Last month, when I addressed the St. Louis Skeptics Society, I talked about the lack of skepticism in the mass media and how the vast majority of outlets report trend stories without bothering to fact-check them. They just run with what they think is “common knowledge” because they see everyone else running with it. That pack mentality leads to bogus storylines, misinformation, and misplaced fear.
This week, you’re seeing more proof of that in the annual Halloween scare pieces telling you how to protect your children from poisoned candy, dangerous costumes, and sex offenders in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, there’s no fact pattern to back up the claims that form the basis of those stories — it’s just lazy reporters and producers repeating the same lie-filled tales they told last year and the year before that.
Lenore Skenazy (whose Free Range Kids site is a great resource for parents who want their children to grow up learning about personal responsibility instead of being afraid of the world) points out that, despite the hype and the media scare stories, Halloween is not a dangerous day for kids. As proof, she offers research by Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, which shows that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger’s Halloween candy, and Elizabeth Letourneau, an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, who studied crime statistics from 30 states and found, “There is zero evidence to support the idea that Halloween is a dangerous date for children in terms of child molestation.”
Stranger danger is still going strong, and it’s even spread beyond Halloween to the rest of the year. Now parents consider their neighbors potential killers all year round. That’s why they don’t let their kids play on the lawn, or wait alone for the school bus: “You never know!” The psycho-next-door fear went viral.
Then along came new fears. Parents are warned annually not to let their children wear costumes that are too tight—those could seriously restrict breathing! But not too loose either—kids could trip! Fall! Die!
Treating parents like idiots who couldn’t possibly notice that their kid is turning blue or falling on his face might seem like a losing proposition, but it caught on too.
Halloween taught marketers that parents are willing to be warned about anything, no matter how preposterous, and then they’re willing to be sold whatever solutions the market can come up with. Face paint so no mask will obscure a child’s vision. Purell, so no child touches a germ. And the biggest boondoggle of all: an adult-supervised party, so no child encounters anything exciting, er, “dangerous.”