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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Irrational Fear of Risks Against Our Children

Irrational Fear of Risks Against Our Children Schneier on Security

There's a horrible story of a South Carolina mother arrested for letting her 9-year-old daughter play alone at a park while she was at work. The article linked to another article about a woman convicted of "contributing to the delinquency of a minor" for leaving her 4-year-old son in the car for a few minutes. That article contains some excellent commentary by the very sensible Free Range Kidsblogger Lenore Skenazy:

"Listen," she said at one point. "Let's put aside for the moment that by far, the most dangerous thing you did to your child that day was put him in a car and drive someplace with him. About 300 children are injured in traffic accidents every day -- and about two die. That’s a real risk. So if you truly wanted to protect your kid, you'd never drive anywhere with him. But let’s put that aside. So you take him, and you get to the store where you need to run in for a minute and you’re faced with a decision. Now, people will say you committed a crime because you put your kid 'at risk.' But the truth is, there’s some risk to either decision you make.” She stopped at this point to emphasize, as she does in much of her analysis, how shockingly rare the abduction or injury of children in non-moving, non-overheated vehicles really is. For example, she insists that statistically speaking, it would likely take 750,000 years for a child left alone in a public space to be snatched by a stranger. "So there is some risk to leaving your kid in a car," she argues. It might not be statistically meaningful but it’s not nonexistent. The problem is,"she goes on, "there's some risk to every choice you make. So, say you take the kid inside with you. There’s some risk you'll both be hit by a crazy driver in the parking lot. There’s some risk someone in the store will go on a shooting spree and shoot your kid. There’s some risk he'll slip on the ice on the sidewalk outside the store and fracture his skull. There’s some risk no matter what you do. So why is one choice illegal and one is OK? Could it be because the one choice inconveniences you, makes your life a little harder, makes parenting a little harder, gives you a little less time or energy than you would have otherwise had?"

Later on in the conversation, Skenazy boils it down to this. "There’s been this huge cultural shift. We now live in a society where most people believe a child can not be out of your sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision. This shift is not rooted in fact. It’s not rooted in any true change. It’s imaginary. It’s rooted in irrational fear."

Skenazy has some choice words about the South Carolina story as well:

But, "What if a man would've come and snatched her?" said a woman interviewed by the TV station.

To which I must ask: In broad daylight? In a crowded park? Just because something happened on Law & Order doesn't mean it's happening all the time in real life. Make "what if?" thinking the basis for an arrest and the cops can collar anyone. "You let your son play in the front yard? What if a man drove up and kidnapped him?" "You let your daughter sleep in her own room? What if a man climbed through the window?" etc.

These fears pop into our brains so easily, they seem almost real. But they're not. Our crime rate today is back to what it was when gas was 29 cents a gallon, according to The Christian Science Monitor. It may feel like kids are in constant danger, but they are as safe (if not safer) than we were when our parents let us enjoy the summer outside, on our own, without fear of being arrested.


It's implied, but just to be clear, it's the same as the irrational fear of terrorism that drives worldwide human society on this steady march toward giving up any and all freedom and liberty and human rights forever.

The world has gone crazy!
From the age of 7, I walked to and from school alone! From aged 8, when I got back from school, I'd go to the park to play Tennis/Cricket/Football until it was dark! (Back in the 1980s)
These people are slaves to their fears! 
What a miserable time to be a child!
What a miserable time to be a parent!

Personally, I blame the all pervasive 24hr News-cycle, coupled to lawyers suing everyone for negligence, for terrifying people

Great. I can't wait to go to jail when my forthcoming child is raised similar to I was: Taught self-control, instead of have control exerted on you constantly. Great.

Who controls fear and bread has the power...

How many children died of being in an overheated car when they were allowed to legally be in the front seat (and we can disable air bags today)? Also, mothers of newborns seem to have a "distracted driver" problem worse than texting. We need to get every new mother a pickup without a back seat (where it is legal to keep the child in the front).

Old story: real risk versus psychological perception of risk. Was discussed multiple times on this respected blog related to other risks.

NobodySpecial • August 11, 2014 10:53 AM

>But, "What if a man would've come and snatched her?" said a woman interviewed by the TV station.

