Edited, as every site I found in my search last night gave me sites that all say the same thing:

The perception is that the world is a really dangerous place for children these days

But the statistics I seem to find online seem to imply that despite the media hype around kindapping, serial killers, child trafficking rings etc, relative to the population, children are safer than ever before.

So why is this? Are kids safer, or are the media just making up scare stories to sell newspapers etc (surely not)

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    The "examiner" example talks about "unsafe" stuff, as for example seeing married couple share a bed, talking about good old times when "You never saw Mr. and Mrs Cleaver in bed together. Why, RIcky and Lucy even had seperate beds." I'm not really sure that's what understood as "unsafe" by most normal parents nowadays. – vartec Feb 14 '12 at 15:21
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    I would vote to close this question as not providing a notable example of the claim, if I didn't know that such claims did exist. Please find one or we will be unable to respond to this. – DJClayworth Feb 14 '12 at 17:41
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    Is this about children in the US, worldwide, in the Irak? Today, compared with which time? The 80ies, the 60ies, the 40ies, the middle age? – user unknown Feb 14 '12 at 23:41
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    This issue often comes up in a parenting context (sell all Free-Range Kids) where the claim is sometime that kids to day must be kept on a shorter leash that their parents were because the world in a much more dangerous place. Anecdotal evidence is often advanced to support it, usually from the news. Hard data is sparse on the ground, but I believe that US federal crime statistics argue the other way (i.e. that today's kids are safer from violence and kidnapping than their parents were). – dmckee Feb 15 '12 at 20:45
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    @DJClayworth: According to the BBC article, mums in the UK appear to be making the same choices in raising children in statistically observable numbers. That alone makes this question relevent I think, and while you might have trouble finding actual claims in articles on the internet, it's an exceedingly common belief. When I tell people that I let my 5 year old son play outside unsupervised, I get similar reactions. – Ernie Mar 2 '12 at 22:23
up vote 155 down vote accepted

"Were children safer in the good old days?"

We have four definition problems here:

  • What age are included when talking about "children"?
  • What risks are included and excluded in "safe"?
  • When were the "good old days"?
  • What geographic regions are included? Just the US? UK? Western-style cultures? The globe?

Interpretation #1: Children under 5 years, all mortality risks, 50 years ago, western countries.

Then the answer is provided by World Bank data, extracted by Google:

Graph of Declining Infant mortality

(I chose USA and UK, because the claims were from there, plus Australia, because that's where I am based, and to show the trends aren't limited.)

Broad summary: Infant mortality has decreased greatly in the past 50 years.

But perhaps they didn't mean to include the fact we have vaccinations and other health improvements, and meant to talk about violent crime?

Intepretation #2: Youths 12-17, victims of violent crime, 30 years ago, USA.

ChildStats.gov has the data:

Graph of Declining Violent Crime Youth Victims

Broad summary: Youths are less likely to be victims of violent crime.

No, no, maybe they meant to include all the risks of car-accidents and injuries playing sport?

Intepretation #3: Aged 1-4 and 5-14, deaths due to injury, 30 years ago, USA.

Again, ChildStats.gov has the data (with a warning to treat the 2008/09 figures as preliminary):

Graph of declining death-by-injury rates in young US children

Broad summary: Children younger than 15 are less likely to die of injuries.

Interpretation #4: Any ages, kidnapping, >15 years ago, USA.

But what about kidnapping?

It is difficult to give a detailed answer here, as it was only recently (e.g. since 1997) that kidnapping has been tracked:

Until recently, the nature and scope of the problem have been unclear because existing crime data collection systems—such as the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system and OJJDP's National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children—do not collect law enforcement data on kidnaping.

Fortunately, that is about to change. In partnership with the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the FBI is supplanting the UCR with the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). This will enhance our understanding of youth abduction and create a comprehensive picture of kidnaping offenses.

Fortunately, kidnapping is very rare.

Data indicate that kidnaping of juveniles is a relatively rare crime in NIBRS jurisdictions. It constitutes only one-tenth of 1 percent of all the crimes against individuals, 1 percent of all crimes against juveniles, and 1.5 percent of all violent crimes against juveniles recorded in the database. Kidnaping is dwarfed by the much more common crimes of simple and aggravated assault, larceny, and sex offenses, which make up most of the crimes against juveniles

Kidnapping by a stranger (presumably the relevant subset) is rarer still (a little over a quarter of the offenders, according to the same source).

When we talk about dangers being faced by children, being kidnapped by strangers on the street doesn't contribute much to a child's overall risks.

Intepretation #5: Various ages, child abuse, 15 years ago, USA.

This is where the picture gets less rosy. According to Child Help, deaths due to child-abuse have been on the rise recently:

Graph of child abuse increase

Note: The y-axis on the graph does not extend to zero, which serves to exaggerate the rise for people unfamiliar with the technique. Also, these are absolute figures, not per capita figures, so the growth should be tempered by the approximately 10% population increase over that period.

Child abuse includes a number of sub-categories:

Pie-chart showing different types of child abuse

Without wishing to dismiss the seriousness of this issue, this problem does not seem to fall into the type of issues that the original claims expressed concern about - the dangers of letting their children play on the street.

Conclusion:

Without clearer definitions, it is impossible to give a precise answer, but it seems under a number of different measures, these are the good days when it comes to child safety.

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    Some really good graphical indicators there - I like this answer a lot, as the definitions are as woolly and undefined as you mentioned. – Rory Alsop May 16 '12 at 14:22
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    @nico: Looking at kidnapping, there are two issues to consider. (1) There weren't good statistics gathered in the USA before 1997 making it difficult to answer here. (2) Kidnapping is very rare. Kidnapping by a stranger (presumably the relevant subset) is rarer still. It doesn't contribute much to a child's overall risks. – Oddthinking May 16 '12 at 16:31
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    Another possibility of a different explanation: the number of children deaths (or even injuries) might be reduced not because the "world" is safer now, but because children are less exposed to it (spending more time at home or under protection of their parents) - this depends on what you mean by "the world". – Suma May 16 '12 at 18:49
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    Note that all the "good" graphs depict percentages. If you convert to absolute numbers, the trend would be upwards due to population increase. Hence the number of stories for media to choose to report about has increased. – mpiktas Jun 7 '12 at 3:56
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    Very late to the party but.... these graphs don't tell us anything without data on the amount of time children spend outside as opposed to indoors. e.g if kids spend only half as much time outdoors today than they did 20 years ago then the Risk-per-minute today is much greater than it was 20 years ago.... – Ian Dec 14 '12 at 11:12

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