Is the World More Dangerous Than It Used to Be

In the past, humans relied on their own strength and natural defenses to survive. However, modern civilization has introduced new threats that have changed the world in ways we could never imagine possible.

The “the world is not safe anymore” has been said many times, but the statement is true. The world is becoming more dangerous than it used to be, and there are many reasons for this.

Overprotective parents holding net underneath kid illustration.

Parents now are empirically less likely than parents even a generation ago to let their children to explore their neighborhood alone, go to school, play alone, or handle potentially harmful items or weapons, and are more likely to carefully oversee all of their children’s activities.

We discussed why this could be the case last week, as well as some theories about the roots of the present tendency toward overprotective parenting.

We hypothesized that it stems from a variety of fears, including the fear of litigation, peer rejection, not spending enough time with one’s children to help them grow into successful, emotionally well-adjusted adults, and, most importantly, the fear of something bad happening to one’s children that prevents them from ever reaching adulthood.

When parents are asked why they are so cautious of their children these days, far more than their own parents were 30 or 40 years ago, many will say that the world is just a more dangerous place today than it was when they were young.

Is this correct? Are children now more likely than they were a few decades ago to be molested, abducted, or killed?

We’ll take a more in-depth look at the surprise answers to these questions today.

Is the World a Riskier Place for Kids Now Than It Was Before?

The Washington Post gives some really helpful graphs and facts in an article headlined “There’s Never Been a Safer Time to Be a Kid in America,” which might help us judge if it’s grown riskier to let children play alone than it was many decades ago.

To begin, the total mortality rate of children in the United States has been steadily declining over the last 25 years, and it has never been lower:

Child mortality rates 1990-2013 graph.


Part of the decline in kid mortality may be explained by better medical treatments and more immunizations, but not all of it, since the rate has been falling even in the most recent decade, despite the fact that routine vaccination regimens haven’t changed significantly in that time.

We also know that a drop in child mortality has something to do with a decrease in traffic accidents and crimes, since there are statistics to support this.

According to the National Highway Traffic Association, the number of juvenile pedestrians injured or killed by being struck by a vehicle decreased by about two-thirds between 1993 and 2013, a dramatic drop made all the more dramatic when one considers that the United States’ population (and the number of vehicles on the road) increased during the same time period.

In terms of violent crimes against minors, things are also on the decline. Between 1993 and 2004, the number of violent attacks on children dropped by two-thirds (with sexual assaults declining even more). And, as of 2008, the most recent year for which data is available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of child killings was near-record lows.


Overall, rates of crimes against children have fallen to levels similar to or lower than those seen in the 1970s, and the risk of a child dying from a crime, accident, or natural cause, which was negligible even 40 years ago, is even more so now; according to the WaPo, “the chances of premature death by any means for a kid between the ages of 5 and 14 today are roughly 1 in 10,000, or 0.01 percent.”

But what about the mother (and father) of all parental concerns: the possibility of your kid being lost?

The rates are also lower, having decreased by 40% in the past two decades:

Missing children graph 1993-2014.


Keep in mind that the United States’ population grew by a third over this period, implying that the real rate of missing person reports dropped by more than 40%.

It’s also crucial to note that, even among incidents of children going missing, relatively few fall into the category of a “stereotypical abduction,” in which a child is kidnapped forcibly by a stranger. Only.1% of missing person instances are real stranger kidnappings; 96 percent of missing adults and children are actually runaways, with another proportion reflecting abductions by family members.

This proportion, as well as the total likelihood of a child being kidnapped, has remained relatively constant throughout the years, at about 1 in 1.5 million. Lenore Skenazy, in her book Free Range Kids, explains how little this danger is:

“The odds of a stranger kidnapping and killing an American child are nearly infinitesimally small:.00007 percent.” Another way to put it, as British author Warwick Cairns put it in his book How to Live Dangerously: if you really wanted your child to be abducted and kept overnight by a stranger, how long would you have to leave her outdoors, unattended, for this to happen statistically? “It’s been around 750, 000 years.”

Overall, fewer children are murdered or abducted by automobiles or killers, and their chances of being kidnapped are roughly the same as they were when you were a youngster.

The world is no longer a more hazardous place than it once was.

Listen to my “free range” parenting podcast with Lenore Skenazy:


Is it true, however, that crime is decreasing because parents have become more protective of their children?

In response to the above facts and the notion that it’s never been safer to let your kids wander and play alone, one may argue that traffic accidents and crimes against children have actually decreased since parents began to be more careful in the 1990s. That is, kids aren’t getting hit by cars because they aren’t walking around the neighborhood anymore; kids aren’t being killed because they aren’t leaving the safety of their backyard; and, while kidnappings haven’t decreased, who knows if they would have increased if parents weren’t keeping such a close eye on their children?


Would a return to the “free range” parenting methods of the past merely result in an increase in childhood death rates?

