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Swings and roundabouts: 

risk anxiety and the everyday worlds of children.

Sociology 11/1998

Scott, Sue
Jackson, Stevi
Backett-Milburn, Kathryn


A number of key antinomies have emerged in relation to children and childhood in late modernity: in particular, contradictions between recognising children's autonomy and the increasing emphasis on child protection; the paradoxical perception of children as both at risk and as a potential threat to other children and to social order. These contradictions may be expressed as tensions between two conceptualisations of children: as active, knowing, autonomous individuals, on the one hand, and as passive, innocent dependants, on the other. Our focus here is on risk and risk anxiety in general and more specifically on the sexualisation of risk in relation to children and the consequences of this for children's daily lives. In a climate of increased public and professional anxiety about the sexual abuse of children, notions of sexual risk increasingly inform political debate, public policy and child education campaigns around safety and danger. However, the salience of anxieties about sexuality can only be fully understood by locating them within broader 'landscapes of risk' (Davison 1991).

Recent social theory has conceptualised risk anxiety as a social state engendered by an increasing lack of trust in both the project of modernity and expert knowledges (Giddens 1990, 1991; Beck 1992). Modernity can be characterised, in part, by risk taking and risk minimisation: venture capital and the stockmarket alongside insurance and immunisation. It is recognised that the future is unknowable, while at the same time being seen as open to human intervention and colonisation. The future becomes, according to Giddens, 'a territory of counterfactual possibility' and thus open to risk calculation (1991:111). In the late twentieth century we live our everyday lives amidst the almost constant reflexive monitoring of global risk which pervades our sense of how to manage ourselves and the world, with little regard for either actual global magnitude or local specificity. There are no easy answers, each intervention appears to bring its own dangers: immunisation against whooping cough may both save lives and damage children. Different experts tell different stories, and this produces a tendency to trust no one and to become our own experts, drawing on whatever sources of information are available to us, for example the media.

Here we are drawing on conceptualisations developed by Giddens, which locate risk in the wider context of modernity. This understanding of risk anxiety differs from older analyses of moral panics (Cohen 1972), although the phenomena these concepts encapsulate are related. For example, the panic currently being whipped up by the possibility of a 'paedophile' moving into a given locality locks into the more generalised anxieties which parents feel in relation to the world and the safety of their children. A specific focus for action is produced and with it the impression that if only 'evil strangers' could be banished then the sun would shine on childhood once more. Such panics are not, however, the whole story. Moral panics are usually short-lived, generated through publicly aired concerns about particular events or situations about which 'something should be done' - usually by 'the authorities'. Risk anxiety, by contrast, is a more constant and pervasive feature of everyday consciousness, managed through everyday practices; it might be fuelled by public discussions of risk, but individuals are left to find their own ways of coping with the uncertainty it engenders.

The point . . . is not that day to day life is inherently more risky than was the case in prior eras. It is rather that, in conditions of modernity, for lay actors as well as for experts in specific fields, thinking in terms of risk and risk assessment is a more or less ever-present exercise, of a partly imponderable character. (Giddens 1991:123-4)

If, as Giddens suggests, risk anxiety is a pervasive feature of everyday life, more needs to be known about how this is woven into our quotidian social reality. The conceptualisation of risk discussed thus far lacks a strong empirical base and pays little attention to differentiations of gender and generation. Moreover, existing empirical research tends to start from specific activities already established as 'risky'-such as health hazards, drug use or unprotected sex (Plant and Plant 1992; Davison et al. 1991; Rogers and Pilgrim 1995). We are suggesting that more insight might be gained from a focus on the embeddedness of risk and risk anxiety in specific contexts. As a routine area of everyday interaction invested with a great deal of moral and emotional significance, adult-child relations are a useful site from which to begin to map out such a perspective. While Giddens (1992) offers some discussion of the management of risk and risk anxiety in the context of everyday life and in the sphere of the intimate, he does so from the perspective of a reflexive adult social actor (see Jamieson 1997; Scott and Freeman 1995).

