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Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 13:52 GMT
The child safety catch

Children in the UK are safer than almost anywhere else in the world. So why do parents always fear the worst? And is security necessarily a good thing asks Jonathan Duffy?

The path to adulthood has always been a rocky one, but these days it seems to be rougher than ever.

Drugs, bullies, paedophiles, pollution, allergies and obesity can all prey heavily on the modern parent's mind.

Mother shielding daughter
In the US death rates are more than double those in the UK
So it might come as a surprise to hear that Britain's children are, in fact, very, very safe.

According to a new report by the United Nations Children's Fund, Unicef, the UK has one of the world's lowest rates of child death caused by accidents and abuse.

In a survey of the 26 most industrialised countries, only Sweden came out better.

The study of child mortality rates between 1991 and 1995 found 6.1 children per 100,000 in the UK died as a result of intentional or non-intentional injuries.

In the United States the figure was more than twice as high, at 14.1 per 100,000. In France it was 9.1 and Germany 8.3 per 100,000.

A question of belief?

At last Britain's put-upon parents have something to ease their worries. But how many will take heart from these statistics? How many of them actually believe this is a safe country to raise children?

Mobile phones
Phone alone: Parents see mobiles as a safety aid
In the aftermath of any high-profile child murder, newspapers routinely scream that our children are in mortal danger.

Yet in Britain today, a child is no more likely to be abducted and killed than 30 years ago, when boys and girls tended to roam with more freedom.

Of course, parents tend to act on instinct rather than statistics.

Michelle Elliot of the children's charity Kidscape recognises the rise of a reality gap between what parents' fear and what is most likely to happen. The media, she says, is partly responsible.

"The difference between this country and others is that when a child goes missing and gets hurt, it's front page news," she says.

Blaming the media

She recalls a survey in 1992, that followed the murder of toddler James Bulger, in which 90% of parents said their greatest fear was that one of their children would be abducted.

James Bulger
This image of James Bulger forced parents to consider on safety
"The media has probably led to us feeling paranoid," admits Ms Elliot.

Clinical psychologist Oliver James controversially advanced the point last year when he accused the tabloid press of exploiting the death of schoolgirl Sarah Payne.

Mr James said newspapers pandered to public fascination with such atrocities, even though they were extremely rare.

Ms Elliot explains, from a personal perspective, that when a parent contemplates the shadowy threat of a child killer, all reason goes out the window.

"As a parent, even though statistically I know that none of my boys would be abducted, it's one thing I cannot control. When they are in my car or with friends' parents, you can take steps to ensure their safety.

Faceless terror

"But when they are on their own, without an adult, you have in mind a sinister stranger who could come out of the blue."

Child with trolley
Tesco piloted tagging of children in its supermarkets
But if this paranoia is being unreasonably stoked, it's not only the media that is to blame. Mobile phone companies market handsets as a way of parents keeping tabs on their nearest and dearest and Tesco has even piloted a scheme for tagging children to stop them straying during shopping trips.

However, parental instinct is not totally without foundation. While the paedophile threat may be static, the risk of being killed on the road has, theoretically, shot up. This has been offset by the fact that children are rarely allowed to venture out on their own these days.

Ms Elliot also makes the point that as the birth rate has dropped, parents have relatively more time to concentrate on their offspring and contemplate the perils they may face.

Over protective

But there is growing concern that children are suffering from this mollycoddling.

Rospa - the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents - has called for a more level-headed approach to protecting children from harm.

Teacher leading a class of children
Mind the red tape: Teachers
Professor John Adams, a University College London academic who has examined the role of risk in society, believes we have gone too far in shielding children. The result, he says, is that we are depriving them of learning and valuable life experience.

Mr Adams cites school field trips as an example. Legislation designed to protect children has been tightened so much that teachers now often shy away from taking pupils beyond the school gates.

Anyone in education is now 35 times more likely to die outside of school or college time than in, says Mr Adams. For some time, he says, we have been at the point where nothing more can be done to protect children on school trips, yet new safety measures are being drafted all the time.

"You can," says Mr Adams, "be risk averse to the point of depriving yourself of very substantial benefits."

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