Predators on the Yahoo Home Screen

Hi Folks! This is a great piece in the Atlantic, about how the filters on our computers create a sort of feedback loop that can really distort our perceptions. In this case, the author, Sarah Kendzior, clicked on a single story of a child murder, and from then on she found that her home screen — in this case, Yahoo’s — kept bringing her more of the same. More child murder and really disturbing stuff. The algorithm assumed she just loved this kind of story.

The piece goes on to explain that we FORGET that content is being personalized for us. When we see it, it just looks like an assortment of interesting stories that happen to be “trending.” This gives us a skewed view that we don’t even realize is skewed. And when it skews to the scarier stories, we get….scared!

So it’s a great piece, and with a shout out to Free-Range Kids, what’s not to like?

I commented as much and when I did, I felt compelled to give a shout out of my own to another site,  Mean World Syndrome.  As that site explains:

Mean World Syndrome is a phenomenon where the violence-related content of mass media convinces viewers that the world is more dangerous than it actually is, and prompts a desire for more protection than is warranted by any actual threat.

How I love the guy who came up with that syndrome, the late sociologist George Gerber. When Yahoo and other filters bring us a world of meanness, we really have to come up with some way of reminding ourselves (and everyone else) that what’s happening in real life is different from what we see on the screen, even on our homey home screen. — L.

Gee, there sure are a lot of predators out there!

Why Are Parents So Scared? Ask Barry “Culture of Fear” Glassner

Hi Folks! Just read a wonderful, cogent Q&A with Barry Glassner, the author of The Culture of Fear and now the prez of Lewis & Clark University. He’s been tracking our escalating worries for over a decade and come to the same conclusions as me (he came to them first!!)  about where the fear is coming from and perhaps how to fight it. My favorite part of the interview:

Why are so many people afraid of such extreme possibilities? 

We need to be careful to distinguish how people respond to fear mongering and who is spreading the fears. If we ask why so many of us are losing sleep over dangers that are very small or unlikely, it’s almost always because someone or some group is profiting or trying to profit by either selling us a product, scaring us into voting for them or against their opponent or enticing us to watch their TV program.

But to understand why we have so many fears, we need to focus on who is promoting the fears.

What’s your advice for someone faced with “fear-filled” news? 

If I can point to one thing, it’s this: Ask yourself if an isolated incident is being treated as a trend. Ask if something that has happened once or twice is “out of control” or “an epidemic.” Just asking yourself that question can be very calming. The second (suggestion) is, think about the person who is trying to convey the scary message. How are they trying to benefit, what do they want you to buy, who do they want you to vote for? That (question) can help a lot.

It sure can. That’s why I try to ask it a lot: Are they doing this to get ratings? Are they over-scaring us about some unlikely or minor problem so they can sell us something to assuage the fear they  just created?

The problem, of course, fear also becomes an echo chamber: If TV keeps showing us abductions to garner ratings, those scary stories resonate for the average person who is NOT trying to sell anything, but has been shaken to his shoes. Now he truly believes he’s being helpful warning us, “Don’t let your kids play on the front lawn, they could be snatched!” or, “Don’t let go of your child’s hand at the store, EVER.”

How to leech the fear infection out of those folks is in part what Free-Range is always trying to figure out. Suggestions welcome! — L.

“Times Have Changed!” Shriek Parents Afraid to Let Their Kids Outside. But…

Hi Readers — We have all heard from parents who would LIKE to let their kids have the kind of stay-out-till-the-streetlights-come-on childhoods they themselves enjoyed. BUT, say those parents, “Times have changed. It feels so much more dangerous now!”

“Feels” is the operative word. In this essay by Steven Pinker, we learn that we may well be living in the safest times in human history:

This claim, I know, invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger. We tend to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which we can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. There will always be enough violent deaths to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from its actual likelihood.

Sometimes (okay, OFTEN) I get tired of pointing this out: That just because you can say, “Adam Walsh!” or “Jaycee Dugard!” that doesn’t mean that there are MORE children being abducted today than ever before. It’s just easier to NAME them, because we see them so much on TV. Those images get filed away in our heads and when we ask our brains, Google-like, “Is it safe for me to ever let go of my child’s hand?” up pop the most popular stories about that topic, not necessarily the most salient or helpful ones.

So here’s to living in the best of all possible times…despite the worst of all possible stories dominating the media. — L.

Why It Feels Like Kids are Being Kidnapped All the Time

Hi Folks! So many people I talk to (especially for my upcoming show) are convinced that children area being kidnapped all the time, everywhere, that they cannot let their children go outside on their own. Here’s a succinct look at why parents feel this way, as presented in a comment by the reader whose screen name is “Socalledauthor.” – L.