A focus on children and childhood provides a means of beginning to develop a more nuanced understanding of risk sensitive to social distinctions such as age and gender. Children are the object of a great deal of social concern: increasing anxiety about risk has been superimposed upon a 'protective discourse' (Thomson and Scott 1991) within which children are located as vulnerable innocents to be shielded from the dangers of the wider social (implicitly adult) world. The fusion of risk anxiety with protectiveness engenders a preoccupation with prevention (Scott and Freeman 1995; Green 1997), a need for constant vigilance in order to anticipate and guard against potential threats to children's well-being.

Existing research on children and childhood, even where not addressed specifically to questions of risk and risk anxiety, suggests that risk management might be central to an understanding of the social construction of childhood and the everyday experience of children. Ideas about children's competences (or lack of them), their specific vulnerability and their (im)maturity, inform adult decisions about the degree of surveillance children require and the degree of autonomy they can be permitted. At a wider - cultural - level, risk anxiety may play a part in constituting the idea of childhood, in that concern for children's safety is of a different order from concerns about adult safety. Risks to children are represented as inherently more grave than risks to adults: it is almost beyond debate that we should 'protect' children, that any potential risk to them should be taken very seriously. As adults we can decide to take risks, or to balance risk against pleasure, in our pursuit of sexual gratification or a sun-tan. Where children are concerned, risk assessment entails weighing some risks against others, for example fears for their safety as against the concomitant dangers of overprotection. Moreover, these judgements are made from an adult perspective, by adults, on children's behalf.

In what follows, then, we explore the potential for applying the concepts of risk and risk anxiety to the everyday world of childhood, evaluating what is empirically known about the ways in which adult anxieties shape children's lives and identifying areas which require further research. We will indicate ways in which children (as particular cherished beings) and childhood (as a cherished state of being) are constructed as 'at risk'. Risk anxiety is primarily expressed as fear for children - worries about their safety and well-being - but also as fear of children, of what children might do if they are not kept within the boundaries of acceptable childish conduct. Within this landscape of risk, sexuality is a prominent feature, figuring both as threat to children and, where imputed to children themselves, as symptomatic of a dangerous precocity.

Children and Childhood

We take it as axiomatic that childhood is socially constructed rather than being intrinsic to the state of being a child. The construction of childhood needs to be understood at a number of different levels: the structural, the discursive and the situated. Childhood is institutionalised through family, education and the state, resulting in dependence on adults and exclusion from full participation in adult society. Indeed, it can be argued that many aspects of childhood today have been shaped through the structural and institutional changes of the last two hundred years (Qvortrup 1997). At the level of discourse, childhood was constituted as an object of the scientific gaze primarily through psychology (Rose 1989); subsequently social workers, educationalists and others have claimed expertise in monitoring, categorising and managing childhood and children. These expert knowledges have shaped commonsense understandings of childhood as a natural state, so that we are all assumed to 'know' what a child is, to be able to comment on what constitutes a 'proper' childhood. The meaning of childhood is also negotiated through everyday situated interaction. Here, within the structural constraints of adult-child relations, generalised understandings of childhood may be modified; they may not, in concrete social settings, coincide precisely with adult views of children as such, and these views about children in general may differ again from parents' ideas about their own children.

In everyday life abstract ideas of 'the child' come up against the actuality of children of different ages and genders, with a range of attributes and capacities (Backett 1982). Children themselves enter into the picture here as active social agents. However, children's participation in constructing their own everyday world takes place within the constraints set by their subordinate location in relation to adults, where their own understanding of what it means to be a child has been shaped by their interaction with more powerful, adult, social actors with pre-existing, albeit renegotiable, ideas about childhood and children. There is no free and autonomous realm of childhood outside the social relations in which childhood in general, and individual childhoods, are forged. We need both to understand the social world of the child and acknowledge that this world is bounded by adult surveillance of children (Brannen and O'Brien 1995).

Traditionally social scientists conceptualised childhood primarily within the socialisation paradigm, in which children were seen as adults in waiting whose experiences were only worth investigating in so far as they shaped adult attributes or life-chances (Thorne 1987). Recent sociological work has challenged such adult-centred approaches (Thorne 1987, 1993; Leonard 1990; James and Prout 1990; Waksler 1991; Mayall 1994),(1) but developmental perspectives remain prominent in everyday thinking as well as in professional and public discourse and, as we shall see, help shape risk assessment in relation to children.

