News Consumption Disorder: symptoms, diagnosis and cure

Front cover of Daily Mirror with Madeleine storyWhat role does news coverage play in shaping the way we think about the risks children face? Is a diet of bad news really bad for us, and if so, what can we do about it? These questions were on my mind after Monday night’s engaging debate on modern childhood organised by my old employers the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) to launch its 50th anniversary celebrations.

I asked a question from the floor about the decline in children’s everyday freedoms over the past generation or two. This led to the following exchange on twitter:

Twitter exchange about danger in the outdoors

I am taking @indoorplaymag’s comments at face value – setting aside any interest their author may have in painting a negative picture of the outdoors – because I think they reflect a widely held view. Many people believe – because they read it in the news every day – that the world beyond our front doors has become much more dangerous to children. And many parents and educators struggle to know how to react to news, both in the everyday decisions they make about children and in response to children’s own questions.

Coincidentally, this weekend’s Guardian featured a gloves-off attack on news by Rolf Dobelli, a best-selling writer, thinker and entrepreneur. He argues that too much news is just as bad for us as too much food. You could say he has added the condition of ‘News Consumption Disorder’ to the list of modern ailments (I jest, but only a little).

Dobelli’s key argument is that news “leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads.” There is good evidence to show how news skews our beliefs about how often bad things happen – such as this American study [pdf link] which shows that people who watch “crime-saturated local television news” have an increased fear of crime.

Australian screengrab of story about baby death in car crashNews coverage also skews our understanding of why bad things happen. For a breathtaking example, see this Australian news story about the tragic death of a young baby in a car crash. The report leads on the fact that the mother had apparently incorrectly used a second-hand child restraint. It is only ten paragraphs later that the report reveals the fact that the car, which was being driven by the father, crashed because it was “travelling at 118 km/h as it approached the bend, despite signage advising motorists to slow to 40 km/h.”

Another tragic event – again from Australia – gives a chilling illustration of what can happen when we have the wrong risk map. This story involved a baby in a stroller, who rolled down a slope into a river and drowned after her mother had been momentarily distracted answering a phone call. She was convinced her son had been abducted. So the early search efforts looked in the wrong place and possibly (though this cannot be known for sure) missed out on the chance of saving the child. I cannot help but note the echoes with another illustration of skewed risk: the case of two-year-old Abigail Rae, which I described in No Fear. The toddler had escaped unnoticed from her nursery, and was found soon afterwards drowned in a nearby pond after falling in. During the inquest it emerged that a man passing by had seen her wandering the streets on her own, but did not stop to help, because he was afraid of being accused of abducting her.

Recent years have also seen a collapse in levels of trust of all forms of media, as political commentator Peter Kellner showed in this piece from last November. Kellner’s figures pose the question of why anyone would defend their assessment of danger by pointing to news coverage. The reason, I believe, is that growing numbers of people are losing contact with the everyday world around them, so the media is almost the only source left.

I explained in simple terms how this works in an interview with Decca Aitkenhead after the publication of No Fear. A generation or two ago, people based their views about risk on a wide range of sources drawn from across their everyday lives, including their own experiences of being out and about, friends, and neighbours, as well as a much less intrusive media (never mind the internet: let’s remember that 24-hour rolling news only came into the mainstream in the last decade). Today, to quote local government spokesperson Councillor David Simmonds from last night’s NCB debate, life for many has “retreated behind the citadel of the family.” People spend ever more of their time in homes, in cars and out-of-town supermarkets, rather than in local shops, streets and public spaces. Deprived of a mix of information sources, all that many people hear is the ever-growing klaxon of doom-laden news stories.

So what is the cure for News Consumption Disorder? For a start, we can check the facts. To its credit, the Channel 4 News website did just this in the aftermath of the unfolding tragedy in Machynlleth last November. Focusing on the threat from strangers, its careful review of the evidence led to this reassuring conclusion:

“There is no evidence that the most serious crimes against children are on the increase. There’s no statistical reason for parents to be more worried now than in previous years. And in absolute terms, cases of abduction, homicide and serious sexual assault remain, mercifully, very rare.”

Of course, the facts show that the strangers who pose the greatest threat to children are those behind the wheel of a car. In 2008 [pdf link] for instance, 91 children under 15 were killed on the roads. By comparison, there were 23 homicides (and as I show in No Fear, most child homicides are committed by parents and members of the extended family, not by strangers). The comparative lack of media coverage of, or debate about, road danger is itself a telling example of news bias. For the record, I believe that – unlike the threat from strangers – it is a danger that parents are right to be concerned about.

Dobelli has a radical cure for News Consumption Disorder: simply stop consuming news altogether. For many, this will be an excessively extreme prescription. So here is my more balanced five-step antidote for parents and educators (drawing in part on a previous post of mine on this theme):

Step 1: realise that you can feel sympathy with people who have suffered terrible loss, without forever having to see the world through their eyes.

Step 2: seek out the facts behind the scare stories.

Step 3: take the time to dig deeper into the issues that matter to you.

Step 4: stay alert to the agendas of news outlets themselves, and maintain a critical stance towards what they serve up.

Step 5: help children to put the news they hear into perspective, and help them to understand why and how the media wants to frighten us with so much bad news.

Oh – and there’s one more step: get out of doors more, with and without your kids.

Update Thursday 18 April 2013: The NSPCC today launched a report which suggests children are in some respects safer today. One of its key findings is that “the child homicide rate is in decline and fewer children are dying as a result of assault or suicide.” The Daily Telegraph covered the report here, and states that overall, it “shows a significant long-term decline in violence against children in comparison with previous decades, contrary to public perceptions.” The report was also covered in today’s Daily Mail, under the headline “Thousands of children abused in their own homes are not being protected by local authorities, damning NSPCC report warns”. It did not mention the declining trend in violence, abuse and neglect.

