Saturday, April 21, 2012

Paranoid Parents and the Fear of Walking to School

I was reading a CDC report today which, while it is a few years old, indicates a clear trend in this country: the rising paranoid delusions of parents concerning the risks to their children. The CDC report was about something that wasn't a controversy when I was young—walking to school.

But that was before parents were spoon-fed fear-mongering media pieces that emphasized the exceptional while ignoring the ordinary. The CDC, in 2001 reported that: "Thirty years ago, the sight of children walking or biking to school was common. In fact, nearly 90% of children who lived within a mile of school used active transportion (i.e., walking or bicycling) as their primary mode of travel. In recent years, the rate of active transport has declined dramatically." By 2005 the CDC reported, "Today, fewer than 15% of children and adolescents use active modes of transportation.

The CDC tried to look at the excuses given by parents as to why they won't allow them their children to walk. The CDC though that a decrease in the number of schools, by about 1,000 nationally, might explain some of it. But, the change in school amounted to a decline of just a couple of percentage points. And the CDC found that "active transport to school has also significantly declined among children who still live than 1 or 2 miles from school." Even, when you compare only those living near the school, walking to school steeply dropped.

Parents used weather as an excuse. But the CDC looked at weather patterns in four large cities in each of the four main regions of the country and found "some slight variations in weather patterns over the past 30 years. However, there is no distinct pattern to these changes over time. Therefore, it does not seem likely that changes in weather account for the decline in active transport."

Next, they looked at crime, especially the fear of child abduction. They note that "rate of youth abduction is low in school areas." Only 4% of abductions take place near schools. Of course, most child abductions are custody disputes, one parent taking the child from the other parent. The abduction that everyone fears, the so-called "stranger danger" kind amounts to about 100 cases nationally per year, in comparison to 204,000 family abductions. There is another category which is called "nonfamily abduction" which is not considered the stereotypical "stranger danger" situation. But the Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that "Nonfamily abduction victims overall were particularly concentrated among the oldest groups, with 59 percent being 15-17 years old." They also note that the "stranger danger" prevention misses the fact that "the majority of non-family abductions (53 percent) are abducted by persons known to the child: 38 percent of nonfamily abducted children were abducted by a friend or long-term acquaintance, 5 percent by a neighbor,  6 percent by persons of authority, and 4 percent by a caretaker or babysitter." While the stereotypical kidnappings are the most dangerous they happen in extremely small numbers. CNN reported that the number of stereotypical kidnappings "are small and getting smaller."

However, if you want to terrify parents speak in the broadest term possible: talk about 800,000 missing children per year. That will do it. Many of those are just kids who stayed at the mall too late, a large number are kids that another family took, usually in a custody dispute, some are children that parents literally threw out of their home. Conflate all these categories and you scare the bejesus out of someone.  Who wants to do that? Anyone who has an incentive to over-emphasize risks. That would included media that want higher viewer ratings or want to sell newspapers; it would include child protective agencies that rely on tax funding often fueled by fear; it includes child protection charities that know a good scare increases donations, or it may be companies that sell parents fingerprinting, cell phone tracking devices, microchipping, etc.

One final excuse for not allowing the children to walk to school was fear of traffic. The CDC found that "50% of children hit by cars near schools are hit by cars driven by parents of students." Of course, this ignores the risk of driving itself, yet traffic accidents, where a child is a passenger in the vehicle, is the number one cause of death for age groups 1-4, 5-14, and 15-24. Only infants under the age of 1 are more likely to die due to birth conditions, SIDS, prematurity, etc. Statistically a child is more at risk for each mile he is driven, than he is for each mile he walks.

Labels: , ,