the larger tree to systematically topple publicly funded, democratic institutions like schools and libraries.

But one thing that has not quite been touched enough related to the targeting of these institutions is this: far-right groups seeking book bans, eliminating trans bathroom rights, eliminating trans sports rights, canning diversity equity and inclusion initiatives, and ending social-emotional learning, among other things, have been purposefully targeting surveys designed to help understand who our current generation of young people really are, including their beliefs, their identities, and their dreams, goals, and desires for the future before them.

Thanks to PEW Research, we know that as of 2021, one-quarter of today’s teens openly identify somewhere beneath the LGBTQ+ umbrella. PEW is also responsible for shedding insight into the racial diversity of today’s young people. 52% of teenagers are white and non-Hispanic, compared to 61% of Millennials when they were teenagers; 70% of Generation X when they were teenagers; and 82% of Boomers when they were teenagers. One-quarter of today’s teens are Hispanic, while 14% are Black, 6% are Asian, and 5% have two or more racial identities. Roughly 6% of today’s teens are immigrants, and 22% are the children of immigrants. That information is as of 2020. This kind of data is not only useful for understanding young people’s everyday experiences in the classroom, but it’s essential for ensuring that today’s culture reflects and shares that diversity. A 1990s curriculum or library collection does not appropriately serve 2024 students.

That is precisely why there has been a major push for the last several years by the same people banning books to opt their young people out of surveys distributed by educational institutions. These surveys are how groups like PEW and others learn about a large swath of people. The information gathered is anonymous and meant to provide insight into our ever-changing demographics.

To be clear, these surveys are not only useful for PEW. They’re used by researchers across many institutions and organizations. But just as people angle to ban books they don’t want kids to have access to, falsehoods and mischaracterizations about these surveys abound. There is this idea these surveys are not only indoctrination but that they “target” kids and “steal” their information. Neither of these is true, of course, but truth has never been a concern here.

Image of the Illinois Youth Survey's first page.

Pictured above is the first page of one of these surveys. This is the Illinois Youth Survey, distributed to 8th graders at participating schools; you can look at the entire survey here. The survey was created by the Illinois Department of Health to gather health and social data, which helps in so many capacities. Not only do we get a sense of things like changing demographics of today’s youth. We also are able to see trends in health — are kids smoking fewer cigarettes but using vapes more than the same kids ten years ago? Are more kids living in “non-traditional” households? This kind of data helps the government figure out what initiatives to fund in order to meet the needs of its people.

Book banners push for opting out of these surveys under the belief that the government is trying to groom or indoctrinate their children because of health and social behavior questions. Does asking a student how they identify make them suddenly change their gender? It doesn’t. If asking anyone a basic question were enough to entice them to change themselves, therapy would be a lot cheaper, quicker, and accessible to all — it could come in the form of a questionnaire.

As parents push to end survey use, they skew the data. Skewing the data erases reality — and it’s particularly perplexing because it seems like the opt-out contingent would be proud to have their students’ voices heard if their “strong Christian family values” were carried forward with their children. But perhaps that’s just it. The fear that their students may identify or report living through experiences that aren’t the ones being pushed by their parents is why they want their kids to opt out. They’d rather silence their own children’s voices than have those same children have a voice at all.

Screen shot of parental comments about opting out of surveys.
Research done by experts in the field of mental health does not list or believe that merely asking people whether or not they participate in an activity will encourage them to. See also suicide.

Moreover, this opt-out push obfuscates what can be known, studied, and explained about young people. If enough parents opt their kids out of the surveys, then those same parents do two things. First, they can point to data and say it isn’t representative because it only shows the information from the parents who didn’t protect their rights and opt their child out (i.e., “you keep saying 25% of today’s teenagers are LGBTQ+ but you’re only asking the kids who would say that”). Then, they can say that the data used to help guide curriculum and collection decisions is indoctrination because it does not take their specific beliefs into account. They own the cycle.

Those are, of course, the same people who parrot the lies that today’s kids can’t read at grade level and point to standardized test scores — data acquired exactly the same way.

Book banners don’t want to know the truths their kids live because it strips them, the parents, of their power. So, to hold onto that power, they aid in erasing the truths of an entire generation out of fear that their own kid might fill in a bubble that mom or dad believes should be eradicated altogether.

It’s hard to know the truth when, at every turn, they’re working hard to make the truth impossible to find.

Book Censorship News: February 16, 2024