11 responses to “News Consumption Disorder: symptoms, diagnosis and cure

  1. Dear Tim,
    A piece that comes straight from your heart. At least as I read it. What I want to add to this blog is that governments should seriously try to listen to the fears of parents and children. And spend, if necessary, time and money in improvements of risks, that are real or not. I also find that traffic hazard should be not be underestimated. The boundaries for children are simply not necessary. Children need to play in the whole village or neighbourhood and should not be bothered by traffic. In addition, the more children play outside, and do not follow the news, the safer the public space becomes. This way the knife cuts both ways.

  2. Thanks for your comment Madeleine. As you will see if you browse my website, I absolutely agree with you about tackling traffic danger – see for instance this post on the damaging impact of car dependence of children. I also agree that parental fears, whether based on reality or not, need to be recognised and addressed. But that may sometimes mean challenging their beliefs.

  3. Coincidentally, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children today (Thursday 18 April 2013) launched a report suggesting that children are in some respects safer today. For more, see the update at the end of the post.

  4. All entirely correct. I’m in the US, and we just had the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing. Bombing is EXTREMELY rare in the US. But I am already hearing on the parent blog circuit about ‘don’t take kids into crowds. It’s not safe.’ Huh? I have yet to hear any reasonable argument that a parent in Boston could have in any way, shape, or form could have been expected to consider that bombs at the finish line should have been taken into consideration. Getting lost, separated from a parent, or even stepped on in a mob, yes. A bombing? H#LL NO ! Our constant streaming of news, which has no relevance to our daily lives, has completely tilted perspective. “But it can happen! It happened at xyz, so we must be aware!” It boggles my mind that these people seem to have no understanding that the news business is just that, a business!

    It has been a long standing thought of mine – is the reason so many people react so strongly to the barest possibility of threat is because there are no real threats in which to focus our energy? I’m quite sure that mothers in war torn areas don’t freak out about their 8yrs using a sharp knife to cut his food.

    • Renee – thanks for your acute comment. “The news business is just that, a business.” Absolutely. Also, I think there is some truth in your last thought. I guess it could work something like this: each of us has a ‘ration’ of worry. In the rich world, most of us don’t have to worry about threats like hunger, infectious diseases or lack of shelter. So we search for other things to worry about – which is where the media steps in with a never-ending supply.

  5. Its so refreshing to find a website that shares my views, having moved back from Canada 3 years ago I was rather appalled by the over zealous health and safety culture and protection of children from the world which lies in stark contrast to raising kids in Canada! I thought people were joking when they said kids don’t camp in the garden in case they get abducted, no photos of school plays in case a pedophile is in the audience etc… I half joked that by all these kids playing inside may increase the odds of my daughter actualky being abducted as she would be the only kid playing outside! I’ve become involved in the Worthing playing out scheme and it is a relief to be able to try and change the tide. To proactively build closer and more trusting communities is very exciting. To quote Margaret Mead ‘ never doubt that a small group Of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has!’

  6. As a cure to News Consumption Disorder may I suggest a healthy dose of Charlie Brooker – particularly
    where he shows the transformation of the mainly fact based news coverage I remember from my childhood, to the current ‘catastrophe’ based sensationalism, backed by the outraged ‘vox pop’, that we have today.
    That, and a good dose of cynicism…..

  7. Abbie, Nick – thanks for the comments. Abbie – actually I hear mixed views of the everyday freedoms of children in Canada, and have a sense that car-dependence is common. Great to hear of your involvement in a Playing Out scheme. Every neighbourhood should run one! Nick – yes I’ve seen some of Charlie’s high-octane deconstructions of the news (and other TV formats) and I am a fan. I suspect students of media studies would learn more from watching 5 minutes of one of his demolition jobs then several armfuls of learned journal articles.

  8. Pingback: Free Range Kids » The Kidnapped Girls in Cleveland: Horrifying and Rare

  9. Reblogged this on thecrunchymamachronicles and commented:
    Thanks to Rethinking Childhood blog for this post! Great points in there. I personally do not consume television programming anymore — not the news, not TV shows. We cancelled our incoming TV signal and I have NEVER regretted it!

  10. Tim
    i recently dove past the school in the village next to the one I live in. The new head, who does not live in the area, has recently spent thousands of pounds installing a huge green mesh fence and electronic gate around the school which previously had a waist high wall made of local stone.

    It would be interesting to do and FOI on how much has been spent building fences around schools where there is no statistical evidence of a threat to children. I suspect it would be millions of pounds. I spend a lot of time in primary schools and what children say, is that the fences themselves are the threat, as they now feel more unsafe. Before they thought that their community was a safe place for them to be; now they feel it can’t be safe because they have to be protected from the people who they live among.

    The philosophy behind the fence is no doubt, ‘better safe than sorry’. Based on an assumption that the fences is neutral; that it is not doing harm and it could protect. This is not so. Everyday the fence is there it causes damage. Every day it reinforces the message to parents ‘Your friends and neighbours are a danger to your children’. Everyday it reinforces the message to children. ‘You are under threat when you leave this compound, – go directly home and do not expose yourself to the danger of your community’.

    Why have we done this to ourselves? Why do we tolerate it? News – is the reason. Risk is not assessed on experience, local knowledge, data or risk analysis, it is based on the sense of immanent threat which we get from the news. Rationality is trumped by fear, and the fear of a parent trumps most other fears. When the headline. ‘Fence does irreparable damage to 150 children’ becomes a national headline then we might have a hope!

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