This is why we need to arm infants now.

Bill Hovingh • August 11, 2014 10:55 AM

Disappointed that the CSM article on lowered crime rates didn't mention the strong correlation between the decrease in crime and the reduction in environmental lead.

This pre-dates social media. I suspect it's all the negative news stories we cannot avoid on TV, radio and in print.

Negative media has always been there since the dawn of time... Increased accessibility of it via the internet and sharing via social media could be new though.

Everyone is quick to blame media saturation for the current climate of fear surrounding children.

I have to wonder if it's not really down to two other factors, though:

* Having nothing substantial to fear. No cold war, no worries that Johnny won't get back from Iwo-Jima, no polio, small-pox, etc. This just leaves the boogey-man.

* Having fewer children. When you had 4-5 kids, I'm not sure you expected them all to make it. They also did a good job of protecting each other. Overall, you were much less worried about each one.

Jarrod Frates • August 11, 2014 11:10 AM

While I completely agree with the article, I think it misses the question of necessary risks--those which deal with imminent threat of harm--while it discusses acceptable risks--those which deal with possible threat of harm.

Let us presume that there is a real need to go to the store because the house is out of food. Let us also presume that no one else can go to the store for her. Not going to the store means almost certainly inflicting harm upon the child by not feeding him. Therefore, the parent chooses to go to the store for food. There is greater risk in leaving the child at home (a 4-year-old left unsupervised in the home can get in all kinds of trouble, some involving injury, some not), so the mother takes the son with her. Going to the store entails a necessary risk (to both) of getting into an accident.

At this point, we get into acceptable risks. It is not necessary for the child to accompany the mother while she gets food. Neither is it necessary for the child to remain outside while she gets food. Either way (barring outside interference), the mother is going to buy food and return to the car.

What is the risk of child abduction in the car, compared to the risk of abduction in the store? There is, of course, a reason that Code Adam exists. A child who wanders off in the store can be (more or less) easily taken outside by a stranger.

It's hard to find exact numbers of children abducted based on location, but the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children mentioned that in 1999, when crime rates were significantly higher than today, a mere 115 children out of more than 250,000 abducted children were "stereotypical" kidnappings involving the child being "held overnight, transported 50 miles or more, killed, ransomed or held with the intent to keep the child permanently." Of those 115, how many happened from parking lots?

This needs to be compared to the number of children injured or killed in accidents within stores. My suspicion is that, aside from obvious factors like extreme temperatures (children have been killed by cold in winter), it may be mathematically safer to leave the kids in the car for a few minutes, though the difference will probably not be statistically significant, just like the risk of "stereotypical" abduction from either location is not statistically significant.

When it gets to temperatures, we will in many cases be moving back to the necessary risk point. If the outside temperature is 70F and the child is left in the car for a few minutes, harm is unlikely. But the warmer it gets, the more likely the harm. Leaving a child in the car when it's 90F or warmer outside starts turning the risk of taking the child into the store from an acceptable risk into a necessary risk. That's a discussion worth having.

Old story but now parents are being arrested for it. It's one thing for the government to waste billions of dollars on terrorism (more like "terrorism") fetishism but now a couple of parents have been arrested. It's time for action!

I'm not really joking but it's way past time for the average person to realize how bad the human brain is at risk analysis and to, you know, think about stuff instead of gut reacting.

It may take stories like these to make people look at society and figure out we've gone too far. Then again, they may just keep thinking how much better they are than those *other* parents and hover even more.

Risk is a moral category.

Pointing out that the actions aren't rational; that the actual probability is incredibly small and much smaller than other risks that are commonly accepted misses the point. It changes nothing. Will all those people thinking/behaving irrationally all of a sudden have a Damascus moment? I think not. Risk is a technology that manufactures social reality. It is a technology of control. Ask instead: what do the discourses and practices of risk do? What sort of social relationships do they create?

Brilliant. You made me snort my Cola...

What children have to fear the most are their own parents and siblings. These are the ones that can do the most damage to a child.

