When Fear Goes Viral: Panic should never replace instinct

Would you call the cops if you saw this guy on the playground, alone? Answer carefully -- that's my dad!

In my last post, I answered a question from a reader who wanted to know how we could, as parents, quit being an overprotective helicopter parent (which I espouse! Land that  ‘copter, please!), but still keep our kids safe from ever-present danger. My answer was that danger may be ever-present, but not the kind of danger we’re all so afraid of. Life, as in being human, is and always has been dangerous. You could get eaten by a saber toothed tiger, right? Or slip in the bathtub. But there’s close to zero chance that your child is going to be grabbed off the playground by a random pedophile, or that if your four-year-old answers the door to the UPS guy, that the delivery person will just suddenly decide to snatch him. That would mean that all non-supervised playground time is inherently dangerous, or that a child can never, ever answer the door.

And what about that guy who’s standing sorta near the soccer field, watching? That older dude in the golf-club hat? Should we whip out our iPhone, take a surreptitious picture, call the cops, and spread the word that the local soccer field has a lurking possible pedophile?

No, because that’s my dad. Seriously, it is my dad. No one called the cops that time my dad spent the bulk of one of my sons’ games last fall hanging around near the goal, but they might have. After all, he was unfamiliar to most of the parents, and he didn’t seem attached to any particular family. He was standing there, rather than sitting with my mom and me, because he likes to stand after sitting in the car for the 45 minutes it takes to drive to my town, and because he could see my son’s signature slide-kick better from that vantage point. But I did wonder if anyone, well, wondered.

I bring this up because there’s a wonderful essay, published in the On Parenting blog on Washington Post online today that was excellent because it made me think about this issue — who’s scary, what’s scary, and how do we decide? — in a slightly new way. I also took note because the story the writer, Janice D’Arcy, mentions — about a so-called threat about an unidentified man hanging around playgrounds that went viral — began in a Washington, D.C. park, and we are heading to DC this weekend for a family visit (say a little prayer for me for good weather and no traffic, okay?).

It seems someone saw a man sitting on a park bench, near a playground, drinking coffee. Far as anyone could can tell, he didn’t approach any kids, but the fuzzy iPhone photos began zipping around the Internet, and the police got involved.

But here’s what happens when you receive a viral email that insists you should be wary, that you should be looking for a “creepy” character in the park, that you should pass along this email to your friends, that you have to shadow your child as he plays: You start to feel something like peer-pressure to panic. What if you don’t properly panic? What if you blow it off? You’re not as good a parent, right? So you dutifully panic.

Another thing that happens, when fear goes viral, is that you’re operating without any realistic perspective on the story. Say your best friend tells you that she saw a guy on the playground more than once and she wasn’t sure who he was or what he was doing there. You could then take that information for what it was worth to you. You could take your friend’s personality into account. Is she the kind who always seems suspicious? Then you might take her warning with a grain of salt. Or is she someone who lets her kids go to the park solo and never talks about stranger danger? In that case you might feel your warning antenna tingle.

But when it’s an email? Worded in that way designed to incite panic? You have zero frame of reference.

As D’Arcy writes:

No longer are hunches spread among friends.They are spread online. This has benefits as warnings can head off real danger, which this person may possibly pose. But unverified information and unjustified fear can also go viral.

If it’s someone else’s hunch, how can we determine if we should dismiss it or embrace it?


Someone else’s hunch. That leaves out one very major thing: Your instinct! You have it, or you should. I’d argue that taking those notes and viral emails and stories on Fox News and CNN as articles of faith is stripping us of our instincts.

Listen, I take those letters I get from my kids’ school district (“two girls from Stimson School reported seeing a suspicious white van slowing down near the bus stop at X Street and K Lane…”) and toss them in the recycling. Because I’d rather teach my children how to judge the relative danger of any particular situation, give them internal fortitude and smarts and a well-honed tingle-antenna, than tell them about any specific white van to look for, or guy in a golf-club hat.

What do you think?