What is meant by risk aversion and how does it affect the quality of children’s lives in contemporary Western societies?
Children in contemporary western society have lost three years freedom of movement in the last nineteen years (Gill, 2007). Risk aversion influences every aspect of our children’s lives whether at school, at clubs and activities, using technology and even playing socially in the local park. As this topic is so far reaching this essay concentrates on discussing two contemporary areas of key risk concern in relation to primary school children aged between 5 and 11 years old. The two areas discussed are strangers and children’s playgrounds. This essay defines what is meant by risk aversion, investigates the origins of concerns and looks at the effects of trying to avoid risk on the lives of children in contemporary Western society.
Risk is defined as ‘a situation involving exposure to danger’. Aversion is defined as ‘a strong dislike or disinclination’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2014). Humans are compelled to try and avoid exposure to danger, injury and loss of people and things that are precious to them.
One influential European work of the late twentieth century is Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society. Beck views simple modernization as a set of risks and hazards which are far greater than those experienced before, because they can now affect future generations and cross national boundaries. Beck believes risk is a methodical system of managing dangers and uncertainties (Beck, 1992).
Much of our knowledge about risk comes from mainstream news media such as TV, radio and the internet. The media are in a very influential position, yet their core objective is to increase sales through appealing to the widest possible audience. Detail is lost, stories are amplified and sound judgement cannot be based on the end result (Boyne, 2003).
In response to modern insecurities we increasingly attempt to measure and regulate risk, yet our understandings, experiences and responses to risk are socially constructed. Activities considered risky are affected by culture, history and experience (Tulloch and Lupton, 2003). For example risks faced by children in poor and developing countries, such as poverty, starvation and disease, are much more serious than risks faced by children in wealthy industrialized countries (Gill, 2007).
Parents today are constantly concerned for their children. Politically, children are seen to be the future of our nation and economy, in need of education to play their part. Children are no longer required to work to help the family survive and are therefore not seen as capable as children from the past. We underestimate them, viewing them as potential victims in need of protection, which may not always be in their best interests (Cunningham, 2006).
The problem with risk aversion is that it is largely fuelled by fear, rather than fact. Adults project their anxieties onto children, fears that reflect local, cultural and media attitudes as well as their own ability to make rational decisions and other unconscious emotions and ideas. Changes in adult attitudes can be expressed through large scale policy, law, procedure and in day to day interactions with children (Jones, 2003). Lots of parties are involved in public policy debates about children and risk, including providers, regulators, safety agencies, policymakers, insurers, solicitors, the media, parents and children themselves (Gill, 2007).
On the subject of strangers for example, the media sends out strong messages that dangerous predatory strangers are a significant increasing threat to children. However in 2007 statistics showed that 2 primary school age children a year are killed by strangers and figures have been around this level for decades. Far more children are killed by adults who know them and in fact out of every 15 children under the age of 16 killed per year, only one will have been killed by a stranger. Children were no more likely to be abducted or murdered in 2007 than they were 30 years prior (Gill, 2007).
The effects of the fear of strangers are immense. It can cause children and their parents to be needlessly anxious and creates a standard where controlling parenting is seen as good, whereas giving children freedom and space away from adults is seen as irresponsible. Primary school aged children have lost dramatic amounts of freedom with the average age children are allowed to travel to school, visit a friend or shop unaccompanied rising from 7 to 10 years of age in just 3 years. Another dangerous effect is that safety messages warning children not to talk to strangers can frighten both adults and children from turning to each other to request or give help, should a child find themselves lost, unaccompanied or in trouble (Gill, 2007).
Turning to the subject of children’s playgrounds, large amounts of money has been invested in safety flooring for children’s playgrounds after a media campaign by a popular TV program. This expensive modification came at the expense of other pieces of playground equipment being installed, local authorities diverted budgets from other priorities and in some cases playgrounds were closed due to lack of funds. However statistics show that the chances of a child being killed in a typical primary school population as a result of a playground equipment accident are extremely low - 1 every 3 or 4 years. Or to explain it a different way, less than 30 million to 1. These figures have been stable for years with little evidence of a decline despite the new surfacing. Thus, as a result of the culture of risk aversion £200 to £300 million was invested in a safety measure that has saved the lives of 1 or 2 children (Gill, 2007).