Another related issue is the sex offender registry. Not only does the sex offender registry not solve anything - the vast majority of child abuse cases and abductions are by family members, and the vast majority of offenders are not registered sex offenders - but the ease of getting on the registry means that even people who no one in their right mind would consider a danger (such as a teenager who has taken nude pictures of themself or has nude pictures of their boyfriend or girlfriend, or someone who urinates in public) are branded for life as a sex offender and are subject to arcane restrictions.

As implied above, modern media and communication fuels some of this fear. Not usually maliciously or even deliberately, just by nature of modern technology.

Decades prior, an abduction would be a local report, in a local newspaper, in local news. Even local citizens may not know it until that evening or the next day. Now, in the modern world, a local abduction will be on television, radio, internet, facebook, twitter, cell phone alerts, etc. It's understandable that pictures of the child and abductor (if known) will be posted and shared and passed on to increase the chance of finding them.

Since they can travel at 70 mph and literally be hundreds of miles away, having pictures outrun the perpetrator is in many ways a good thing. A pedophile assaulted a child in a Chicago Wal Mart a few years ago, and was found in Oklahoma hours a couple days later.

In many ways, having a potential perpetrator feel that he can't outrun technology and cannot hide anywhere with his picture a national buzz is probably a pretty strong deterrent.

However, none of the positives change the fact that our kids are relatively safe now. There are nearly 100 million children in this country, and one tragedy does not put them all at risk. Let kids be kids.

Disclosure: I walked to and from kindergarten alone in the 1960s. In a city in Europe. I had to cross streets. (But traffic was light then)

It sounds to me as if the current trend is to get children used to be locked up 24/7 until they are 16 (21?).

I think paldubee has it. Worrying about strangers and kids is a great way to displace concern about non-strangers and kids. At my sons' daycare a few years back, they were handing out a book called "Keep Your Child Safe"; most of it was about the obvious not leaving poisons around, putting infant gates on stairs and suchlike. But there was one chapter that started by saying "The vast majority of deliberate injuries to children are from family members, but we're not going to talk about that, instead we're going to talk about how to be paranoid with your kid around strangers."

There are also a lot of ways that our surroundings (in the US at least) have gotten more hostile to children, with suburban sprawl, higher speed limits on secondary roads, relatively fewer people living in walking distance from parks or schools. It's a lot more comforting to focus on danger from outside than on danger from the choices we've collectively made.

The analysis seems too simplistic.
The Child's status has also morphed a lot since fuel was much cheaper.
You had bigger broods, presumably from which one or two could go missing or be damaged without the world ending; damaged and lost children, while individually as greatly felt a pain as ever they will be, were a more salvable loss with spares.

There is also a marked fetishisation of The Child by the army of what many call loosely the Godbags. There is a definite smell of witch-hunting in the air over childhood/babyhood in general these days, and the more a parent can be made to feel transgressive, the easier the Godbags find it to control them.
Marketers are not leaving it alone either.

Thus the risks these days around leaving these appreciating assets unattended may be a diminishingly small thing, but the sequelae of the loss of such great assets are feared differently enough currently as to make people loath to risk such loss. 
This is the reverse kind of situation to that of spending big on tickets in a lottery that has vanishingly tiny odds for a single jackpot win.
Both appear a bit nuts, but the big loss is as bad a prospect as the big win is a magnet; both have the promise of huge positive or negative payoffs and induce inflated responses that seem at first look to be irrational.

Which all makes for even happier hunting grounds for the criminal, since the truly neglected child is so much easier to spot and nab when the rest of their peers are safely chained to their running wires.
We kids also used to look out for each other. Safety in large groups of our peers was no small thing.

Some will surely find the following remark tendentious but honesty requires its full consideration.

This nonsense is what happens when society gives women the right to vote.

Some will immediately point out the it is a woman who is quoted in the article from Free Range Kids but that is the exception that illustrates the rule. People keep talking about "irrational fears" ignoring that most of those irrational fears steam from women, particularly post-menopausal women. The West may be going to hell in a handbasket, as a friend of mine stated, but how much of such dissatisfaction directly coincides with the rise of women in public life and the need for politicians to cater to their fears? I recognize, of course, that coincidence doesn't equal causation. My point is that it is a thesis that should not be dismissed out of hand as sexist. We keep talking about security theater and irrational fear without seriously looking at what is causing those fears to manifest themselves in public life at this point in world history.

