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How the Media Makes Us Scared for Our Kids

Here’s a little excerpt from the interview Katie Kimball, host of the Healthy Parenting Handbook Podcast, did with me. The full podcast is here.

Katie Kimball: No matter what the parents do individually with the decisions we’re making, there is a toxic culture that could be holding us back. We talk a lot with food about the root cause: What’s the root cause of our kids’ behaviors, of possible food sensitivities? Let’s apply that to parenting. What do you diagnose as the “root cause” of this culture?

Lenore Skenazy: One is really obvious. You have to blame the media. 

The media discovered missing children in the ’80s. They put them on the milk cartons, and they made mini-series about them. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children testified in Congress falsely that 50,000 children are snatched every year. That’s off by a factor of about 50,000! It’s way, way smaller. There’s no crime that is less common than a stranger abducting a child, thank God. 

And yet, when you start looking at all those milk cartons while you’re eating your cereal in the morning (or a homemade omelet because you taught your kids to cook), you start to feel that right and left children are being snatched off the street. 

The media recognized this as the most lucrative story that they could tell. Because if they’re telling the story about a white, middle- or upper middle-class child who has been taken by a stranger, no one will turn off their TV. 

That’s why Law and Order started Law and Order SVU. Why else would you start a whole television show about the saddest, most disturbing possible thing? They knew it would make money, and it does. Between the news and the drama shows, you just are getting a steady diet — as it were — of these really very troubling stories that lodged themselves in our brain. 

And our brains work like Google. If you ask, “Is my child safe at the bus stop, Brain?” The brain says, “Let me look.” 

The easiest stories for it to find sound like this:

  • “No! Etan Patz was taken from a bus stop!” 
  • “No! Jaycee Dugard was taken from a bus stop!”

Just like with Google, you think that the first couple of responses are probably all you need. The easiest search results to retrieve are the ones that you consult. 

But the easiest ones to retrieve are also the ones that are the scariest and least common. That’s what makes them easy to find! But we use them to determine  what we think when we see a kid outside — or see a kid at a stove.

Katie Kimball: Fear sells. That’s the way our brain is created. Our amygdala is firing to keep us safe and keep our kids safe, and that’s what we’re going to throw money at. 

You can find the “Healthy Parenting Handbook” on any podcast platform. To hear the full interview or short nuggets like this one, visit the Healthy Parenting Handbook podcast clips channel.

4 Responses to How the Media Makes Us Scared for Our Kids

  1. Donald January 25, 2024 at 10:18 pm #

    Remember Pavlov’s dog? The dog automatically started drooling whenever a bell was rung. Humans don’t do that. Instead, we get stressed out whenever we see a white van. A diet of sensationalized news doesn’t only erode the ability to relax, it also ‘force feeds’ children to adopt the frazzled mindset of the parents. (and they hand it down to their kids)

    And the beat goes on.

  2. Bruce Holtgren January 26, 2024 at 12:02 am #

    The story of how the absurd figure of 50,000 came to be is detailed in a book I’m currently reading, “Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech” by Craig Silverman (2009). John Walsh just made up the 50,000 number out of thin air when he testified before Congress in1983, in the wake of his son Adam Walsh’s horrific murder in 1981. (John Walsh also said in his testimony that 1.5 million children go missing in the US every year, which is another ridiculous number.) In the months and years afterward, the 50,000 figure was repeatedly referenced by law enforcement and media outlets, which continue to quote each other in echo chamber fashion, with almost no one challenging it. John Walsh has since recanted his assertion, but it doesn’t matter — once a scary statistic gets out, no matter how wrong, there’s no way to stop it.

    The book says the 50,000 number has *also* been given as the number of people killed by satanic cults, *as well as* being the number of predators who are online stalking children at any given time.

    Silverman’s book is a scathing examination of how the media are frequently factually wrong about all sorts of things, including on this issue, and how seldom they bother with corrections or retractions. (As a former journalist myself, the book rings resoundingly and depressingly true.)

  3. Mark Headley January 26, 2024 at 1:31 am #

    I don’t follow how this how/why our brains developed fear. Fight or flight can be a useful response. Hardly required for me to learn plenty; to protect myself, whoever else to timely, effectively. intervene, hide, flee.

  4. Mak Headley January 26, 2024 at 1:34 am #

    The media gives parents themselves reasons to fear for their own safety. It did when I was a kid too.