Risky Childhoods

Children most often come under public scrutiny when they are perceived as in danger (as victims of adult abuse or neglect) or as a danger to others (as delinquents and vandals) (Thorne 1987). Often such concerns can be seen to reflect risk anxiety as much as actual danger-for example, the recent heightened awareness of sexual and fatal risk from strangers in the United Kingdom, despite the lack of evidence that risk to children comes primarily from this quarter. While there has been an increase in recorded crimes of violence against children, three-quarters of the perpetrators are parents and others relatives. The children most at risk of being murdered are infants under the age of 1: hardly those most exposed to 'stranger danger'; children aged 5-15 are, of all members of society, the least likely to be victims of homicide. It is not until children reach the age of 15 or 16 that danger from strangers becomes more significant than that from intimates (CSO 1994, 1995). Up to February 1996 (prior to the killings in Dunblane), fewer than six children under 14 had been killed by strangers each year since 1984, in the United Kingdom. This can be contrasted with approximately 600 per year who die in accidents (CSO 1994). Media coverage would suggest a reverse order of danger. The existence of this threat from strangers is taken for granted as beyond question and it is widely assumed to be a sexual threat. For example, in a discussion of children and gardening on Women's Hour (BBC Radio 4, 30 January 1998), gardening was promoted as a safe outdoor activity for children since 'you can't let them play out in the street any more - they may get molested'.

While it is well documented that sexual risk to children is most likely to be posed by intimates, it is 'stranger danger' which hits the headlines, captures the popular imagination and informs education campaigns. From an initial Home Office campaign in Leeds in 1988 warning children against strangers, 'stranger-danger' programmes carried out through police visits to primary schools have proliferated. It is perhaps therefore hardly surprising that a recent study found that fear of attack by strangers was seen as the single most significant risk to children when they ventured outside the home, and in the case of girls this was identified as a specifically sexual risk (Hood et al. 1996). A recent quick and dirty poll, discussed on the television programme Frontline Scotland and reported in the Scottish Daily Mail on 20 January 1998, showed that parents vastly over-estimated risks to children and were over-protecting them as a result.

It is unwise to interpret this apparent gap between parental worries and statistical probabilities as indicative of ignorance or stupidity - the line taken by the Scottish Daily Mail. We cannot assume, in the absence of reliable research, that parents fail to assess risks 'realistically'. If parents do not take danger seriously, perhaps they risk being seen by others as uncaring or irresponsible. Parents may know the statistical probability of their child being sexually assaulted or murdered by a stranger to be slight, but the fact that it happens at all might be enough to make them fear for their own. It is a pessimistic version of the impetus which draws people to the lottery: the chances of the desired or feared outcome are small but 'it could be you'.

None the less, risk anxiety does have material effects. Parental fears can limit children's lives and experiences in a range of ways, thus increasing their dependence on adults. For example, whereas 80 per cent of 7 and 8 year olds in the United Kingdom went to school on their own in 1971, only 9 per cent were doing so in 1990 (Hillman et al. 1990). While there are undoubtedly other factors which contribute to this trend, such as increased car ownership, this statistic is nevertheless indicative of decreasing opportunities for children to develop autonomy and self-reliance. This in turn produces yet another set of publicly aired risk anxieties relating to children's health and life experience (see, for example, articles in the Guardian, 1 August 1995 and the Observer, 10 March 1996, and The Moral Maze, BBC Radio 4, 11 December 1997). These concerns initially focused on the 'couch potato syndrome', but increasingly anxieties have been aired about over-protecting children. For example, the Scottish Daily Mail article cited above accuses parents of 'raising a generation of mollycoddled children who will be incapable of taking responsible decisions as they grow up'. This, we were told, came as a warning from 'experts'.

