Every parent understands the fear that something terrible will happen to his or her child. But how realistic is it to be afraid of what ultimately rarely happens? A mother launched her own investigation.
Just imagine: terrorists are planting bombs in mailboxes near your home, right beside the park in which your children play, along the street your children walk every day to school. Those bombs are aimed at you, your family, your way of life. Would you let your children out to play? Would you let them walk to school alone? To ask the question these days is to answer it.
Yet back in 1966, the answer from my parents was different. I was nearly 10 years old at the time, and terrorist bombs occasionally blew up mailboxes in my neighbourhood, Westmount, in Montreal, Quebec. Nevertheless, I walked up the hill in my short tunic every single school day, without my mother at my side. One bomb exploded a block from our house; another up the hill, a few blocks west of my school; another within spitting distance of the boys’ school my brothers attended. The boys were sent home in their grey flannel shorts and jackets, and they opened every mailbox they could find on the way, just to check. My mother took the danger in stride. “We were concerned, of course,” she told me recently, “but we didn’t take it personally.” In spite of everything, somehow things seemed safer then. Terror was out there, but it wasn’t personal.
Today, we don’t feel so safe. My daughter Zoë is the same age I was back in 1966; she still goes to bed with her favourite stuffed dog and her well-worn yellow blanket, although by day she wears stud earrings and narrow jeans and sings along with Avril Lavigne when I drive her to school. Would I let her walk alone to her girls’ school, more than two kilometres away? No way. Or to the park overlooking the ravine, which is populated mostly by dog lovers? Not a chance.
Everyone knows why parents react this way. It’s the fear that our children might be snatched by a stranger, maybe a sadistic pedophile. In Toronto, for instance, two names, Holly Jones and Cecilia Zhang, inject a dose of fear into the veins of may parents. In May 2003, Holly Jones, age 10, was grabbed while walking home in the west end of the city. Her body parts were discovered a day later. Cecilia Zhang was abducted in October 2003 while sleeping in her suburban Toronto home. Her remains were discovered by a hiker at the end of March, three days before what would have been her 10th birthday. After a year of intense media coverage, we know these girls’ names, their faces, the terrible end to their short lives. To live life now is to live in an Alfred Hitchcock movie in which everything looks normal—bland, even—except that you know the danger is lurking unseen, off-camera.
If these kinds of stories scare the wits out of me, I am clearly not alone. Even before Cecilia Zhang was abducted, nearly six out of 10 Toronto parents polled were “very concerned” about child abductions. It would be perfectly normal to assume that this is a more dangerous world than the one I grew up in, that kids are far more likely these days to be attacked by a stranger. Remarkably, the reverse is true. It is safer to be a kid today. Children, in Canada at least, have a far better chance of reaching age 10 than they did in my day, thanks in part to new drugs, bike helmets and seatbelts. And contrary to public perception, there has been no increase in murders of children by strangers. In 2002, one child under 12 was proven to have been murdered by a stranger—one out of 6.3 million Canadian children. Back in 1966, two young children were murdered by strangers. Then, as now, a child is far more likely to be murdered by someone he or she knows, such as a parent, than by a stranger.
Abductions of children by strangers are exceedingly rare, too. Last year, 67,809 Canadian children were reported as having disappeared, but the vast majority either ran away of were abducted by parents or friends. Of these large and alarming numbers of missing children, 39 were abducted by strangers, including two in Toronto—two out of more than one million Toronto children under 16.
Yes, you say, but what about sexual assaults? When I was young no one talked about sexual assaults against children, and yet many of us were fondled, which is by far the most typical form of pedophilia. Those kids of assaults are more likely to be reported to the police today, but there is no evidence that they have become more common. In any case, parents ought to be more wary of an uncle or a soccer coach than a stranger in the park. Only nine per cent of sexual attacks against girls under age 12 were perpetrated by a stranger, according to Statistics Canada. The rest were committed by family and friends.
In his influential book, The Culture of Fear, sociologist Barry Glassner argues that many of North America’s biggest fears—the homicidal stranger, road rage, silicone breast implants or plane wrecks—are either grossly inflated or entirely unfounded. We fear the rare killer more than the common one, the distant threat instead of one in our own midst . We may be safer and healthier than our parents ever were, but, being human, we have to fear something, so we focus on the spooky threats that hardly ever kill, while brushing off common killers that take far more lives. We fear the stranger, rather than the car, even though one Canadian child died at the hands of a stranger in 2002 compared with 155 children who died in car crashes.
The way we perceive risk influences not only our private decisions, but also our public ones. Governments, which have to decide how to spend taxpayers’ money to protect public health and safety, are not immune to the influence of misplaced and exaggerated fears. They, for instance, invest heavily in airport security systems, presumably to prevent terrorists from causing another 9/11 disaster. We accept, perhaps grudgingly, the manhandling before we climb aboard an aircraft these days. After all, on that terrible morning, 2,976 people died. That’s about the same as the number of people who died in car crashes. But people who want to crack down on speeding in order to curtail the national death toll on the roads are criticized for invading drivers’ privacy.
Even those of us who are not overly fearful probably overestimate the likelihood of some threats while downplaying others. University of Michigan psychologist Paul Slovic has spent more than three decades trying to explain where this tendency comes from. His interest was piqued by a question from a geographer who wondered why people return to earthquake and flood zones. So he began a series of experiments that would reveal how we perceive risk. He soon found that the general public perceives it in very different ways than the experts do. When experts assess risk, they try to quantify two distinct things: first, the probability that something bad may happen, such as a chemical leak from a factory, and second, the likely impact if it does. Once they’ve assessed the potential for harm, they must judge whether it’s serious enough to take action, either to prevent it from happening or to mitigate the damages.
