Has the world become more dangerous since the ’80s, or have parents become more paranoid?
Sometimes I long for the carefree days growing up in the ’80s, sitting around in my Umbros eating SpaghettiOs and Ho Hos with my 5th grade best friend discussing the latest Babysitters Club book as the toddlers we were babysitting sat watching Mister Rogers and drinking Tang. As a parent of young children today, I sometimes find myself feeling envious of parents who raised their kids in the ’80s, in a world of blissful ignorance. In that pre-Columbine world, my parents didn’t think twice about letting me and my twin sister walk four blocks to kindergarten by ourselves. And as I reached my preteens, neighborhood families trusted me to babysit their infants, including four-month-old triplets (by myself!) at age 12 — and not because I was particularly trustworthy, just because I lived nearby. Parents of Gen-Xers could make Bisquick chicken pot pies and green Jell-O and believe they were serving up a healthy meal. They could feel proud about purchasing the “healthier” margarine and “low-fat” foods without scouring labels. In a pinch, they could heat up Market Day meals without running into the savory dishes their friends were posting on Pinterest. And if kids growing up today could see the free rein that kids enjoyed then, running around their neighborhoods playing “cops and robbers” and “ghost in the graveyard” late into summer evenings, they might feel a bit jealous of those ’80s children.
Children today are allowed to do far less independently than children 30 years ago were, and when asked why, people say, “Well, it’s a different world today.” But is it really more dangerous than it was in the ’80s? Or has the Age of Information given us a little TMI? Are we making decisions based on facts or fears?
These questions washed over me in one large wave on a recent outing to San Clemente Beach in Southern California, after my 10-year-old daughter spotted a purple flag fluttering in the wind. Unlike many of our beach trips, I had spent this one actually diving into the Pacific with gusto, coming up to gulp fresh air between salty splashes and spouts of laughter, as my girl and I held hands and allowed the water to knock us around a bit. After some of the most fun, playful hours of my life, my daughter noticed the purple flag, so we asked a lifeguard what it meant.
“Unusual sea life warning,” was her reply, as if she’d just told me there were some clouds in the forecast and I should mosey along.
But I had more questions. “Like sharks?”
“No.” She laughed. “Just stingrays. Oh, and a sea lion bit someone down the way.”
She went on to show us how to do the “stingray shuffle” in order to avoid getting stung, but all of a sudden I didn’t feel like shuffling. Or swimming. With one sweep of a flag, my carefree spirit fled and my sensible self wanted to go home after a very satisfying — and safe — trip to the beach. The funny thing is that the purple flag had been up all day, but I found myself feeling grateful that we hadn’t seen it earlier. Yes, we could have been doing the “stingray shuffle” all day, but my guard would have been up, and I probably would not have even entered the water. Which brings me back to this question: Is ignorance, or at least a certain amount of it, bliss?
Would we as a society be better off not seeing news of attempted kidnappings and school lockdowns or large warning labels telling us the building we’re about to enter is made with materials that may cause cancer? I know many current regulations, warnings and labels arose for a reason and the “better safe than sorry” adage probably prevents many injuries and even deaths. But has it gone too far? Are we currently living in paranoia? Do our newfound pieces of knowledge and adjacent worries really make us any safer?
I did some digging into the actual statistics and was surprised by what I found. First, psychology has already established that worry in and of itself is not useful and can be harmful, as it wastes time and energy. Many things we now worry about were legitimate concerns both in the ’80s and today, such as keeping our children away from harm. The difference is that the need to keep our families safe did not consume parents’ minds in the ’80s or prevent them from allowing children to partake in activities that are good for them, such as climbing trees.
Second, the world as a whole is far less violent today than in the past, according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.
Third, crime rates in the United States have dramatically declined since the ’80s. Based on data, crime rates climbed from 1960 through 1990 and then began to fall. In fact, according to the United States Crime Index, rates per 100,000 inhabitants have declined nearly every year since 1990, both violent and nonviolent offenses. For example, the overall crime rate was 3.984 in 1970. Twenty years later in 1990, it hit 5.820. Skip ahead 20 years, and by 2010 the figure had fallen to 3.345. Violent crimes had skyrocketed by 1990 but have since declined significantly.
So what changed in the ’90s and beyond that led to the decline? Some researchers say it’s because of prevention efforts, social services, policies, etc. Rates are still inaccurate, as many go unreported, but there was also underreporting in the ’70s and ’80s, so that factor alone doesn’t explain the drop in crime rates.
But while researchers struggle to pinpoint the exact reasons crime rates have declined, they also attempt to explain why people’s fears, especially in regard to safety, continue to rise.
Roger Hart, professor of environmental and developmental psychology, has begun releasing telling information about a longitudinal study in which he’s compiling lengthy interviews and film footage from children growing up in the mid-1970s in a rural Vermont town and comparing it to children growing up in that same town today. When observing play habits and environmental boundaries, he found that children play outside far less today and rely on their parents to direct their creative play far more than children did 30+ years ago. He also found that parents allow their children to go to far fewer places within the town. Most of the kids can now go to only the end of their driveways, in contrast to the children in the ’70s who were permitted to go much farther. Interestingly, many of the kids from the original study who were permitted to run around the town are now the same parents who don’t allow their children to have anything close to the freedoms they enjoyed as children.
So how did the free-range, latchkey kids of the ’70s and ’80s turn into the helicopter parents of today? Researchers and authors on the topic theorize everything from the increased, widespread media coverage highlighting stories of child abductions to the personal experiences of latchkey kids who felt scared and alone at times. Whatever the reason, most agree events that have transpired in the past 30 or so years have created the perfect storm for the fear that heavily influences parents today.
Many wonder if there is any way to bridge the gap between the laid-back parenting of the ’80s to the overprotective parenting of today. Many psychologists and child development experts recommend parents increase opportunities for their children to participate in “risky play,” such as climbing trees, skateboarding fast and rough-and-tumble play fighting. Risky play has been on a decline for the past 60 years, though this type of play is necessary in a child’s development. According to the emotional regulation theory, “play is, among other things, the way that young mammals learn to control their fear and anger so they can encounter real-life dangers, and interact in close quarters with others, without succumbing to negative emotions.” Social researchers are finding that, as risky play has declined, there has been an increase in serious emotional disturbances among children, such as anxiety and depression. In an attempt to keep their children physically safe, researchers say parents are crippling them emotionally.