While this idea may or may not have some value, it cannot be confirmed one way or the other. Experts, on the other hand, are typically opposed to it. Other factors, they argue, are more likely drivers of the decrease in accidents and crime: improved vehicle safety features have made them less likely to hit children; potential murders and kidnappings have been prevented by higher incarceration rates, or by greater access to anti-psychotic drugs for the mentally ill. The growth of mobile phones may also be a role, not so much because they enable parents to stay in regular communication with their children, but because the mere prospect of their existence seems to dissuade would-be but risk-averse offenders.

The fact that it isn’t the only kind of crime that has decreased indicates that cultural/societal variables other than protective parenting are to blame for the decrease in crimes against children. According to these graphs from the Pew Research Center, during the early 1990s, the rate of all crime – violent and nonviolent, against both children and adults — has decreased by 50-77 percent (depending on the statistics used):

Crime rate statistics 1993-2015 line graphs.


It’s interesting to note the gap between reality and perception; even though crime is decreasing, people believe it is increasing — a phenomenon likely fueled by the rise of 24/7 news and the way modern television channels and websites give crime (especially against children) far more coverage than it deserves.

Comparison graph of previous and current crime ratio of US.


Another way to assess the impact of protective parenting on keeping children safer is to look at the rate at which they’ve been injured at playgrounds over the last several decades; because playgrounds (and how families use them) have changed in a way that society hasn’t, they provide a good test case for whether a greater emphasis on safety can significantly mitigate childhood risks.

Municipal park departments have spent millions of dollars upgrading playgrounds since the 1970s in order to make their equipment as injury-proof as feasible. Tall metal jungle gyms, steep slides, monkey bars, and seesaws (without supporting ballasts in the middle) have all been removed, as has the tarmac and even wood chips that covered the ground underneath them. Plastic, low-level, prefabricated equipment fixed on rubber matting have been placed inside.

Despite the major changes to children’s play places, the number of injuries and fatalities caused by them has remained relatively constant.

The number of visits to hospital emergency rooms related to playground equipment (including home and residential) was 156,000 in 1980 and 271,475 in 2012, according to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. That seems to be a significant rise, but only if you ignore the fact that the United States’ population grew by a third over the same time span. In 1980, one playground-equipment-related emergency department visit per 1,452 Americans occurred, compared to one per 1,156 Americans in 2012, a drop of only.02 percent.


In other words, extensive attempts to make playgrounds safer, as well as parental monitoring of children’s usage of them, have had little influence on injury prevention. If the ticker on this danger can’t be moved by keen monitoring of children in a limited space like a playground, it stands to reason that diligent supervision of children in general hasn’t likely led the huge decline in crimes against children.

We may properly infer the following conclusions based on the preceding data:

  • Today’s society is safer than it was when contemporary parents were children, and this has nothing to do with the rise of a more protective parenting approach.
  • The fact that the number of kidnappings has remained constant, while the number of playground-related injuries has decreased only slightly, demonstrates that no amount of vigilance can prevent all tragedies and accidents; there is a level of randomness in the world that cannot be completely controlled.
  • Even if we were to implausibly infer that protective parenting is to blame for the whole decline in childhood mortality, the rate of crimes against children in the absence of this neo-vigilance would only be back to 1970s and 1980s levels, which were already minimal. So we’re back to the reality that the world isn’t any more hazardous now than it was when contemporary parents were kids — and had access to freedoms that today’s kids don’t have.

Okay, these figures are intriguing, but what if that 1 in 1.5 million child is MY child?

Knowing the statistics described above, and that the world isn’t truly more hazardous than it used to be, should perhaps improve your outlook and provide some comfort.

However, this does not negate the fact that children are at danger in today’s environment. Even if the chances of a youngster being kidnapped are one in 1.5 million, that’s still one actual, flesh-and-blood, cherubic infant. Some parents’ life are filled with brightness and happiness. Perhaps you’ve found the source of your happiness and illumination.

Wouldn’t it be worth it if overprotective parenting could avoid just one major injury or death? And even if the constant number of kidnappings proves that such events are utterly random and uncontrollable even the most vigorous attempts, wouldn’t every parent feel better knowing they done everything they could to prevent it from happening?

The answer to these questions would be a resounding yes…if protective parenting could be implemented without causing any negative consequences.

Unfortunately, the more we try to eliminate the dangers of our children being involved in accidents and crimes, the greater the chance of their bodies, brains, and souls being harmed in other ways.

Next week, we’ll talk about the dangers of not allowing your children to do unsafe activities.

Read Throughout the Series

Overprotective Parenting’s Origins Is the World a Riskier Place for Kids Now Than It Was Before? The Consequences of Not Allowing Your Children to Do Dangerous Activities Three Keys to Raising Your Children While Balancing Safety and Risk


Overprotective Parenting’s Origins Is the World a Riskier Place for Kids Now Than It Was Before? The Consequences of Not Allowing Your Children to Do Dangerous Activities Three Keys to Raising Your Children While Balancing Safety and Risk


Lenore Skenazy’s book Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry)

Tim Gill’s book No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society is about growing up in a risk-averse society.

Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder

Scott D. Sampson’s How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love With Nature

Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler’s 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)

Hanna Rosin’s “The Overprotected Kid”



The “living in a dangerous world” is a common phrase that has been used for many years. But the question is, is it really more dangerous than it used to be?

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