Putting Covid (and other) Risks to Kids in Perspective

We humans get risk wrong. We focus on what’s top of mind, or top of the fear chart — not what’s a top killer.

This great piece in The New York Times lays out the risks of kids getting Covid, and we must bless the columnist, David Leonhardt, for writing these particular lines:

A cautious approach may be especially sensible for families in which the children have underlying health conditions or some adults have chosen not to be vaccinated.

But other parents will be more willing to resume many parts of normal life before all of their children have been vaccinated. And those parents will be making a decision that is as scientifically grounded as the more cautious approach.

In other words: As parents, we are all making decisions based on what we know, what we think makes sense, and what we prioritize. We are allowed to accept some risk, even when it comes to our kids. That’s because, as a Johns Hopkins doctor in the article states, “Everything has risk.” So even when it looks like we are choosing the “zero risk” option, that’s not true. There’s a risk to no risk. In the case of Covid, there’s a risk to venturing outside and there’s a risk to staying home for a year.

Covid compared to car accidents and other dangers

Statistically, twice as many minors will die of drowning than of Covid. A whopping (and terrifying) FIVE TIMES MORE will die in vehicle accidents, says Leonhardt. (Other stats show car accidents killing about 10 times more kids than Covid.) That means …

If protecting children from small but real risks of serious harm were society’s top goal, keeping children away from pools and cars would probably have a bigger effect than isolating them in coming months.

Who thinks that way?


Americans also are getting the raw numbers wrong, vis a vis Covid and kids. A survey by  Gallup and Franklin Templeton found that people think 8% of U.S. Covid deaths have been to people under 25. The actual percent?

It’s 0.1%.

So now it’s time for a thought experiment: Let’s replace “Covid” with “Stranger Danger.”

After all, many parents keep their kids inside, for fear of them being harmed by a stranger. But, as with Covid, there is no such thing as zero risk. Staying “safe” inside holds its own dangers of depression, diabetes, anxiety, obesity.

What’s more: We get our stats wrong about kids and crime the same way we get them wrong about kids and Covid. In this 2020 Gallup Poll, fully 78% of Americans said they believe that crime is going up. This is wildly at odds with reality, as you can see for yourself on this chart of the US Crime Rate. It shows that violent crime peaked in the early ’90s and has been declining ever since. The latest year on the chart is 2019, when the crime rate matched the rate of 1965.

For more charts and data, check out Let Grow’s Crime Stats page.

As for the number of minors kidnapped by strangers, that has always been — thank God — much lower than most people assume. The most recent stats peg the number at about 105, and of these 92% made it home alive.

Kids now spend 4 to 7 minutes a day outside in unstructured activities

And yet, think how much childhood has changed, based on our collective misperception of stranger danger. As reported here just last week, the age that parents now let their kids play outside, unsupervised, has gone up by TWO YEARS in just one generation. Parents who played outside on their own at age 9 now give their own kids that freedom at age 11.

What’s more, all sorts of studies show kids are spending far more time on the couch, on devices, on homework, on organized sports — on almost anything indoors and/or adult-supervised, because, in part, this feels like risk mitigation. We’ve mitigated risk to the point where kids now spend an average of 4 to 7 MINUTES A DAY outdoors in unstructured play. This does not feel like an unalloyed triumph.

As columnist Leonhardt concludes: “It’s important to keep in mind that acting in the best interests of children is not the same as minimizing Covid risk.”

We’d add: It’s important to keep in mind that acting in the best interests of children is not the same as minimizing stranger-danger risk.