These examples both demonstrate that risk aversion is guided primarily by fear rather than fact. Statistically, children are safer today that at any time in the past, however rare tragic events can lead to overreactions in emotive situations without scientific evidence being taken into account. This can have a huge impact on the everyday lives of children, resulting in more restrictions and limitations, shrinking freedom, increased adult supervision and control, a decline in outdoor experiences such as school trips and break times and unnatural, less challenging play spaces. The consequences of this can be damaging, as overprotective measures insulate children and prevent them from developing their own coping mechanisms and ways of doing things (Gill, 2007).
Children’s satisfaction and state of happiness depends on meeting their developmental needs, developing their rights and their status and role in the family and community (Casas, cited in Kehily, 2009). Children need to grow up free from psychological harm and with good self-esteem. They are capable, have their own views, thoughts and ambitions (Kehily, 2009).
The concept of resilience has been widely researched as a desirable outcome for growing children developing into healthy, well-adjusted adults. Resilience can be defined as a confident attitude, willingness to confront challenges and ability to cope with setbacks (Lindon, 2005).
Every child is born with the ability to use an amount of agency. Their ability to act independently is a good sign for the future generation of adults; therefore adults have a responsibility to encourage this (James and James, 2004). Children desire more independence, more action, more exploration. They are driven to seek out opportunities for autonomy, risk taking, adventure, creativity and excitement. Risk can have benefits under the right circumstances, accidents and injuries can help children to develop their ability to assess and manage risk. Thinking of them as vulnerable and not allowing them experience can leave them more vulnerable (Gill, 2007).
What is needed is a balance between protection and freedom. A common sense approach to assessing risks and benefits. An emphasis on the importance of good evidence, rather than emotional responses. Recognition of the benefits of permitting children freedom to explore, be accountable and experience risk for themselves. Acceptance that they may make mistakes yet they will learn from them. Affirmation of their ability to recover from mistakes whether they are accidents, injuries, failure, even disaster (Gill, 2007).
This approach can foster resilience and self-esteem, both essential qualities in happy, healthy, confident, well-adjusted adults who feel they have control over their lives and understand the significance of their actions.
In conclusion, risk aversion is the human compulsion to avoid exposure to danger, injury and loss. Fuelled by fear caused by exaggerations in the media we underestimate our children and attempt to increasingly measure and regulate insecurities around risk. These fears may not be relative to the facts and yet the resulting actions become culturally accepted norms in the lives of children in contemporary western society.
Our children feel the effects of risk aversion throughout every aspect of their lives and it limits their ability to explore, be creative, make mistakes, experience pain and learn how to manage risk for themselves.
By recognising the benefits of risk and allowing children the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes we can help foster essential qualities found in happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults.
Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: towards a new modernity. London: Sage
Boyne, R. (2003) Risk. Open University Press: Buckinghamshire
Cunningham, H. (2006) The Invention of Childhood. London: BBC Books
Gill, T. (2007) No fear: growing up in a risk averse society
James, A. and James, A. L. (2004) Constructing Childhood: Theory, policy and social practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Jones, P. (2009) Rethinking childhood: Attitudes in contemporary society. London: Continum International Publishing Group
Kehily, M. J. (2009) An introduction to childhood studies. Maidenhead: Open university press
Lindon, J. (2005) Understanding child development: Linking theory and practice. London: Hodder Arnold, 2005
Oxford Dictionaries (2014) Definition of Aversion. Available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/aversion?searchDictCode=all (Accessed: 16th December 2014)
Oxford Dictionaries (2014) Definition of Risk. Available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/risk?searchDictCode=all (Accessed: 16th December 2014)
Tulloch, J. and Lupton, D. (2003) Risk and everyday life. London: SAGE