The Merchants of Fear

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It’s time to stop buying the fake threats ginned up by our news media and politicians so we can get on with our lives and protect ourselves from genuine danger.

Childhood’s End

I grew up in a suburb laid out on a grid with considerable auto traffic, ample front yards, sidewalks and a gaggle of elementary-age kids roaming the neighborhood. Somewhere around first grade (in fact it might have been Kindergarten) I was allowed, or should I say expected, to walk myself to school, crossing streets on my own. Every kid had a bike. Every kid rode their bike on the streets, on the driveways, across the lawns and on the sidewalks. No one wore helmets. As a result of these hijinks, I remember we chalked up quite a few scraped knees, several stitch-worthy cuts, a few broken bones, but nothing permanent or fatal.

Fast forward to my son’s childhood. We live on a cul-de-sac with far less traffic. He has a bike, but not enough kids ride to make it a social event. Where I live, it’s a legal requirement for minors to wear bike helmets. Although my son’s school is less than a mile away from our home, people looked at me as if I had three eyes when I said I was considering letting him walk to school.

And I am not the only one who sees the strangeness in this scenario. When Lenore Skenazy wrote about how she let her 9-year-old ride the subway home alone, she was branded “America’s Worst Mom”. Skenazy went on to write the blog Free Range Kids, as well as a book by the same name , both extolling the virtues of letting kids take calculated risks in order to develop life skills and a sense of autonomy.

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If the response to Skenazy and her ideas stopped at criticism, that would be one thing, but children are now being detained for walking alone in their own neighborhoods and their parents charged with neglect and abuse for the exact behaviors I and all of my buddies did in the 70s and 80s.

24-Hour News vs the FBI

Has the world changed such that what we allowed kids to do in decades past is no longer appropriate? Is the world more dangerous? The answer depends entirely on where you look for answers. Network news has an answer and that answer is that horrendous crimes are going on nearly around the clock and will be available for your viewing “pleasure” on television and the Internet as soon as it happens.

Just before I began writing this paragraph, I surfed over to the web page of a local TV network to review their “top stories.” They include two robberies, a stabbing, a fire, a murder, and a child death due to carbon monoxide poisoning. In fact, of the bullet-point items currently on the homepage, every single one features violence, theft, sexual exploitation, government corruption, or disaster. If aliens watched newscasts like this, they would likely conclude nothing good ever happens on Earth.

On the other hand, what do science and statistics have to say about dangers now and in the past? According to the FBI, violent crime has been plummeting between the years of 1991 and 2010. Why are we seeing non-stop crime reporting on the news, while crime is actually going down?

Negativity Bias

As much as we might advise people to “look on the bright side”, human beings can’t stop looking for trouble. And when our only source of information was our own senses, this “bias” was incredibly useful. If danger is close enough that you can directly sense it, you’d better pay close attention. But in 2013, our senses cover the globe in an ever-thickening blanket of video surveillance and 24-hour news coverage. At a certain level, our brains can’t grasp the fact that the murder on the other side of the country is really not our concern. Meanwhile the news business lives and dies based on our attention, so they’re highly motivated to grab our attention with the most negative, most scary, most upsetting content they can find. In a sentence: “if it bleeds, it leads.”

A Market for Terror

Newscasters aren’t the only ones who benefit from fear. Locksmiths and security consultants gain when we fear our own neighborhoods. Although the police may celebrate cracking a particular case, they’re in no rush to popularize their own statistics showing that most kinds of crime are going down steadily in most places. To do so would call into question the need for their budget. Politicians would like us to fear the opposition, criminals, and terrorists so that we might elect them to protect us from all these supposed threats.

Don’t Buy the Fear

To avoid becoming prisoners in our own homes, it’s time to take a look at the constant stream of tragedy we’re being given, disguised as “news.” In order to see danger clearly, we’ve got to rely less on individual examples selected by the media and more on scientifically-valid, statistically sound analyses of actual risk. One of the luxuries of living in a species of seven billion is that human beings have discovered nearly every method possible for getting killed or injured. We can compare the risk of, say, shark attack (minuscule) to the risk of fatal heart disease (one in four deaths is attributed to heart disease). Yet I won’t hold my breath for “Heart Week” to overtake “Shark Week” on cable TV. We have to work out these facts for ourselves and behave accordingly.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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