Socalledauthor writes: Child abductions are not more frequent now than they were, however, they ARE more publicized.  In my town (a semi-rural area), there was a child abducted in 1928.  It got about two paragraphs in the local paper about how she was walking home from school and didn’t make it… when she was found, there was another small article.

Also in my town, in the last year, there was a child who went “missing.”  For four days there were articles on him and what was known about his last whereabouts and how to keep children safe.  FOUR DAYS of articles… and then, a short blurb (maybe four paragraphs) when it was revealed that he’d spent the time at a friend’s house because he was mad at his parents.

The point here is the difference in media coverage.  Day after day, the front page of our local paper was about this missing boy.  It makes it seem like the problem is bigger than it is.  Conversely, my local paper gives only a paragraph every day or so to those hurt or killed in a car accident — because it happens so often that it has become common!

Fear does not equal fact.  Just because you feel something is true does not make it so.

By the way, if you turn off the TV, you’ll find the world a less fearful place!

Jaycee Dugard’s Take on Overprotective Parents

Hi Folks! I am inspired by what a reader named Allison sent me on Facebook. You may be, too. — L

Dear Free-Range Kids: I’m reading Jaycee Dugard’s book “A Stolen Life.” and in it, she says:

It still scares me, the fact that I can’t protect my daughters from everything. What mother wouldn’t want to protect their child from the dangers of the world? But I have to choose to believe they will both be okay and realize that sometimes when we shelter our children too much, we are really protecting ourselves.

I don’t think anyone would ever question Jaycee for being overprotective of her children, given what she went through for 18 years, so this paragraph just really states so eloquently what many of us feel every day. — Allison

I am also struck by the fact that she frames it as a choice: She could appease her own fear by seriously constricting her daughters’ childhood, or she can live with that uneasy feeling  for the sake of letting those girls enjoy what she never got to. Kudos to a brave and generous mom.  — L.

“Millions Irrationally Feared Dead in Minor Train Accident” – The Onion

Readers — Sometimes I need a break, as I’m sure you do too. And what could be better than a snippet from The Onion reminding us just how driven the news media and  “experts” can be when it comes to whipping up fear? Enjoy!  

May 21: Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Again!

Hi Readers! It is time for our second annual Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day: Saturday, May 21!

Last year this was an idea derided by the media right and left. “A predator’s picnic,” is how one radio station described it. “Bizarre!” exclaimed the front page of The New York Daily News, which went on to lambaste it. And when TV was talking about the day, most stations automatically showed footage of 3-year-olds in the park, as if that’s what the day was about: Leaving toddlers to fend for themselves.

In fact, the day is all about getting our kids outside to meet each other and figure out how to have some fun. The idea is for us to take our kids to the park and, if they are about 7 or 8 or older, leave them there for a little while, with each other. Why?

Because without us directing their activities and running over every time they yelp out of boredom or distress, they will actually learn how to do that thing many kids (including, to a certain extent, my own) have never really gotten the hang of: How to entertain themselves, without the help of adults or electronics. How to organize a game. How to, uh, play.

Play is not only important for all sorts of developmental reasons (here’s a piece I wrote about it), it’s FUN. But if YOUR kid looks out the window and says, “There’s nobody outside,” and MY kid looks out the window and says the same thing, neither of them will budge. So I figured a day when we ALL make sure our kids are outside is a lovely way to begin the summer. Because once kids DO find each other out there, they just may want to go outside the next day and the next and the next.

That is my “bizarre” and dangerous idea. And please remember, our parks and lawns are actually SAFER now than they were when we were kids. Crime is DOWN since the mid-’70s and all of the ’80s. (Here is an article about how crime is down, but perception of crime is up.)

So please spread the word about May 21. The idea is to get our kids to a local park, so they can meet other local kids, at about 10 in the morning. That way,  instead of me bringing my kids at 11 and you bringing yours at 3, they won’t miss each other.

Last year I heard from folks from Alaska to Australia who participated and reported their kids had had fun.

Oh the horror!  — Lenore

Good lord! Are those children having FUN on their OWN? It's an outrage!

Oh Please! “Terrifying”? The Latest “Alarming!” News?

Readers: This “service” piece on NBC Over-Reaction News — sorry, NBC Action News —  tells us that because there is a GPS locator embedded in the pix we take on our cell phones, “the bad guys” can NOW SEE where our children live, where they “recreate” (such a police verb — it means play), and where they “go to school.” It can even “locate their bedrooms!”

Which means that if you are a predator who could not possibly OTHERWISE ever figure out where there is a park, or a school, or a house with a trike in the front yard, at LAST you can find yourself a child, using sophisticated technology.

