Junkfood Science: Scaring kids

June 20, 2008

Scaring kids

Countless school-based programs for children are attempting to scare them straight, fit or thin. But do you think it is ever right to scare impressionable children, threaten them with unsound information that something could kill them, or tell them that someone they love has died, in order to convince them to change their behavior? Certainly, we want to protect children and know that they won’t get into cars with strangers and stuff. But when does it cross the line?

Might the truthfulness of the information and proven effectiveness of the interventions offer us guidance? Two recent examples failed on both counts.

Associated Press recently reported that pupils in 20 classrooms in Oceanside, California, were visited by patrol officers and told devastating news: that their friends had been killed over the weekend. Their classmates wept and some became hysterical. Only hours later were they told it was all a hoax... It was part of an intervention to get them not to drink and drive.

DWI shock tactics at school defended

... school officials in the largely prosperous San Diego suburb are defending themselves against allegations they went too far. At school assemblies, some students held up posters that read: "Death is real. Don't play with our emotions."

Michelle de Gracia, 16, was in physics class when an officer announced that her missing classmate David, a popular basketball player, had died instantly after being rear-ended by a drunken driver. She said she felt nauseated but was too stunned to cry. "They got the shock they wanted," she said...

Others, including many who heard the news of the 26 deaths between classes, were left in the dark until the missing students reappeared hours later. "You feel betrayed by your teachers and administrators, these people you trust," said 15-year-old Carolyn Magos...

Officials at the 3,100-student school officials defended the program. "They were traumatized, but we wanted them to be traumatized," said guidance counselor Lori Tauber, who helped organize the shocking exercise and got dozens of students to participate. "That's how they get the message."

The plan was to tell the truth to the students at an assembly later in the day. But word that it was all a hoax began to spread before the gathering. Tauber said some counselors and administrators revealed the truth to calm some students who had become upset.

Oceanside Schools Superintendent Larry Perondi said he fielded only a few calls from parents, while the PTA chapter said it had not heard any complaints.

For years, school health curriculums have been trying to scare kids by telling them that they will be the first generation of kids to die before their parents and that they will get horrible diseases if they’re fat or don’t eat ‘good’ foods and exercise. The techniques used to scare them about foods and their bodies have reached extremes, going beyond embalmed diseased organs or teeth placed in acids. Activist groups have similarly targeted kids with gruesome claims of impending death from foods they find objectionable. Have there been public outcries, parent protests and child advocacy groups working to put a stop to children being subjected to scare tactics?

While there is no evidence that being scared and anxious is healthful for any age, is there any credible evidence that these scare tactics are effective and help children?

As we’ve seen repeatedly, the evidence is overwhelming that every program attempting to address childhood obesity or get children to adopt 'healthy' diets and lifestyles — regardless of the method or how intensive it is — has proven ineffective, with growing evidence of harmful consequences to both their physical and emotional well being. But what about other popular programs?

One of the most studied and the blueprint for other such interventions is the classic “Scared Straight” program, attempting to address juvenile delinquency. According to a Cochrane review of the evidence, such interventions have been shown to be more harmful than doing nothing. The programs proved negative in every measure. They concluded:

We conclude that programmes like 'Scared Straight' are likely to have a harmful effect and increase delinquency relative to doing nothing at all to the same youths. Given these results, agencies that permit such programmes must rigorously evaluate them... Results of this review indicate that not only does it fail to deter crime, but it actually leads to more offending behavior. Government officials permitting this program need to adopt rigorous evaluation to ensure that they are not causing more harm to the very citizens they pledge to protect.

Young people don’t have the level of abstract thinking capabilities to process scary information and make rational decisions. They can only react to issues emotionally, which makes them vulnerable to anyone willing to take advantage of them and use fear to manipulate them. And plenty are. Adults that kids look up to are in positions to help protect them from scare-based health curriculums, especially ones that aren’t factual. That school officials aren’t... that’s frightening.

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