The Times

June 11 2000

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Too protected: child health specialists Stuart Waiton and Jennifer Cunningham (above) are concerned about the impact of safety-obsessed parenting

Children safer despite the worries of parents

Lucy Adams
The Times

THE streets are safer for children than ever before. New research has established that the frequency of child abduction, injury in car accidents, attacks and murder is lower now than for a decade - but parents are more worried than ever.

The myth of lurking danger at every street corner has so alarmed children's charity Play Scotland that at a conference in Glasgow yesterday it tried to convince parents they are presenting a risk to their children by being overprotective.

Stuart Waiton, a PhD research student who helped to co-ordinate the conference, said: "Abductions have not increased in more than 60 years, but parents are afraid to let children out of their sight and they are now suffering.

"Unsupervised play time is essential for the development of relationships and independence."

Safer than ever: research indicates parents may be unnecessarily protective of children
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In 1991, almost 380 children died in road accidents in the UK. By 1998, this had dropped to 206. Child road accident fatalities in Scotland decreased from 43 to 32 in the same period.

Between 1988 and 1999 the number of children murdered between the ages of five and 16 decreased in England and Wales from four per million to three per million. The total murdered under the age of five dropped from 12 per million to nine per million.

Those charged in Scotland with the cruel and unnatural treatment of children dropped from 355 in 1989 to 203 in 1998, and the number of people charged with defiling girls under 16 decreased from 107 to 55 in the same period.

The number of offenders in England and Wales found guilty of gross indecency with a child dropped from 334 in 1988 to 264 in 1998. Cases of abduction where the offender was found guilty dropped from 26 to eight over the same period.

The number of child fatalities from outdoor and indoor accidents has also decreased - down from 10 deaths per 100,000 in 1979 to three per 100,000 in 1998 south of the border. In Scotland they are down from 12 per 100,000 in 1979 to four per 100,000 in 1998.

Research by Dr Mayer Hillman, a child safety expert from the Policy Studies Institute in London, reveals that while 80% of seven and eight-year-olds went to school by themselves in 1970, less than 10% are now allowed to do so.

"Wrapping children up in cotton wool at a very young age means it is more likely they will struggle to cope or have accidents as teenagers when they are finally allowed out," Hillman told The Sunday Times. "Reducing exposure to risk can actually make children more vulnerable."

Research carried out at the University of Coventry shows that children's independence zones, or the distance they are allowed to stray from home, have been reduced to one ninth of what they were in 1970.

The study also found that adults who, as children, played freely in the streets of their neighbourhood 30 years ago now rarely let their own offspring out of the house unsupervised.

Dr Jennifer Cunningham, a paediatrician in Glasgow, is concerned about the effect on children. "Seventy per cent of the children brought into my practice are not allowed out to play because of parents fears of abduction, and more and more youngsters are not developing social and interactive skills as a result," she said.

Rev Dr Geoff Scobie of Glasgow University's education department claims parents have a false impression of the dangers of the outdoors.

"We are really not experiencing the reality of the facts that children are more likely to have an accident in the home than be mugged or injured outside."

Kate Moorcock, a London-based teacher and educational researcher, and another speaker at the Glasgow conference yesterday, said: "People will say that figures such as those for road accident deaths have decreased just because so few children are now allowed to travel alone, but even when that is taken into account the fatalities have decreased dramatically."

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.