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Is the World Scarier Now?

Is the World Scarier Now?
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By Mary Jane Horton

When I was a kid the scariest thing that ever happened in my world was that – every once in a while – a patient from a nearby psychiatric hospital would escape. The grapevine would be abuzz and we would all be nervous until they were found. When my kids were young, the scariest thing that happened to them was seeing the whole World Trade Center collapse before their eyes. My pediatrician gave me a lollipop and theirs asked them what they would do if they were at a friend’s house and the friend brought out a gun to show them.

My childhood, in the suburbs of New York was carefree. Theirs, in Los Angeles was wrought with danger – reports of kidnappings, school shootings, as well as helicopters overhead every night. From the moment my son and daughter were born, I wanted to wrap them in a bubble. I didn’t want them to become autistic from a vaccination, get kidnapped by a babysitter, or fall off the bed and hit their heads – all things on my radar at that time. But the bubble was impossible and I had to just do my best to protect them.

A report says it’s true

Many of us feel it – the world is a scarier place than it was when – those of us of a certain age – were kids. How we feel might be true – or it might not. The CATO Institute issued a policy report that suggested things are more dangerous nowadays. The report says, “In February 2012 Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared, ‘I can’t impress upon you [enough] that in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.’

One year later, he upped the ante: ‘I will personally attest to the fact that [the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been.’ But General Dempsey is hardly alone. Dire warnings about our uniquely dangerous world are ubiquitous. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified in early 2014 that he had ‘not experienced a time when we’ve been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.’”

But the report goes onto say something that all of us know, much of the fault of our fearful feelings is due to the 24/7 news cycle. And, therefore, even if the world isn’t more dangerous today, most people would be hard pressed to believe it.  The report notes, “In his magisterial study of the decline in violence worldwide, Harvard’s Steven Pinker posits that ‘we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence,’ even as he concedes that most people don’t believe it.

If our perceptions aren’t entirely accurate, if the world isn’t, in fact, more dangerous than a decade ago, or a century ago, we could blame our 24/7 media. After all, reporters don’t write about the planes that land safely; the 11 o’clock news never leads with the murder that didn’t happen. Likewise, the stories about the personal information not stolen by identity thieves, the wars that aren’t fought, and the trade and commerce that flows uninterrupted, are rarely told.’”

Is it parents who drive this issue?

It seems like the issue about perceived safety or danger comes to the fore mostly in the minds of parents. Or, at least they are the people who write about this phenomenon the most. Several years ago, a New York mom, Lenore Skenazy, let her 9-year-old son ride the subway alone, wrote a blog about it, and got skewered by the media. Afterwards, she wrote in the Washington Post blog: “Two days later [after her blog] I found myself decried as “America’s worst mom” on the Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News and NPR.

That weekend I started my Free-Range Kids blog, to explain my philosophy. Obviously, I love safety: My kid wears a helmet, got strapped into car seats, always wears his seat belt. But I don’t believe kids need a security detail every time they leave the house.”  Many people agree with this sentiment, but how much freedom is too much freedom? And when do you draw the line between being paranoid – in your own dealings as well as with your kids – and being safe?

Another incident that was much publicized and fairly hard to understand was the case of 10-year-old Rafi and 6-year-old Dvora Meitiv, siblings in Silver Spring, Md., who were picked up in December by the police because their parents had dared to allow them to walk home from the park alone. For trying to make them more independent, their parents were found guilty by the state’s Child Protective Services of unsubstantiated child neglect. And these kinds of cases come up in media time and again.

So what do we do?

So how do we keep our minds in check when frightening world events happen? Roxane Cohen Silver, PhD, is a psychology professor and researcher at the University of California, Irvine, who studies the effects of media coverage on mental well-being. She and her colleagues found that people who spend a lot of time watching and reading news reports after crises or similar events unfold have a higher likelihood of heart problems and higher stress levels, even years later. It didn’t matter if the people lived hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the epicenter of the events.

The results of her study, published in the journal Psychological Science, showed that almost 12 percent of 1,322 participants reported high levels of acute stress related to 9/11 and about 7 percent reported high levels of acute stress related to the Iraq War.

After taking pre-9/11 mental health, demographic characteristics, and lifetime trauma exposure into account, people who watched four or more hours of 9/11 – or Iraq War-related television per day following each event were more likely to experience symptoms of acute stress. Furthermore, the effects of trauma-related media exposure lasted over time – frequent early exposure to 9/11-related television predicted posttraumatic stress symptoms and physical health problems two to three years late.

And more recently Silver researched the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. “Our new findings contribute to the growing body of research suggesting that there is no psychological benefit to repeated exposure to graphic images of horror,” she says of her data.

She and her colleagues interviewed 4,675 adults two to four weeks after the 2013 Boston Marathon to assess acute stress responses to the bombings, the degree of direct exposure to the bombings, indirect exposure through media and prior exposure to other recent community-based traumas. People exposed to six or more hours per day of bombing-related media coverage were nine times more likely to report high acute stress than those with minimal media exposure (less than one hour daily). Symptoms of acute stress include intrusive thoughts, feeling on edge or hypervigilant, avoiding reminders of the event and feeling detached from it.

But while nonstop media coverage can play a major role in shaping our thinking, experts say it’s not the only reason we’re stressed. “Anxiety is often based on the degree to which we feel something is predictable, or under our control,” said George Kapalka, PhD, a professor of psychological counseling at New Jersey’s Monmouth University, in a recent MedHelp blog.

So, in order to make things seem more predictable and under our control, what do we do? We relax and don’t watch too much television news. We buckle our children’s seat belts and our own. We wear bike helmets and replace the batteries in our smoke alarms. We take our children and ourselves to doctors – but not too often. And we stay mindful of the dangers in the world while living our lives to the max everyday. Because, when it comes right down to it, that is all we can do.

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