These concerns are very clearly framed within the socialisation paradigm in which children as future adults, rather than the lives of children in the present, is the main issue. It is hardly surprising given the tensions between protecting children and permitting their autonomy, that parents should look to 'experts' for a set of rules which, having external authority, may lend a sense of certainty to the decisions parents take. The advice they are given is once again framed within a developmental model of childhood. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children offers guidelines on the age at which children are competent to do certain things. For example, 8 year olds are too young to go to school alone and 7 year olds are too young for unaccompanied visits to the shops (Observer Life, 10 March 1996). Such guidelines tend to bureaucratise decisions in relation to children, producing standardised responses without regard to the social context or life experience of individual children. They are couched within a developmental linear model which serves to delineate the boundaries of children's lives, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy - children cannot be competent to do things which they have never been allowed to do (Thorne 1987).

Thus keeping children safe can entail keeping them childlike and dependent. It has been suggested that acting as gatekeepers of children's freedom in this way is a means by which parents maintain their power over children (Hood-Williams 1990). However, we cannot assume that children are always willing to be bounded either by definitions of them as dependent and lacking in adult competencies or by attempts to curtail their activities. David Sibley (1995) has suggested that children's own sensations of fear, anxiety and excitement are associated with the crossing of those temporal and spatial boundaries which serve to define their place within family and locality. While these boundaries are primarily established and maintained by adults, they may be tested and challenged by children. Much of adult-child negotiation about boundaries of what, where, when, how and with whom children are allowed to engage in particular activities - is likely to be framed in terms of potential risk.

The degree of anxiety generated by risks to children is associated with a particular construction of childhood as an age of innocence and vulnerability which adults have a duty to protect. Hence the increasing emphasis on children as innocent victims when adults fail in this duty (Scott and Watson-Brown 1997). Threats to children's well-being are deemed more pernicious than similar threats to adults as could be seen clearly in the media response to the shooting of sixteen children in Dunblane in March 1996. Public sympathy was evoked through appeals to a sanctified image of childhood innocence: to mark the first anniversary of the murders we were requested to 'light a candle for the angels'. Media representations were redolent with evocations of an idealised white middle-class childhood filled with 'loving parents and siblings; sunny classrooms; Start-rite sandals and teddy bears' (Scott and Watson-Brown 1997).

Despite the prevalence of the idea of the innocent child, this has never entirely subsumed an alternative, older view of the child as sinful and unruly (Skolnick 1980; Jackson 1990). Children are often characterised in everyday talk as little devils in one breath and little angels in the next. However, it is common for parents to see their own children primarily as innocent and vulnerable as opposed to other children who are potentially threatening (Valentine 1996). Whereas the dead children of Dunblane, as innocent angels, symbolically became all our children, those children whose actions belie the notion of innocence are characterised as truly demonic. This occurred in Britain in 1993 in the case of James Bulger's murderers. That a small child was killed by other, albeit older, children potentially destabilised idealised images of childhood (Jenks 1996): hence the efforts made to distance the boy killers from 'normal' children through depictions of them as evil beyond comprehension. This parallels the media representation of women such as Myra Hindley and Rosemary West; women and children who kill are deemed monstrous, doubly transgressive - in having murdered they have also acted against feminine or childlike 'nature'.

Childhood at Risk

Whether cast as demons or innocents, children are constructed as radically other, separating them off from the 'real world' of adults - who have the power to define. There is a strong cultural emphasis on marking the boundary between childhood and adulthood - on keeping children childlike (Jackson 1982). For example, in a recent television debate, those in favour of retaining or raising the age of consent continually emphasised the distinctiveness of adults and children and the necessity of preserving this distinction. One participant, Melanie Phillips, claimed that we have 'lost sight of the distinction between childhood and adulthood' and argued that society should start 'treating children as children and adults as adults' (The Heart of the Matter, BBC 1, 1 February 1998).

Both threats to the well-being of children and children who are themselves threatening seem to destabilise this boundary. This produces anxiety about childhood itself. It is of course the childhood of innocence which is seen to be threatened: 'To have to stand and wait as the charm, malleability, innocence and curiosity of children are degraded and then transmogrified into the lesser features of pseudo-adulthood is painful and embarrassing and, above all, sad.' Here Postman (1994:xiii) is expressing a widely aired concern that children are growing up too quickly without experiencing childhood to the full (an example of which we consider below). Precocity in a child is something to be guarded against - and the word precocious has acquired all manner of negative connotations. The precocious child is not only one who knows more than s/he ought but is also a child who does not know her/his place, who speaks out of turn, who refuses to affect a properly childlike, cute and subservient demeanour. Childhood is seen as being at risk from pressures towards early maturity, conspicuous consumption and precocious sexuality (as well as any experience of pain, suffering or loss), highlighting a fundamental contradiction in discourses around children and childhood: childhood is regarded as a natural state and yet also as perpetually at risk. Constant vigilance is required in order to protect, preserve and manage childhood for the sake of the children.

