The Power of the Media

Anyone wondering about the power of the media to shape actions just needs to read this NYT story about why kids don’t walk to school. It’s chock full of anecdotes about parents and various school/city officials doing silly things (calling 911 when a 10 year old is walking home alone; not letting a 7 year old walk 6 houses home from school, etc.) Ugh.

But here are some facts, also in the story:

In 1969, 41 percent of children either walked or biked to school; by 2001, only 13 percent still did, according to data from the National Household Travel Survey. In many low-income neighborhoods, children have no choice but to walk. During the same period, children either being driven or driving themselves to school rose to 55 percent from 20 percent. Experts say the transition has not only contributed to the rise in pollution, traffic congestion and childhood obesity, but has also hampered children’s ability to navigate the world.

In a study of San Francisco Bay Area parents who drove children ages 10 to 14 to school, published this summer in the Journal of the American Planning Association, half would not allow them to walk without supervision, and 30 percent said fear of strangers governed their decision.

Fear of strangers, and specifically that a stranger would kidnap their child. This fear is driven by the nonstop/national and international coverage that occurs in any stranger abduction, and is perpetuated by TV shows and movies of the same theme. Facts just can’t win out. And the fact is (buried deep in the story) that 115 children are abducted by strangers a year, which is 115 too many. But basic math shows that in 2007 there were about 6 million kids (defined as under age 15) in the United States. There are about 1,000 people struck by lightning in the U.S. in an average year. 250,000 children are injured in auto accidents.

It’s been said we bad at math as a society. This story sure bears that out, and also shows very clearly how the media we consume drives very specific behavior change, over time. Heck, if not wanting kids to walk to school had been an outcome of a specific plan, we’d be using this as a case study for years!

2 Responses to “The Power of the Media”

  1. Margaret Shaw Lilani Says:

    Good food for thought Frank, though I think your uncle would have disagreed to a certain degee. No matter how long I was grounded, I was always responsible for getng myself to and from school with my own 2 feet or on my bike (and later on, my car), and that was during the early kidnapping era, when schools implemented the first programs about not taking candy from strangers.
    I would think with the widespread increase in kids with cell phones (esp. the ones with GPS aka “Kid Lojack”) that letting kids walk to school on their own would become slightly less scary for parents.

  2. Mary Branscombe Says:

    the same thing has happened in the UK. the death of a child is always terrible, any child abduction is one too many -and the absurd sweeping away of civil liberties and common sense behaviour with the motto ‘if it saves the life of just one child’ is nauseating.

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