@Daniel: Women in the US obtained the right to vote on August 18, 1920. Your claim is dishonest nonsense.

The parents are clearly immoral because they are shirking their responsibility for educating the child. The issue isn't that some terrible harm might befall the child, that the child might be kidnapped or worse. It is that if the child doesn't grow up its own miniature surveillance state, its own private family panoption, how will he or she come to accept the world of Facebook, Google, corporate employment and the NSA as normal?

Have you considered the very real possibility that the reason you hear about these stories is to ridicule the police officer involved, who may be charging the woman for letting her child play in the park unattended for reasons entirely outside of the child playing in the park unattended. Race, societal status, maybe her dog barks, maybe she wasn't sufficiently obsequious to the officer. There's a lot of latitude here on the part of the officer not to act like a imbecilic jerk.

We had a similar story locally. It made all the websites. Went international. Yet nobody outside of us locals ever knew our District Attorney declined to prosecute and had some rather harsh words for the police officer involved.


I'd first suggest that you make at least some effort to gather data supporting your thesis, before you attempt to promotes something that, at first (second, and third) glance is so blatantly sexist that one might reasonably suspect that you are trolling. For example: How many of the people who voted for one of the laws in question were post-menopausal women? How about the people who enforced it? How about the judges who meted out sentences under it? Ready data answering questions like these would greatly inform the debate, and change the likelihood of your being instantly dismissed as pernicious example of a sexist.

Second, I'd suggest that you discuss this with my grandmother before you decide to go public with this theory. She may be able to inform your thinking a bit.

Mr. Schneier,

It does my heart good to see stories like this getting negative publicity. The more people speak out against this sort of (ahem) hogwash, the better.

Thank you!

Most people are stupid and have no control over their irrational impulses. That may sound harsh, even misanthropic, but the observable facts support this conclusion pretty well. That is one of the reasons Democracy does not work: Most voters (and I would put down a number of 70-80% here) are easily manipulated by playing on irrational fears. Once some powerful political group has figured that out, that is it. In the US, that group is the Republican-Democrat coalition (two parties so similar and conservative in their views, they would be fractions of the same party anywhere else in the world). They have long since figured that out. No other group then gets a chance until hell freezes over.

The "think of the children" irrational panic is just one aspect of this. Terrorism, human trafficking, child porn on the Internet, drugs, "socialism", etc. all artificially inflated beyond all reason in order to turn most of the population into unthinking, panicked, obedient sheep. And it works incredibly well.

The real tragedy here is that preventing children from learning autonomy, from learning how to deal with situations when they cannot immediately call on a parent and from learning how to frame their own day, is one of the worst forms of child abuse possible and will leave many children scarred for life.

FluffytheObeseCat • August 11, 2014 3:27 PM

Thanks for this post. Fetishizing "protection" of our kids has been an infotainment media cottage industry since the mid 90s. Pushback is long overdue, and it is probably occurring now, not despite, but because of the maturation of interactive media. A growing groundswell of "real people" is finally fighting back against this BS.

Given how long this trend has been rolling, blaming FB et al. for it is frankly bizarre. Nearly as bizarre as "Daniel's" victim-blaming emphasis on "post-menopausal" women. (But, let's BURN THE WITCHES!!! anyway..... for safety's sake ;)

The enforcement of helicopter-parenting on pain of arrest and possible ensuing bankruptcy has more to do with a desire to hobble young working parents (primarily women, since they are the dominant care-givers for the very young) than anything else. It favors the nanny-hiring professional elites, and helps them maintain class distance from more average Americans (who were their predecessors' peers, before we entered our Second Gilded Age).

First, why did the news article have to say "a black woman was arrested"? Are they trying to imply "Oh geez, there goes those blacks again!"? The woman's color has nothing to do with the issue unless they're unfairly profiling her, but that's for another discussion.

Second, I think the whole children are rarely abducted from cars is a bit of a strawman. Perhaps the fact children aren't abducted from cars often is because people aren't leaving them in cars often. If it became commonplace for children to be left in cars, the kidnapping of children in cars might increase. The problem is that the only way to test this hypothesis is to potentially put your child at risk by leaving them in the car.