There are two distinct but often conflated notions of nature and the natural which are mobilised in relation to childhood. The first of these can be designated 'scientific nativism' (cf. Connell and Dowsett (1992) on sexuality). Here childhood is understood as a series of biologically ordained developmental stages, as in the socialisation paradigm. The second form of nativism draws on understandings of a natural order in which children have their proper place. These give rise to different forms of anxiety: on the one hand, concerns about the consequences of perverting the normal course of development and, on the other, fears of disrupting social order.

Children themselves seem to threaten the institution of childhood when they are 'out of control', when they are disruptive at school or turn to crime. Such children refuse to remain in the spaces allotted to them by adults or disrupt these spaces from within. These are children whose conduct directly contradicts the ideal of the innocent child. The figure of the child criminal is one evoked by Postman (1994) as evidence of the disappearance of childhood. It also features prominently in the press. We hear about children who rob, steal and commit assault and about joyriders so young they can barely see over the steering wheel. We are often incited to moral outrage by the supposed newness of such events. Hence much of the coverage of the James Bulger story ignored previous child murderers (see Jenks 1996). Anxiety about child crime, however, is not new. The history of the Victorian era is littered with public concern about the morals of the young and gangs of child criminals roaming the streets- children who are not fully children, who overstep the proper boundaries of childhood (Pearson 1985; Davin 1990). One way of dealing with the unruly child, with the spectre of the demonic child, is to declare that child not a child.

Fears for children tend to be expressed through the idiom of children robbed of their childhood. Here, there is general discomfort about loss of sexual innocence, pressures to be grown up, as well as more specific concerns about the hot-housing of child prodigies or children forced to take on adult responsibilities. Paradoxically, worries about children being denied a childhood are occurring in the context of social trends which appear to reinforce childhood dependency, for example the evidence we have cited on children's declining autonomy. Yet this too can be re-framed in the idiom of lost childhood, a loss of freedom expressed as nostalgia for the fictive childhood of Swallows and Amazons or the 'Famous Five'. It is interesting to note that childhood is the only form of social subordination equated with a state of freedom.

The two elements of the story of lost childhood, pressures to early maturity and restricted freedom, are interconnected: the former is assumed to lead to the latter. An example of this process can be found in media accounts of child beauty pageants in the United States. This issue was initially brought to the attention of the British public when, early in 1996, BBC2 screened a documentary following the progress of 5-year-old beauty queens Brooke Breedwell and Asia Mansur.(2) On Boxing Day 1996 another star of the child pageant circuit, 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered in Boulder, Colorado. Common themes emerged in media responses on both occasions. First children were represented as having been deprived of their childhood by over ambitious parents:

Childhood is forgotten in a whirl of singing lessons, modelling tutorials, photo-sessions and hairdressers appointments.

(Alison Graham on Brooke Breedwell, Radio Times, 27 January-2 February 1996)

Her face plastered in make-up, her hair dyed a perfect blonde like an animated Barbie doll, she was the very pattern of a child pushed forward and exploited by her mother, turned to adult ambitions and fantasies while still an infant.

(Glasgow Herald, 13 January 1997, on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey)

Quite apart from mother-blaming, this latter comment reveals what was often at the heart of the concerns expressed in the media. The Glasgow Herald compares JonBenet Ramsey's situation with that of young gymnasts and musicians, driven on by their parents, but comments that these at least do not 'carry a whiff of sexual exploitation and pornography'. It is the sexualisation of these girls which is seen as particularly problematic- their make-up, their clothes, the routines they perform, their whole demeanour. Alison Graham describes Brooke Breedwell as 'pretending a sexuality she should know nothing about'.

