You’re walking along a wooded path. Maybe you’re on a hike, maybe you’re headed to a picnic. The sun is shining and the warm breeze ruffles your hair. Suddenly, you’re halted in your step. Your back foot is sinking into the ground. You try to plant your other foot firmly to lever yourself out, now both feet are sinking. It’s quicksand! You’re being swallowed alive. You struggle to get free, but that only makes it worse. You’ll be sucked under in a matter of seconds. Except… My name’s…
In 1981, Adam Walsh, age 6, was abducted from a Florida mall. His head was found in a drainage ditch two weeks later. In 1982, 12 year old Johnny Gosch never returned home from his daily paper route. 1983, 6 year old Ludovic Javier was lured away from his brothers and never seen again. 6 year old Etan Patz disappeared while walking two blocks to the bus, with both his mother and a neighbor watching. His was one of the first faces to appear on a milk carton and the first one that went nationwide, turning what had been a local effort into a national movement. GI Joe and McGruff the crime dog issued dire warnings. TV movies and mini-series, like “I know my first name is Steven,” which this reporter remembers distinctly, drew huge ratings. Sit-coms and kids shows made “very special episodes” — several, in the case of Different Strokes. Parents dragged their children to police stations to get special ID cards. The watch words of the day? Stranger Danger.
The phrase Stranger Danger had been in the common parlance since the 1960’s. It’s got a beat and you can dance to it. But the concept of stranger danger didn’t become a cultural touchstone until the 1980’s. In 1986, the classroom-distributed periodical for kids Weekly Reader found in a poll that Stranger Danger and the threat of nuclear war were among the biggest concerns of kids in Grades 2 through 6. It was that level of threat to us. We didn’t know who was going to get us first, the Russians or the shadowy stranger. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1980, he donned the boxing gloves of protecting the family and being tough on crime. The cry to save the children arises from where those overlap. Reagan even designated May 25, the day of Etan Patz’s kidnapping, “National Missing Children’s Day.” John Walsh, the father of Adam Walsh who hosted America’s Most Wanted for 24 years, helped establish the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In 1984, Walsh told a Senate Committee on the Judiciary that every hour, 205 children in the U.S. were reported missing. For those of us who are poor at math, that would be 1.79 million a year. People were shocked. Too shocked, I suppose, to realize that would be 3% of children disappearing. You’d notice. Imagine what that would look like in an average elementary school, one out of every 35 children. But the panic had set in. The 1980’s were also the decade that gave us CNN, the world’s first 24 news network, a format that requires talking about the same story a *lot to fill those hours. The camera’s on and you’ve gotta say something, so you keep reporting on the story, even when there are no developments, you bring expert on, no matter how tangential their expertise as long as they toe the narrative line, and you just keep beating/ people/ over/ the head/with the fear that it could happen to them!
All those milk cartons, lead stories on the TV news, and later, social media shares, can make it seem like children vanish left, right, and center. And don’t get me started about the amount of media coverage given to white children, especially little blond girls, and how much is denied to children of color. It might *seem like children were being snatched off every street. Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes? Or as Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics, said, “Most people are pretty terrible at risk assessment. They tend to overstate the risk of dramatic and unlikely events at the expense of more common and boring (if equally devastating) events.” Let’s get down to brass tacks.
According to the FBI, in 2019, 609,275 records for missing persons of all ages were entered into NCIC. That’s a big number, sure, but let’s break it down into more manageable pieces. First, each record is for a disappearance, not for a person. If a person disappears multiple times in a year, as can happen with incorrigible teens, adults with mental health issues, children with severe autism. So the number is already bigger than it arguably should be. Of the 609k cases, 607 were resolved in some manner, such as the person returning on their own, being found by law enforcement, or when a record is found to be redundant or erroneous. Of that valid 2k-odd, about a third are children. Compare that to the 74 million children in the country. The whittling isn’t done yet, though. I saved the best, or at least the most important, fact for last. It’s probably the first thing that leapt to mind, and if it’s not, it should have been — according to the Justice department, 99% of abducted children are taken by some they know, often a relative, and most commonly a father who does not have legal custody of the child. Fewer than 350 people under the age of 21 were abducted by abject strangers. That’s not for 2019, that’s for the past decade. Only 10% of perpetrators of violent crimes against children are unknown to their victim. For sex offenses, the crimes are even less likely to involve strangers.
