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Cyberbullying, Amber Alerts, guns, drugs, guns and drugs in kindergarten -- there are days when it just seems like the world isn't a safe place to raise kids anymore. But is the world more dangerous place now than it used to be -- or does it just seem that way?
"Parents are programmed to be anxious about the welfare of their children, so they pay attention to risks," says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. "Every generation feels that their children are encountering more risks and trouble than they did."
But when you look at the data, says Finkelhor, the U.S. is a safer place to raise kids than it was years ago. Consider the following:
Stranger kidnapping remains relatively uncommon. A parent's worst fear is that her child will be plucked from the playground or sidewalk by a leering stranger never to return, but Finkelhor says that doesn't happen often, which is one of the reasons kidnappings of girls like Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard receive so much attention. "Stranger violence against kids is relatively rare and it has gone down recently," says Finkelhor. "For younger children it's pretty clear the largest risk is at the hands of family members and people known to the family." According to a study conducted by the US Department of Justice in 2002, about a third -- 37 percent -- of kidnapped children are taken by a stranger. The majority of children were abducted by someone they knew.
School violence is down. Stories about school shootings in Chardon, Ohio, and elsewhere can dominate the headlines and make parents anxious, but the data shows that school crime is down significantly in the years since we were kids. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the rate of victimization among children at school has dropped from about 150 out of 1,000 kids in 1992, to less than 50 out of 1,000 in 2010. Finkelhor cites the introduction of school enforcement officers and crime prevention programs as probable reasons the numbers have dropped.
Fewer children are victims of violent crime. The rate of violent crimes against children is significantly lower than it was when we were young. According to a 2011 report released by Childstats.gov, part of the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, violent crimes against kids are way down from a peak in 1993. Back then, 44 out of 1,000 young people between the ages of 12 and 17 were victims of violent crimes, compared to just 10 of 1,000 tweens and teens in 2009.
Fewer kids are smoking, drinking and using hard drugs. Alcohol use -- and specifically binge drinking -- hit historic lows in 2011, according to Monitoring the Future, and ongoing study (started in 1975) at the University of Michigan which tracks youth behaviors. Researchers say the decline is likely due to the increase in awareness programs that educate students about the dangers of drinking. Fewer teens are smoking, too: only 11.7 percent of 8th, 10th and 12th graders reported smoking at all in the past 30 days, down from 12.8 percent the previous year, and part of a steady decline since the mid 1990s. And the use of drugs including crack, cocaine, Vicodin and over-the-counter cough/cold medicines is down as well. (Marijuana use, however, is up among teens.)
Parents today are better equipped to help their kids. Parents today are generally older and better educated, and their kids reap the benefits, according to Dr. Murray Straus, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. Older parents are generally less impulsive, more knowledgeable and less violent. And parents today are having fewer children on average, which means each child receives more individual attention and guidance. Bottom line? Your kids are probably safer than you think.