The media concentrated on what marks the 'difference' between these girls and 'normal' children, summed up in the headline to Tim Cornwell's piece in the Independent - 'Too much too young', in which he describes JonBenet Ramsey as a 'precocious and pretty child' involved in a 'grotesque' enterprise. Yet the phenomenon of child beauty contests would not be possible without the institutionalised subordination of children, the almost absolute power which parents have over their children, the remarkable degree of control they exert over the child's body (Hood-Williams 1990). Moreover, the sexualisation of girlhood is not exceptional. Many a small girl has been taught that 'in order to be pleasing she must be pretty as a picture' and encouraged to gain attention through 'childish coquetry' (Beauvoir 1972:306). Innocence itself is routinely sexualised (Kitzinger 1988; Ennew 1986) and this may indeed be part of the attraction of the pageant.

Children and Sexuality

Both public and parental anxieties accrete around the issue of early sexual maturity which is seen as a particular threat to cherished ideals of childhood. Panic about teenage pregnancy rates and negative views of sex education illustrate the common equation of childhood innocence with sexual ignorance. Early interest in sex is commonly construed as a danger sign - often as an indicator that the child has been abused - but also that the child might be a potential abuser of others. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald on abusive children advised parents to seek professional help if their child displayed 'sexual knowledge too great for (their) age' 19 November 1996), and commented that early detection and treatment was necessary for children who engaged in 'age-inappropriate or coercive sexual behaviour'. This bracketing together of age-inappropriate and coercive acts is particularly worrying, implying as it does that they are one and the same. While we are sensitive to the possibility that children who display sexual knowledge may indeed have been abused, there are other reasons why children might be sexually knowledgeable. It is dangerous to assume that there is something inherently wrong in children knowing about sex.

Access to sexual knowledge is an important boundary marker between children and adults (Jackson 1982). This is evident, for example, in public debates about the 9 o'clock watershed through which television programming in Britain is divided between 'family' and 'adult' entertainment. Television has become a locus of parental anxiety about children's exposure to sex and violence (Buckingham 1994). Moreover, recent technological developments such as video and the Internet may mean that parents cannot effectively control the information their children are receiving. Indeed children can often directly access knowledge which their parents cannot. Technological literacy is profoundly gendered and mothers in particular may feel ill equipped to police their children's access to new sources of information. Even where new technologies are not involved, parents are capable of being surprised and shocked by the sexual information available to their children, as evinced by the recent public debate on the content of magazines read by girls in their early teens (Jackson 1996).(3)

While there may be cause for feminist concern in relation to the reinforcement of a heterosexual ideal in these magazines, it is also important to point out their potential value. They may be the main, if not the only, source of useful and accessible information about sex for those girls who might otherwise lack the means through which to explore their understandings of sexuality. Public anxiety in relation to these magazines seemed to entail the assumption that preserving girls' ignorance was a means of preserving their purity. Not only is ignorance no protection, but it is crucial to point out that there is no real evidence that knowing more about sex increases sexual activity (Scott, Wight and Buston 1997). Teenage girls are not as easily led as is often supposed, but are quite capable of reading magazines critically (Frazer 1988). While adult assumptions about the impressionability of youth demean and devalue young people in general it is girls who are considered to be particularly at risk. Nobody seems particularly anxious about the sexual content of what boys are reading; in the case of boys, adult concerns centre on violence rather than sexuality- and on boys as potentially threatening to others rather than being 'at risk'.

Adults worry about access to sexual knowledge for children of all ages, particularly that they might learn too much too soon. Parents often appear willing to mandate teachers to undertake sex education on the assumption that they will be told the right things at the right time just as they will learn addition before multiplication (Scott, Wight and Buston 1997). Yet when schools depart from these expectations, once again we are faced with scares about innocence corrupted. Of course, there is a real sense in which sex does pose a threat to children, not through their own knowledge but through the abusive actions of adults.

