Is the World a More Dangerous Place for Kids Than It Used to Be?

overprotective parents holding net underneath kid illustration

Today’s parents are empirically less likely to allow kids to explore their neighborhood alone, walk to school, play by themselves, and handle potentially dangerous tools or weapons, and more likely to closely supervise all of their children’s activities, than parents even one generation ago.

Last week we explored why this might be, and offered some hypotheses on the origins of the modern trend towards highly protective parenting.

We posited that its root traces to a variety of fears: the fear of litigation, the fear of peer disapproval, the fear of not spending enough time with one’s children to make them into successful, emotionally well-adjusted adults, and most of all, the fear of something bad happening to one’s kids so that they never even reach adulthood.

Indeed, when parents are asked why they are so protective of their children these days, so much more than even their own parents were of them just 30 or 40 years ago, many will respond that the world is simply a more dangerous place now than when they were kids.

Is this the case? Are children today more likely to be assaulted, kidnapped, or killed than they were a few decades ago?

Today we’ll take a nuanced look into the surprising answers to these questions.

Is the World a More Dangerous Place for Kids Than It Used to Be?

In an article appropriately titled, “There’s Never Been a Safer Time to Be a Kid in America,” The Washington Post presents some very useful graphs and stats that can help us assess whether or not it’s become riskier to let children play without supervision than it was several decades back.

To begin with, the overall mortality rate of children in the United States has been in steady decline for the last 25 years — in fact, it’s never been lower:

child mortality rates 1990-2013 graph


Better medical interventions and more vaccinations explain part of this drop in childhood mortality, but not all of it, since the rate’s been declining even in the most recent decade, though standard vaccination regimens haven’t much changed in that time.

We also know that part of the decrease in the mortality of children empirically doeshave to do with a decline in traffic accidents and crimes, because there are stats that show that, too.

According to the National Highway Traffic Association, between 1993 and 2013 the number of juvenile pedestrians who were either injured or killed by being struck by a vehicle fell by about two-thirds — a dramatic drop made all the more dramatic when one considers that the U.S. population (and the number of vehicles on the road) rose over the same period.

Things are on the down and down regarding violent crimes against children as well. Between 1993 and 2004, violent assaults against children fell by an astonishing two-thirds (with sexual assaults declining even more). And as of 2008, the last year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics has data available, the rate of child homicides stood at near-record lows.

Overall, the rates of crimes against children have in most cases sunk to levels at or below those of 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; as the WaPo reports, “for a kid between the ages of 5 and 14 today, the chances of premature death by any means are roughly 1 in 10,000, or 0.01 percent.”

But what about the mother (and father) of all parental worries: the chances of your child going missing?

The rates are down there too — having dropped some 40% in the last two decades:

missing children graph 1993-2014


Again, keep in mind that the U.S. population rose by a third during this time, so that the actual rate of missing person reports fell even more than 40%.

It’s also important to understand that even among the cases of children going missing, very few fit the category of what’s called a “stereotypical kidnapping” — where a kid is abducted by a stranger by force. Among missing adults and children, 96% are actually runaways, with another percentage representing abductions by family members; only .1% of missing person cases are in fact true stranger kidnappings.

This percentage, as well as the overall chance of a child being abducted, has essentially held steady through the decades, standing at about 1 in 1.5 million. In Free Range Kids, Lenore Skenazy provides some incisive context for how truly tiny this risk is:

“The chances of any one American child being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are almost infinitesimally small: .00007 percent. Put yet another, even better way, by British author Warwick Cairns, who wrote the book How to Live Dangerously: if you actually wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, how long would you have to keep her outside, unattended, for this to be statistically likely to happen? About seven hundred and fifty thousand years.”

Overall, then, fewer children are being killed by cars or murderers, or going missing, and the extremely rare chance of their being kidnapped is about the same as when you were a kid.

The world simply isn’t a more dangerous place now that it used to be.