So “stranger danger” isn’t the real cause of […], but it may be causing more harm than it sought to prevent. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children advises *against using the phrase “stranger danger” with your kids. “It’s so easy, it rhymes,” Callahan Walsh, a child advocate at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told ABC News. “It’s just this one phrase, a blanket statement, but it really doesn’t fit all scenarios and that’s why we want to re-think stranger danger.” The Center has three good reasons why teaching kids stranger danger is counter-productive: 1) it’s inaccurate. Your child is more likely to be harmed by someone they know, so they’ll be watching for danger in the wrong place. It warps their ability to evaluate the risks in their environment properly. 2) Children might not interpret “stranger” the way you want them to. For little minds, the world can be very black and white, good guys and bad guys, with no gradient. Anyone you don’t know is a stranger and all strangers are dangerous. 3) If they’re afraid of all strangers, they won’t be able to talk to people they don’t know when they *need to. According to Walsh, “Oftentimes kids are in a situation where they will need to reach out to a stranger for help, whether they’re just being lost, or if there’s an actual abduction.” Like when 11 year old Boy Scout Brennan Hawkins got lost in the mountains of Utah. Volunteers searched for him for four days. All the while, Brennan was actively avoiding his rescuers. He could see the volunteers, but he thought they ”would steal him.” Thankfully, he finally let himself be found. It’s better to teach them what *behavior to be wary of, like being asked for directions — who asks a little kid for directions? They can barely remember their left from their right — or trying to use lures like candy or puppies. You should also empower your children to be able to help themselves out of a difficult situation, by looking for someone in a uniform or failing that a woman, who is statistically less likely to be a threat and intuitively more likely to help them. As someone who grew up in the 80’s as a suprisingly shy child, who would freak the fuck out and immediately fall apart if she looked up and found herself alone, I endorse this line of thinking.
halloween candy, temporary tattoos
catching on fire
[clip] What do you do when your clothes catch fire? And it always seemed like when, not if. The same thing you have never seen anyone on TV or YT do when they find themselves doing surprise Johnny Storm cosplay. SDR If you tried to tell me a single year of elementary school passed in the 80’s without the SDR lesson, I’d call you a liar. You were going to catch fire. Eventually. That much was clear. And as someone who heats with wood and has been through two housefires and a lightning strike, let me attest that catching fire is not the inevitability we’d been led to believe. But the lesson wasn’t wrong as much as it was maybe a little late. Children’s clothes and blankets catching on fire had been a common tragedy for centuries, in the olden times when your heat and light, and not a small amount of entertainment, all came from some manner of flame. My mother’s family lost a little one that way. Time and human advancement helped to drive down the frequency of juvenile incendiary casualties. Candles gave way to gaslight, which were replaced by light bulbs and fireplace were replaced by heat pumps. The ignition sources were fewer and farther between, but technology is nothing if not a double-edged sword. Enter synthetic fabrics, which rather than burning like cotton and wool, would burn, drip, spread and adhere to the skin.
The truth of the matter is, the 80’s babies were among the first kids to have a substantially *lower risk, thanks to 1975’s formation of Consumer Product Safety Act. Well, actually, it owes a lot to 1953’s Flammable Fabrics act. But then I guess we should go back to 1945, and Gene Autry. For those without a standing dinner reservation at Golden Corral for 4:30 in the afternoon, Gene Autry was a cowboy crooner who made his mark on radio, TV and films for three decades. Being a celebrity, he had merch, including branded cowboy costumes for the little ones at Halloween. Thousands and thousands were sold across the country. Then, the tragedies began. Between late 1942 and continuing until at least 1954, an unknown number of children were horribly burned when the fuzzy fabric on the chaps of the Gene Autry cowboy suits they were wearing came in contact with an ignition source and the entire garment would catch. It was three long years from the first incidents before people began to understand the fabric that something specific was wrong here, that the material used for the chaps was the cause of these tragedies. It was so flammable, the entire outfit would go up in a matter of seconds, before the child or parents even knew what was happening to react. This was the 40’s, a time well before the constant global connectivity we’ve been used to for 20+ years, and news of these incidents remained isolated and the picture incomplete. The costumes kept being sold and children kept being injured or dying. Ultimately, at least one hundred families brought suit against the various companies involved in the manufacture and distribution of the costume and most would receive some amount of financial settlement. Nine years after the combustible costumes hit shelves, Congress passed the first federal law intended to protect consumers against “flammable fabrics,” which regulated, among other things, which fabrics could be used for clothing. Even cloth that is not specifically treated to be fire retardant is not allowed to be as flammable as those chaps were. In fact, children’s pajamas in particular are required by law to be made with cloth that is fire-retardant.
Almost 20 years later, Congress passed the 1972 Consumer Product Safety Act, which established the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In 1975, the CPSC added additional requirements for children’s sleepwear. If you’re wondering why the added focus on pajamas, there are a few reasons. For one, pjs tend to be looser than daywear, but interestingly, and this is one of those things you wouldn’t have thought about that makes obvious sense once you hear it, children are most likely to play with matches or lighters when they sneak out of bed at night or when they wake up before the adults in the morning and have to make their own fun. Just ask my ex-husband’s family…and the people in the adjoining apartment. That was actually in the late 70’s, now that I think about it. Good thing he was wearing well-regulated pajamas. Each year, pediatric burns declined, both in frequency and severity. By 1977, according to a report from the Shriner Burn Institute, in the preceding year, only one child had to be hospitalized after sleepwear ignition; the rest were treated in the ER and discharged. The study did point out, though, that there were other factors in play, like the shift away from flowing nightshirts toward pj pants sets.
