For parents of a certain age, playtime meant charging out of the house early in the morning and only returning when mom hollered out your name telling you it was time to come home for dinner. These were the halcyon days of unsupervised play.
Generations of children survived this, but then darkness crept into playtime and stranger danger became a thing. This public safety concept was – and is – intended to put children on notice of the potential dangers that seem to be lurking around every corner. Here are some of the warnings that are drilled into kids’ minds at an early age:
- Don’t talk to strangers.
- Don’t walk with strangers.
- Don’t take gifts from strangers.
- Don’t get in a car with strangers.
- Don’t pet a stranger’s puppy.
Was this overreacting? Do we need to revisit stranger danger in this modern internet age? The answers: maybe and most definitively.
It Started With the News
The roots of stranger danger warnings can be traced back to the ‘60s. Both America and England were rocked with horrific crimes against children. These stories made the headlines in every newspaper and were the lead on every evening news program. Even with those tragic stories cropping up, parents still mirrored their own experiences growing up in relative safety and let their children roam free.
By the mid ‘80s and early ‘90s, the 24-hour cable news cycle became a reality. Now those same tragic stories were blown up to epic sensational events that were hard to escape. Children with just a passing glance at a TV would be exposed to stories of kidnapping, abductions, molestation, and murder. Parents became more anxious and overprotective. Suddenly, stranger danger was a very real threat, and the only way to protect children was to make them become their own security guards.
Not only are those stranger danger rules drilled in at home, but they’re also taught at school. This makes sense, of course, because predators will often target a school playground for their next victim. Despite having teachers everywhere, it is hard to watch a large group of children all the time, especially during recess. Compared to the 1970s, children spend 50% less time in unstructured outdoor activities like recess, and current events, including the rise of creepy clown sightings, threaten to take away the limited outdoor play time our children have today. This is a real sadness, because unstructured playtime is incredibly important to child development.
The Emotional Toll
There is nothing wrong with wanting to create a safe environment for our children, but what about the emotional toll these concepts might have? What happens when the messaging for stranger danger goes overboard?
Consider this scenario: You take your child to a store and they wander off. Happens all the time. As you go on a frantic search, that child could drift even farther away. Since they have stranger danger drilled into their tiny psyche, they might hesitate to ask a store employee for help. Now apply that situation to a bigger scene like a beach, carnival, or theme park. That can be scary for all concerned. Does this mean you shouldn’t teach your children about stranger danger? Absolutely not, but teaching context and distinction is also very important.
As young ones are given access to the internet, they are exposed to a whole other level of potential danger. This is where parents need to be extra vigilant. Online strangers can be far more insidious because of their anonymity. The older they get, the more likely they are to engage in these activities, but you can’t just surrender your responsibility at that point. Teens can be just as vulnerable, especially when predators are filling them up with things they want to hear all the while posing as a peer.
Thankfully, there are many resources that can help you protect your child while they are online. These include locking out certain websites, turning on parental restrictions and checking history. Does that turn you into Big Brother? Yes, and welcome to parenthood.
The internet is also a launching post for new, real-world threats. The previously mentioned creepy clowns are a prime example. This is a kind of flash mob extension — random strangers across the country dressed as stalking clowns are turning what started out as phantom clown hysteria into a nightmarish reality. This might just be a Halloween aberration that will fade away, but it’s a reminder that parents constantly have new things coming at them of which they’ll have to warn and protect their kids. (Quick tip: Maybe forego the clown costume this year.)
Protecting children is a full-time job. It’s one parents are happy to take on in order to keep kids safe, both in real time and online.