Risk assessment is supposed to be a step-by-step rational judgement, devoid of ordinary human feeling. Yet in the real world, when we make decisions affecting our private lives, we humans don’t operate that way. We don’t calculate probability the way the experts do, concluding, possibly, that “Only one in 600,000 Toronto children was abducted in 2002, so I guess it’s OK to let my 10-year-old run in the park on her own.” In a complex, uncertain world, the way we assess the risk—of flying, eating genetically engineered food, child abduction—is subjective, emotional and highly susceptible to the power of imagery. If something is easy to remember, such as the terrible abduction of Cecilia Zhang or Holly Jones, we think it is more likely to happen than it really is. In other words, when we face a complex, uncertain situation we do not think in rational, logical ways.
This mental shorthand was further highlighted by a survey Paul Slovic and fellow researchers conducted. The women and students who participated, along with a test group of experts in risk assessment, were asked to rate the frequency of various causes of death. The women and students thought more people died from homicide than from diabetes. In fact, the reverse is true: diabetes claims far more lives than homicide. Of course, homicide gets more play in the news. This research explains why people like me are more afraid of the stranger than the car. Cars kill far more children than strangers, yet I can’t name any children killed by cars. But I do know the names of the girls killed last year by strangers.
In a series of experiments, Slovic confirmed that ordinary people perceive risk differently than the experts. He asked his subjects to rank a list of items, including vaccinations and lawn mowers, according to their risk. Both groups rated nuclear power as the riskiest hazard. Experts in risk assessment, on the other hand, rated nuclear power number 20. Asking more questions, Slovic came to understand why: when lay people thought about the potential catastrophe of a nuclear power accident, they felt a sense of dread. Hazards that are dreaded (such as nuclear power or child abductors) are considered riskier by members of the public, even though they kill far fewer people than cars. In subsequent experiments, researchers found that if a hazard is considered to be involuntary and unknown, the public will judge it as riskier than more common hazards that kill more people. In other words, we don’t see cars as risky because we know about them; we feel we’re in control at the wheel. A stranger in the park, on the other hand, is the ultimate outsider: he is prowling far outside our sphere of control, we can’t even see him, so we fear the apparition.
Of course, our perception of risk is influenced by what we read and hear in the media, but to what extent? To help answer that question, I headed to the library in Toronto to see how the news was recorded when I was a girl growing up in Montreal. I read a month’s worth of The Gazette, Montreal’s English newspaper, form April 1966. The Gazette’s news lens in 1966 focused mainly on political and economic institutions and leaders, rather than on the terrible things that happened to children around the corner. When the paper did cover the death of a child, the story appeared on an inside page, in short, terse terms (“Janitor finds baby girl’s charred body”). There was no outrage from editorialists, no pained comment from columnists. It did not make terror personal. The stories weren’t calculated to make people feel that the terror had visited them.
Since then, the news business has changed dramatically. The number of media channels has exploded, with the arrival of cable and satellite TV, talk shows, tabloid newspapers and Internet chat sites. The volume has been cranked up as well: to be heard, news disseminators have to scream. Reporters have borrowed techniques from the entertainment industry, including the age-old strategy of scaring the audience.
Fear sells; it always has. One might wonder why. I called Mark Kingwell, a University of Toronto philosopher, with a simple question: why do people line up for scary movies? Why do they reach for news that makes them feel acutely uncomfortable? Aristotle asked the same question in ancient Greece, Kingwell said. The ancient philosopher suggested that people want to experience the rising tension of knowing something fearful and tragic is about to occur, followed by the release provided by the moment of catharsis when it does not happen. The difference now, Kingwell points out, is that the media offer no catharsis. We read the bad and terrifying news over and over again, and the tension builds up, but there’s no resolution. “There’s no relief,” says Kingwell, “so a constant anxiety throbs in the background.”
Authorities can restrict the spread of fear by giving the public prompt and complete information to help them weigh the risks and benefits of an action, says Douglas Powell, a food-safety expert and associate professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario. Yet too often they remain silent or deny a problem, Powell argues in a book he co-authored, Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk: The Perils of Poor Risk Communication. They do not tell the public promptly what they know; they do not explain the risks or the actions being taken to prevent or mitigate the problem. That silence creates an information vacuum that fear-mongers are happy to occupy. So the gap between what the experts know and what the public knows grows wider.
Powell may be right. Learning how rare it is for children to be attacked by strangers makes me feel more comfortable about letting my daughter go out to play on her own. But that confidence is fragile; the dry language of probability cannot compete with the vivid power in the images of Holly Jones and her family in the aftermath of her murder. The world seems more dangerous than it is, because the media have every reason to make it so. They know that fear grabs us; measured reporting does not. It’s likely we will continue to act in irrational ways, ignoring real hazards while obsessing over marginal ones.
And my daughter will miss something I treasured as a child: the freedom to play alone in the park.
Reprinted and adapted with permission from the recently revamped Saturday Night (summer 2004). One of Canada’s leading intellectual magazine for decades, Saturday Night is now published 10 times a year as a supplement to the National Post. For subscription information: 111 Queen St. E., Ste. 450, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5C 1S2, telephone +1 416 364 3333, email@example.com, www.saturdaynight.ca.