Is the sky really falling?

A couple of years ago, I tried to get a foundation to fund a study I wanted to do that I titled, “The Sky is not Falling“. Unfortunately, the foundation passed. This is from the Letter of Intent for my proposal:

The world is more dangerous today than it ever has been before.  Or so the media would have you believe.  Did you know teens are having more premarital sex than ever before?  Or was that ten years ago?  Twenty?   Did you know that violent video games are destroying society?  Or was that violence in movies?  TV?  Radio?

We hear about the additives in food which are poisoning us slowly (ignoring that food is probably safer now than at any other time in the history of the world).  We give credence to the idea that fluoride in the water is harming us (when most hail it as one of the greatest public health achievements in the last century).  Vaccines cause autism (except they don’t).  We should be eating less carbs, or less fat, or no sugar, or less protein – until that changes as well.  It seems like the rate of every disease is going through the roof, in spite of the fact that the life expectancy of the human race keeps increasing.  Our minds are rotting on entertainment, in spite of the fact that measures of intelligence do not show us getting dumber as a species.

Why do we believe these things so readily?  Why are we so eager to hear about them and act on them?  Is life really getting worse and worse every day?  Or – like Chicken Little – are we just prone to believing that the sky is falling.  Even worse, are we basing policy decisions on figurative boogymen?

Man, I wish they had let me do that work. This is one of my continual pet peeves as a pediatrician, this belief that the world is continually going to hell.

When I was a kid, my parents didn’t like comic books. We had no cable TV. They also thought video games were a total waste of time. Would you like to know what my hobbies are as an adult? I have a crazy huge comic book collection, I’m a kick-ass video game player, and I watch more TV than just about anyone I know. I think I turned out just fine.

I bring this up because of an op-ed in the NYT earlier this week:

WHEN I sit with my two teenagers, and they are a million miles away, absorbed by the titillating roil of online social life, the addictive pull of video games and virtual worlds, as they stare endlessly at video clips and digital pictures of themselves and their friends, it feels like something is wrong…

Childhood obesity mounts as junk food purveyors bombard children with advertising, even at school. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study reports that children spend more hours engaging with various electronic media — TV, games, videos and other online entertainments — than they spend in school. Much of what children watch involves violent, sexual imagery, and yet children’s media remain largely unregulated. Attempts to curb excesses — like California’s ban on the sale or rental of violent video games to minors — have been struck down by courts as free speech violations.

Another area of concern: we medicate increasing numbers of children with potentially harmful psychotropic drugs, a trend fueled in part by questionable and under-regulated pharmaceutical industry practices. In the early 2000s, for example, drug companies withheld data suggesting that such drugs were more dangerous and less effective for children and teenagers than parents had been led to believe. The law now requires “black box” warnings on those drugs’ labels, but regulators have done little more to protect children from sometimes unneeded and dangerous drug treatments.

Children today are also exposed to increasing quantities of toxic chemicals. We know that children, because their biological systems are still developing, are uniquely vulnerable to the dangers posed by many common chemical compounds. We also know that corporations often use such chemicals as key ingredients in children’s products, saturating their environments. Yet these chemicals remain in circulation, as current federal laws demand unreasonably high proof of harm before curbing a chemical’s use.

You know what? I love violent video games. When I was a kid, my brother and I played Mortal Kombat for hours and hours. Yes, that’s an anecdote, but so are the “data” that show harm. How much of the detrimental outcomes are caused by things we don’t like instead of just being associated with bad parenting? Do you know? Cause I don’t.

I don’t dispute that there are dangers in life now that did not exist before. I don’t dispute that there are concerns here that should be addressed. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that life, overall, seems to be getting better for the vast majority of people compared to the past. This is important, because when we focus on this kind of stuff, we ignore real dangers.

We need good studies in these areas.  We need someone to round up the research and look at actual outcomes over time. We need to see if these concerns have merit, or are just cyclical. I bet there are some awesome editorials in newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s bemoaning the advent of radio, and how it would rot kids’ minds.

I really wish they’d funded me for this work. It wasn’t that much money, and it would have been incredibly useful.

P.S. I’d still be happy to do it if any funders are interested!

Hidden information below


Email Address*