At the same time, a better understanding of the dangers of smoking led to its decline, which meant fewer dropped cherries and fewer matches laying around. But at the same we spared the kids secondhand smoke lung cancer, we had to face the possibility that the flame-redundant chemicals might actually *cause cancer. This is why we can’t have nice things. The current regulations require pajamas be *either flame-resistant or tight-fitting. FYI, flame-resistant and fire-retardant aren’t synonymous. Well, the second words aren’t. Resistant is defined as a material that is inherently resistant to catching fire and does not melt or drip when exposed directly to extreme heat. Looking at you, polyester. Retardant is defined as a material that has been chemically treated to self-extinguish. The 70’s saw children in less danger of catching fire and armed them with a way to handle it. The very first SDR PSA that aired starred Dick Van Dyke. Was he appealing to the target demographic in the late 70’s? Oh well, here it is. [clip]
Other consumer trends across my generation also made you less likely to set ablaze your Benneton, to be scorched by your Sasson, like electric stoves instead of gas and several home-building booms with fireplaces being a perk you use twice a year, rather than a standard feature. So 80’s babies were the safest from clothing fires than kids had been in 40 years. We arguably didn’t need stop-drop-roll. And safety experts these days say it needs an overhaul. In teaching SDR as a reaction to fire, over and over again, some kids have come away with the impression that SDR is the correct reaction to *any fire situation. In a house fire, and trust me to know, the stop and drop might help you in a house fire, but the rolling? Well, Sigourney Weaver put it best in Galaxy Quest [clip]. Over at the National Fire Safety Council, they’ve fleshed it out a bit to stop, drop, cover your face, and roll, and fire marshalls around the country agree.
being given free drugs
The other catchy slogan that accompanied 80’s childhood development was “Just say no.” To illegal drugs, that is, just in case you’ve been in a coma since the Carter administration. The former flower children had graduated from weed and Woodstock to cocaine and condos, but the 80’s were the decade of both the war on drugs and the DARE program. The war on drugs brought us a wave of anti-drug PSAs, liberally sprinkled between ads for chicken McNuggets, which debuted in 1981, and He-Man accessories, which launched in 1983. And good lord were there a lot of them! [clips]
While we’re talking about PSA’s, why are they? Why was our late-stage capitalism constantly interrupted by these do-gooder spots? The nonprofit organization Keep America Beautiful partnered with the Ad Council to produce an anti-pollution TV spot, the famous “The Crying Indian” spot. If you remember episode 100, you’ll remember that Native man, Iron Eyes Cody, was actually a Sicillian man born Oscar di Corti. He stuck to the fake story of his life even after a reporter talked to his family. In his defense, he did push directors to portray Native characters in a better light. The spot did the equivalent of going viral and got lots of press coverage. With all that attention, the tv PSA was officially a thing…even though they’d existed for years. Contrary to popular belief, there was no minimum number of PSAs or hours in the day that networks were required to run. The closest you get to an actual requirement is the Radio Act of 1927, which called for broadcasters to ‘serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity.’ The impetus for PSAs could have come from non-profits and community groups, or as commercials in disguise. It seemed like you couldn’t go through an afternoon’s cartoon-watching without seeing a character or actor from your favorite show in an anti-drug PSA. There was McGruff the Crime Dog with a chorus of children singing that drug “users are losers,” the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles calling drug dealers “dorks,” and Pee Wee Herman staring down-camera with a crack rock in his hand. [clips]
TV was weaponized for the war on drugs. Since the 80’s, the U.S. government has spent more than a Billion dollars on anti-drug PSAs. In 1987, the then-Partnership for a Drug-Free America created the mother of all anti-drug PSAs [“This Is Your Brain on Drugs”]. It’s still being parodied 33 years later. I mean, you’re listening to a podcast called YBOF. Bonus fact, the director of that PSA also directed three Michael Jackson videos and Space Jam.
There’s no good evidence to show these ads worked, which is a problem considering PSA peaked at $1 million spent in airtime per *day. Studies showed that the ads might give teens a dimmer view of drugs, but it didn’t result in any changes in behavior. In fact, some ads had a forbidden fruit effect — they made teens even more *curious about drugs, just because the grownups were telling them not to, a reflex that will pop up again soon. “Money spent in the 80s on those ads was a waste,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor at Stanford University and former presidential drug policy adviser. “You shouldn’t use drugs because authority figures have told you not to. Now, be a good boy or a good girl and do what you’re told. cNo adolescent wants to hear that.” I don’t want to hear that and I’m in my early forties. Meh, you never could tell me anything. By the 1990s and 2000s, anti-drug messaging got scarier and more graphic, like an anti-meth PSA showing a teen punching their mom. The hell house-style through-line was “these are the dire consequences that await you if you do drugs.”
