The fear of child predators
My wife has galeophobia, which is the fear of sharks. She is terrified to swim in the harbour, or even to muck around in the surf despite the fact that, (and QI is my source here) she has far more chance of being bitten by a New Yorker.
Phobia doesn’t seem the right word for it though, does it? Because it is not irrational to be scared of sharks, in fact they scare the hell out of me, too, though I will play the odds when it comes to a harbour swim. The irrational part is the LIKELIHOOD that she will ever see one, let alone get bitten by one. But despite the tiny chance that the event will happen, the horror that surrounds a shark attack is enough to rob her of the joy of playing in the waves.
Recently our neighbourhood got a dose of paedophilophobia, spurred by an incident, reported to police, that someone had tried to entice a child into their car on a busy road near us.
Social media went wild, there were Facebook posts, emails and tweets about the incident, all of which was encouragingly protective to begin with. But then the Chinese whispers started. News came of new incidents, then those incidents stopped being incidents and became attempts at “child snatching”. We have a child in school and daycare, both of which were rife with the news that it had happened more than once.
I had a trawl online, there was no news of a spate of attempted child-napping in our area. There was no visible increase in police presence, so I dismissed much of it. Perhaps there was one attempt but several seemed unlikely. Still, the mood that afternoon at school pick-up was not so much vigilant as vigilante, people were whispering in groups about police inaction and the “latest” attack - I would not have been surprised to hear they were getting a posse together. Because it had now got completely out of control, just before we received an email from police.
They had received a complaint about a male approaching young kids in the area but after investigating it “there was a misunderstanding with no adverse findings against the vehicle or any person associated with this incident”.
That’s right, there were no multiple child-snatching attempts, there was not even one. The event exposed the local communities readiness to leap on it though.
Like sharks, a paedophile attack would be horrific, beyond any fear you have for your child, but the likelihood of a child being taken from the street is about as rare as shark attack.
The headline cases like abuser Josef Fritzl and child-napped Madeleine McCann make us sick to our stomachs but the truth is that most child abuse comes from someone you know, yet we don’t ask Uncle Jim to wear a GPS-locating leg bracelet at the family BBQ – though perhaps that is only a matter of time. There is no real evidence to support an increase in paedophile activity in the past few decades even with the advent of the internet. Incidents of institutional abuse have been exposed, with churches and schools put under greater scrutiny if anything.
So surely it’s time to rein in the irrational fear. This paedophilophobia is fuelled by a salacious press with a click-hungry news cycle that will run far-flung child abuse cases well ahead of any local news. The number of child abuse news stories we see needs to be viewed globally, it is not all happening in our back door, editors are cherry-picking the very worst in the hope your horrified click on the page will drive traffic. This is not some grass roots community reaction to a real and growing threat, but a fear forced onto us by a skewed world view.
And it is having a negative effect on our kids. Our children no longer run the streets and play freely, we suspect any kindness from strangers and my son’s male kindergarten teacher is becoming a rarity.
Can you be too vigilant? I think you can. This irrational fear is harming communities rather than helping them, where a kindly neighbour has to think twice before helping a young child.
In Britain a few years ago a study showed that 99 per cent of adults would ignore a distressed child in a shopping centre for fear they would be viewed as predatory. Surely in an atmosphere like this our kids are morely likely to be harmed by inaction than by a child snatcher.
I want my kids to be safe and having them abducted would be the worst kind of hell imaginable, but I don’t want to participate in this first-world hysteria because we are running out of real concerns for our kids - apart from whether or not they will master the violin. I want them to be cautious but not afraid, I want them to have the street smarts not to get into a car with a stranger but not a lingering paranoia that makes them view someone asking directions as a potential threat.