Fear, risk and the parental echo chamber

Fear is a funny thing. Girlbug is really only just learning about it. She isn’t particularly cautious or fearful by nature, but these last few weeks, she has declared she’s scared of the dark and of monsters. Thing is, the glint in her eye and smirk round her lips tell me otherwise. She’s just practising.

But we definitely do develop more fears as we get older. And then becoming a parent adds a couple of hundred more. I couldn’t list the things that parents worry about, it’s endless. And parents of older children (and adults) tell me it doesn’t stop. The issue is, as parents, we suddenly have to learn to make judgement calls for someone else, to risk assess situations every few seconds.

The continual risk-assessment of parenting

And we are really rubbish at risk-assessment. All of us. We’re just not objective, especially when our children are concerned. Now in some ways that’s a good thing – parental judgement is really important. But, I feel like parental judgement is getting skewed, corrupted, distorted by the great ol’ WWW. Don’t worry, I appreciate the irony. I’m adding to the cacophony of semi-informed voices, aren’t I?

The Internet: Caveat Lector

In the age of the Internet, fear is contagious. Descriptions of freak accident spreads in minutes, and semi-truths spin off like Chinese whispers. Discussions on guidelines get heated, and well meaning advice gets twisted with accusations of superiority. Lone voices get amplified, conspiracies take on lives of their own.

The “echo chamber” effect we hear about in politics may protect us from the brunt of differing opinion. We may only see isolated comments from those who disagree with our parenting choices. From the safety of our echo chamber they seem misinformed, deluded sometimes. Just like I knew very few people who voted for Brexit, I also know very few whose risk assessment favours leaving their kids unvaccinated.

But how do we decide whether to vaccinate? If we break it down we have to balance the risk of getting an illness with the risk of becoming unwell from the vaccination. Some of us will blindly trust that if our government think it’s the right thing to do, then it must be right! Others will blindly trust that if the government think it’s the right thing to do, it must be wrong! And others still will research the risks. For some “research” means look at the scientific literature, for others it means look at websites, blogs and social media. Some may make a decision but have doubt, or be be swayed by a scary photo, by a rumour, by a base need to protect their own.

There’s nothing wrong with using the Internet, of course, but the decisions you make are governed by where you find your information and how you interpret it. The amount of misinformation, and scaremongering, around all aspects of parenting is astonishing. My call to all parents would be: think about how you are making decisions. What information do you need, and where is the best place to find it? And before you press Share, is the information correct? Are you sure? It’s simple, and it might sound patronising, but when you’re looking at a photo of an ill child on Facebook with a catchy conspiracy theory it’s all to easy to forget. And can we all try to be kind? Or if you’re too tired for kind, at least try to be civil!

I don’t know how Public Health professionals move forward, and get themselves heard and understood, in this increasingly loud and fragmented virtual society, but I know we are failing at the moment. (Can I still say “we”, even though I’m unemployed?) We are stuck in our own echo chambers, blindly putting out information only to those who we know will agree. And just like Brexit, we are inclined to think that those who don’t agree with us haven’t researched, or have misunderstood, and are a certain “type” of person.

And just like Brexit, that way madness (and/or catastrophic failure) lies!


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