SUDDENLY our children are unsafe — and it is all technology’s fault. And how GRATEFUL we must be to the TV reporters who dwell and dwell and dwell on the fact that now we parents must be even MORE vigilant, because so many predators are busy using GPS embeds to “cherry pick” (TV’s word) and track down the ONLY kid worth taking: YOURS. Because her smile is so irresistibly sweet!

Shake, shake, shake. Those are your marching orders for today: SHAKE IN YOUR SHOES. They are watching your every move! If you love your children, be MORE CAREFUL! (And if you DON’T love your children, go ahead and take their pictures, you dreadful parent. You will suffer the consequences!!!!!) — L.

Hooray for Australian Media! (And Especially The Sydney Morning Herald)

Hi Readers! The Australian media have been very keen on the Free-Range Kids story. I’ve done more than a dozen TV, radio and print interviews so far,  but it wasn’t until this morning, when I was on a drive-time radio talk show, that I finally heard the words: “Oh, I could never let my child out of my sight. I just couldn’t live with myself if something terrible happened.”

What’s amazing is that this is pretty much what I hear EVERY time I am interviewed in America. So it seems as if catastrophizing every aspect of childhood has not yet fully taken root here. Oh, yes, fear is creeping in, and so is the idea that parents can and should control every aspect of their kids’ lives. But this obsessive outlook just doesn’t seem quite as pervasive here in Australia. And trying to make sure it never is, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote this wonderful, even lyrical editorial today:

Pack away the cotton wool

LENORE SKENAZY, the New York mother who let her son find his own way home when he was nine, has started a long-overdue debate in this country about the way children are overprotected by anxious parents. Paradoxically in our increasingly safe and peaceful society, anxiety about the diminishing dangers threatening everyday life is growing.

As a society, we are starting at shadows. We fear children may be at risk from crime. Though crime rates have fallen, the public perceives them as having increased. In an issues paper in July, Brent Davis and Kym Dossetor of the Australian Institute of Criminology pointed to the ANU’s 2007 Survey of Social Attitudes which found that, despite generally diminishing crime rates, 90 per cent of those surveyed believed they were rising or static.

The nature of news itself helps sustain a climate of fear: stories of child abductions or murders in distant countries are flashed instantly round the globe, heightening the appearance of a dangerous, threatening world, even though the statistical likelihood of a child becoming a crime victim is extremely small. Products and services are sold through campaigns that heighten fear. In some suburbs gated communities have been built, which in their very design imply that the normal state of mind outside the gate is fear, which can only be absent when the ordinary world is shut out.

Litigiousness adds another element. It has become regrettably common for those injured in minor accidents to sue, and for responsible authorities such as councils to seek to eliminate the possibility of injury. The fear of risk not only deprives the public of valuable amenities such as children’s playgrounds, but also reinforces the message that the public realm is a risky place, and best avoided.

Parents are particularly vulnerable to this cluster of anxieties. Ideas of nurturing go hand in hand with protecting children from danger. But if some protection is good, more is not necessarily better. Before long it becomes stifling and stultifying. It prevents children from learning to assess danger for themselves, and from thinking how to avoid it. Driving children to school rather then letting them walk, ride bicycles or catch the bus not only wastes energy, it encourages laziness and the lifestyle diseases that afflict growing numbers of the young.

Life is not perfect and cannot be made so. Certainly a small number of children are hurt each year. But by trying to eliminate risk from children’s lives, overzealous parents are stunting their development, and inhibiting the ability of the vast majority to respond to challenges.

A line I hope to internalize is this:  If some protection is good, more is not necessarily better.

Also: Life is not perfect and cannot be made so. It’s funny we need to be reminded of this…but we do! — Lenore

And Now We Bring You The Apocalypse!

Hey Folks — Look at this illuminating list of what constitutes “news,” at least according to the Minnesota Associated Press guidelines for reporters, as posted on the blog Business Insider and first reported by Libby Reinish on

Note that train wrecks, airplane crashes and drownings are news, as are car crashes if there are “multiple victims or unusual circumstances.”

Fatal fires, exceptionally violent robberies, ice storms and damaging floods are also all “news,” while plain vanilla deaths are not.

That’s why it always seems like the world is coming to an end: Only the worst, creepiest, goriest stuff, as you well know,  makes it to the airwaves (with an occasional saved kitten thrown in). What’s interesting is that this “news” isn’t new at all. It is Kabuki — an elaborate ritual. Far from new and surprising, it MUST conform to a template and here it is! Laid out for us by the Associated Press folks in Minnesota! As we can see, the job of a “news” story is to constantly re-confirm the media’s contention that the world is a terrible, mean, scary place (except, again, for the kittens). It’s like Groundhog Day, without the feel-good ending.

So here’s an idea: Let’s stop calling it news and start calling it what it is: Same Old Apocalypse. “What’s on TV?” ” SOA.” “Turn it off.”   — Lenore