Look at the website of any contemporary newspaper, and you would be forgiven for thinking that childhood was a very dangerous time of life. On rolling news services we see stories about things like toddlers being shot by stray bullets in Brazil, small children covered in haemorrhagic rashes, and paedophile rings operating in plain sight.
If nothing spectacularly awful has happened in the last 24 hours, news organisations tend to fall back on their tried and tested reserve topics, for example teenage suicide trends, sexting, adolescent computer hacking and school bullying. Readers are enticed to click through to full stories, much to the delight of advertisers. As a species, we are hard-wired to protect children, and in the modern age, this manifests itself through the desire to learn more about potential risks so we can potentially head them off. In the world of 24/7 news, mass media organisations are well-placed to take advantage of this instinct, and marketise it to their advantage.
What makes this more surprising is that, statistically speaking, it has never been a better
time to be a child, at least in industrialised economies. Infant and child mortality rates have improved exponentially over the last century thanks to improved maternity care, antibiotics, and vaccination; education rates have risen and improvements in living standards and modern diet at a population level mean that life expectancy has improved. So why does it seem as though childhood is such a risky business?
As Andy Phippen and I explain in our book Invisibly Blighted: The Digital Erosion of Childhood (published 27 March by UCL IOE Press), it’s because a lot of the time risk is socially constructed, rather than based in statistical fact. For example, if we look carefully at statistical accident data, it’s clear that one of the most dangerous things we could do to children would be to buy them trampolines for their birthdays, or allow them onto bouncy castles. Yet both are relatively mundane activities in the eyes of society.
Meanwhile the statistical risk of molestation by a stranger is vanishingly small. Most crimes of this type are committed by people known to children (when they do happen, which is statistically rare compared to badly broken arms and legs after a bout of back garden trampolining). Yet our fear of molestation is significantly greater than that of bouncy castles, and many parents invoke this as a reason for keeping their children very close to home rather than letting them roam around their local area freely.
The same applies to road safety. If we examine road traffic accident data, given the number of vehicles on the roads, it looks like things are much safer than they were in 1922, when records began. However this is largely because huge numbers of pedestrians and cyclists have stopped using roads as frequently, with many journeys taking place by car instead. The unintended consequence is that when roads are used by children today, it has become more dangerous for them to do so, and there are further consequences in terms of childhood obesity and climate change that might prove even more risky for children down the line. We think we’re keeping our children safe, but it’s only in the short term.
Even though more distant risks might be relatively serious, we don’t tend to think about them in the same way, because close up they just don’t seem as relevant. This underpins a lot of the narrative surrounding what might represent acceptable, as opposed to unacceptable risk. In addition, our desire for control gets in the way. “I could never forgive myself if …” is a phrase that is used to justify various forms of over-protectiveness, and this is rooted in a genuine fear of becoming a victim of some type. Putting measures in place to anticipate even the most unlikely of events allows us to achieve a sense of personal agency in what can be a scary world.
We need to be aware that the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have brought with them a very particular view of risk. This may well be out of step with actual statistical risk, so part of the role of the modern government, academics, and risk professionals should be to challenge this, to reassure individuals whilst promoting individual freedoms. Equally, those in positions of authority need to take responsibility for not over-stating risk to gain a tactical advantage in going about their business. Only then can we ensure our children are truly cared for in an appropriate and effective way.
Photo of children trampolining by Lauren Manning via Creative Commons