As we have already suggested, parental risk anxiety often crystallises around the threat of sexual violence from strangers,(4) but the sexual component of such risks is rarely made explicit to children. Adults project their sexual scripts and anxieties onto children in ways which are relatively inaccessible because they are bounded by what cannot be said. This makes it extremely difficult to communicate to children the precise nature of the danger they are being warned about. Hence children have to struggle to make sense of a jigsaw puzzle of knowledge from which many pieces are missing (Jackson 1982; Thomson and Scott 1990). Children are denied access to the 'full story' which informs adult understandings, because sex itself is often thought of as a risk to children (Jackson 1982; Stainton-Rogers and Stainton-Rogers 1992), and indeed to childhood itself.

Real and Imagined Dangers

The negotiation of risk entails both strategies for managing actual risks and dangers and also strategies for the rationalisation of fear and anxiety. Adults may know that some imagined hazards are unlikely to befall their children yet none the less feel anxious about them. Similarly children may know that some dangers are very real while others are part of fantasy worlds - but might still find the latter frightening. We need to know more about the ways in which material and imaginary dangers feature in both parents' and children's landscapes of risk and the extent to which they inform the management of risk anxiety and practices for ensuring safety. Parents' ideas about what is likely to frighten or threaten their children may not be the same things which children themselves find scary.

The social world of children is divided into safe and dangerous places which has consequences for children's use of space, where they are allowed to go and the places they themselves feel safe in, frightened or excited by. Both parental risk anxiety and children's consciousness of risk need to be set in the context of what children actually do, their journeys to and from school, their patterns of leisure, etc. It may be that the decline in independent mobility noted by Hillman et al. (1990) is related not only to parental risk anxieties but also to the places in which children increasingly spend their leisure time. For example, primary school children are frequent cinema goers (CSO 1994), but if they visit large out-of-town multiplex cinemas rather than local ones, they are more likely to be taken there, in cars, by adults. Ferrying children around now constitutes a major part of parental care-work (Cowan 1983; Deem 1986).(5)

Safety and danger depend upon the immediate locality in which children live their lives. One crucial aspect of the spatial distribution of risk anxiety is the difference between urban and rural locations. There are both material and imaginary differences between the city and the country. On the one hand, rural and urban living have tangible affects on the spatial and temporal ordering of children's lives: travel to school, the organisation of their social lives, where they play and their personal knowledge of the neighbourhood and the people in it. On the other hand, the meanings of the 'urban' and the 'rural' are socially constructed (Savage and Warde 1993): for example, the idea of cities as dangerous spaces haunted by the spectres of crime and violence versus romanticised and nostalgic views of the countryside (Williams 1973). The salience of these ideas in the popular imagination has been clear in the aftermath of the Dunblane tragedy: numerous commentaries have suggested that small towns ought to be safe, that the incident would make more sense had it happened in Glasgow.

In dealing with these constructions of the country and the city, we again need to be alert to different shapes these imaginary realms might take on in the minds of adults and children. The countryside is the setting for classic children's stories and fairy tales as well as recent gothic horror stories and films consumed avidly by children. Hence, children might not see the country as safe at all, but as dark, spooky and filled with horrors. There are also likely to be differences in children's images of urban and rural space depending on their own experience of them. What a city child finds terrifying may leave a rural child unmoved and vice versa. The particularities of urban and rural settings suggest that whatever globalisation of experience has occurred it is always mediated through the specificity of local practices and contexts.

Ideas about safe and dangerous places also have a temporal dimension. Both children's and parents' perceptions of safe and dangerous spaces in the city and the country might vary with context and time of day. For example, spaces regarded as safe for children in daylight hours can be considered dangerous after dark. Interestingly for our concern with sexualised risk, darkness seems to be associated in the minds of parents with fears of violent sexual assault (Hillman et al. 1990). The lateness of the hour also focuses parental minds on the risk of consensual sex and is a major rationale for curfews on teenage girls in particular.