Do scare tactics in PSAs really work? Long answer yes with an if, short answer no with a but. In 2016, the federal government evaluated different research into anti-alcohol, tobacco and drug messaging. They found that “though used widely since, studies prove scare tactics ineffective in substance abuse prevention.” What they found was that scare tactics only worked on the kids who were the least likely to use as it was. The rest just tune it out. A more promising approach, according to a study from Ohio State University, is to show drug-free teens as independent and thinking for themselves.
No matter the tact they followed, these PSAs made one thing very clear. Someone was going to offer us drugs. It was a given. And they were going to *offer them to you. Not offer to sell them to you, just offer them, like a stick of gum from a fresh pack. Admittedly, I grew up in a really small town and was something of a homebody, but never once, in all my years, has anyone “offered” me drugs. I didn’t really know what drugs were, which slang term referred to which substance. Thankfully, there was a dogooder organization ready to teach me. Well, to teach my younger sisters; my school didn’t have… the Dare program.
The Drug Awareness Resistance Education program was founded in 1983 as a partnership between the Los Angeles school system and the LAPD. The core concept was officers would go into schools to talk to kids so that they can resist the temptation to use drugs. It was very popular with lawmakers, who realized that by supporting DARE, they could paint themselves as pro-cops and pro-kids, the things you wanted to cloak yourself in during the Reagan administration. Reagan even proclaimed the first “National DARE Day” in 1988. At its height, the program had an eight-figure budget from federal, state, and private funding, and was being used in up to 75% of the nation’s school districts, at least according to DARE.
Then, public health researchers started looking for, you know, evidence that the program was actually reducing teen drug use. “The effectiveness of DARE in altering students’ drug use behavior has yet to be established,” concluded a University of Illinois at Chicago study in 1991, and they were far from the only ones to come to that conclusion. In 1994, the Research Triangle Institute, with funding from the Justice Department, conducted a meta-analysis of all the existing research on DARE, meaning they collated and studied existing research. Its conclusion — DARE had little to no impact on rates of teen drug use. “DARE’s limited influence on adolescent drug use behavior contrasts with the program’s popularity and prevalence,” the study authors wrote. “An important implication is that DARE could be taking the place of other, more beneficial drug use curricula that adolescents could be receiving.” This took the Justice Dept by surprise and, according to contemporary accounts, they refused to publish the findings. You tax dollars at work.
But the studies just kept coming. One even suggested that DARE students were *more likely than their peers to experiment with drugs and alcohol, because of what those authors called the boomerang effect: “an attempt to persuade resulting in the adoption of an opposing position instead.” Kid doing the thing because you kept telling them not to do the thing. The government took another look at DARE, this time by the General Accounting Office in 2003, which found “No significant differences in illicit drug use between students who received DARE” and those who didn’t. That report was the beginning of the end of the original DARE program. Funding dwindled from over $10 million in 2002 to $3.5 million by 2012.
DARE tried to reinvent themselves with the cringeworthy new program called “keepin’ it REAL.” It’s like that meme of Steve Buschemi, “how do you do, fellow kids.” There is some evidence to suggest that their new approach might work. It was commended in the recent Surgeon General’s Report on drug addiction for demonstrating efficacy at preventing substance use. The secret? “It’s not an anti-drug program,” a co-developer of the new curriculum told Scientific American in 2014. “It’s about things like being honest and safe and responsible.” So, wait, DARE isn’t an anti-drug program anymore? Then what is it? Since 2009, its mission is to “teach students good decision making skills to help them lead safe and healthy lives.” That’s…nice. Vague, but nice. But is it working? It’s hard to say, because DARE itself doesn’t seem to be checking for efficacy. According to one study of the revamped program, “Without empirical evidence, we cannot conclusively confirm or deny the effectiveness of the programme.” Well, at least they still have the cool lion mascot, so maybe a few kids will learn to say no to drugs…and yes to furries.
And that’s…Quicksand, like catching on fire and being offered drugs, seemed like an omnipresent threat. Don’t misconstrue, quicksand is real and can be dangerous. But it requires special conditions to exist, when fine particles like sand are in a colloid of water. Sudden impact or agitation causes it to liquify; it’s the exact opposite of non-Newtonian fluids like cornstarch and water becoming solid. But you’re unlikely to drown, because the density of the quicksand would need to be less than the density of you. So if you find yourself sinking in quicksand, try to maneuver yourself into a back-float until you’re on top again. Then, maybe post a sign.