We hope that we have made it clear that we are not discounting the real dangers facing children today. We do not share the libertarian agenda of Frank Furedi (1997) who suggests that all concerns about risk are imaginings produced by the 'culture of fear'. The goal of protecting children, however, is not best served by keeping them dependent and fearful. For example, children who have been given generalised warnings against all strangers, without information about the threat they may pose, are unlikely to be able to differentiate between threatening and non-threatening situations. If children are schooled never to speak to strangers they may also be afraid of seeking help in an emergency.(6)

Moreover risk anxiety, engendered by the desire to keep children safe, frequently has negative consequences for children themselves. The anxiety that events such as Dunblane generate serves, potentially, to curtail children's activities in ways that may restrict their autonomy and their opportunities to develop the necessary skills to cope with the world. Although the parents of the sixteen children who died could not be found guilty of sending them to school, other parents - and especially mothers - will be seen as culpable if they allow their children some independence and harm comes of it. Parental risk anxiety is heightened by particular discourses around parental responsibility. Parents are not only responsible for caring for children they are also held responsible for their children's well-being and conduct and are thus accountable if their children are victimised or if they victimise others.

The sexualisation of risk anxiety focuses on risks which are relatively rare as opposed to the all-too-common dangers posed by abusive fathers and other male carers.(7) When children are sexually abused, this is frequently constructed as a despoliation of innocence rather than an abuse of power. The idea that sexuality per se is inimical to children's well-being and the concomitant withholding of sexual knowledge from them may not promote their safety - certainly in so far as they are kept ignorant of forms of adult behaviour which pose a threat. In trying to combat sexual risk while safeguarding childhood 'innocence', what is gained on the swings of protection may be lost on the roundabouts of confusion, vulnerability and dependency. We need to know more about how children decode those parental admonitions about safety and danger which are informed by adult understandings of sexual risk, how they contribute to children's speculations about sexuality. How do children make sense of these when they are bounded by what cannot be said, when the sexual aspects of danger are not made explicit, when children themselves do not have access to sexual scripts which might enable them both to understand the warnings they are given and apply them to situations in which risk may be a factor? The consequences of sexualised risk anxiety require further investigation in the context of the wider landscapes of risk which haunt the parental imagination and circumscribe the lives of children.


1. The current ESRC initiative, 'Children 5-16, Growing into the Twenty-First Century' also prioritises a research focus on children as social actors and will vastly increase our knowledge of the world from the point of view of children.

2. This programme was recently re-run, introduced with a passing reference to JonBenet Ramsey's murder and concluding with an update on the two protagonists' subsequent careers on the child pageant circuit. In publicising the repeat, Radio Times played up the public response to the original showing: 'It was fantastic television but it caused absolute uproar. People found it very disturbing to see these youngsters actually looking like barbie dolls rather than playing with them'. We were reminded that the girls' parents had been criticised for 'coaching their offspring to display a sexuality completely inappropriate to their age' (Radio Times, 7-13 February 1998, p.92).

3. These anxieties led to, and were given further publicity by, the introduction of a private member's bill in February 1996 which aimed to make it mandatory to print minimum recommended ages on the covers of the magazines.

4. In the United States, the rape and murder of a child by a man with a record of sex offences who lived across the street led to a successful campaign to change the law, so that the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders can be made public. In the United Kingdom public pressure has led to the establishment of a register of sex offenders.

5. Children's everyday activities and risk anxieties associated with them are circumscribed by a range of social factors: class and ethnicity require investigation here, as well as differences of age, gender and locality.

6. A Lothian and Borders Police 'Stranger-Danger' talk to 9 year olds in a primary school in 1997 identified police officers, shopkeepers and 'ladies with children' as 'safe strangers'.

7. We are aware that women can abuse children and occasionally sexually abuse them, but this is far rarer than male abuse - and it is the disjunction between perceptions of major risks and statistically more probable risk which concerns us here.


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Biographical Note: SUE SCOTT is Professor of Sociology at the University of Stirling; STEVI JACKSON is Professor of Women's Studies at the University of York; and KATHRYN BACKETT-MILBURN is Senior Research Fellow at the Research Unit for Health and Behavioural Change at the University of Edinburgh. They are currently, along with Jeni Harden, involved in a project entitled 'Risk, parental risk anxiety and the everyday worlds of children', which is funded in the ESRC Children 5-16 Programme.

Addresses: Scott: Department of Applied Social Science, University of Starling, Stirling, FK9 4LA; Jackson: Centre for Women's Studies, University of York, Heslington, York, YO1 5DD; Backett-Milburn: Department of Public Health Sciences, University of Edinburgh Medical School, Teviot Place, Edinburgh, EH8 9AG.


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