Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to an auditorium full of middle and high school kids about learning through failure. Part of the way through, a few of the students revealed that their parents monitor them via GPS apps on their phones.
I wasn’t surprised, as this is a regular topic of conversation among kids, teachers and parents. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 61 percent of parents check their kids’ browser histories, 48 percent monitor their phone calls and messages, and 16 percent track their child’s geographical location.
The kids in that auditorium wanted advice about how to talk to their parents about their need for more autonomy and independence, and ways to help their parents trust more, and fear less.
I started by explaining why their parents might resort to GPS tracking in the first place.
Your parents, I said, are frightened because the media bombards them with outrageous stories about the hazards of the world. Outrage helps media outlets gain and keep viewers, but it also causes parents to miscalculate the relative risk of a given hazard. If this talk had been given a few weeks later, I would have used the “Momo challenge” as an example of this. (Momo being the supposedly viral online challenge that encourages children to hurt themselves. Parents have been losing their minds over it. Police have sent out warnings, schools have sent emails, it’s blown up on social media. Yet as with other supposed dangers that paralyze parents, there is little evidence that anyone has actually been hurt.)
Low-outrage hazards don’t feel dangerous, while high-outrage hazards feel highly dangerous.
This formula, Risk = Hazard + Outrage, was created by Peter M. Sandman to, in his words, “reflect a growing body of research indicating that people assess risks according to metrics other than their technical seriousness: that factors such as trust, control, voluntariness, dread, and familiarity (now widely called ‘the outrage factors’) are as important as mortality or morbidity in what we mean by risk.”
Put simply, parents may believe a hazard to be more dangerous or commonplace than it is if they are outraged about it, and that may in turn cause them to go overboard in protecting their kids from it.
The example I used was this: Your parents track you using GPS because they are worried there’s someone out there planning to abduct you and sell you into the sex trade, yet they neglect to regularly remind you about the dangers of not wearing a seat belt.
For the kids in that room, this was an apt, if sensitive, analogy.
Media coverage of sex trafficking in their city had ramped up over the past two years because of a shift in law enforcement priorities and the subsequent high-profile prosecution of several prominent members of the community who responded to ads for sex with what they believed to be underage girls. It was a regular topic of conversation in school and church and was featured on the news every night.
High outrage over sex with underage girls + hazard of children being lured into the sex trade = high perceived risk.
In the face of this calculus, real-time tracking of children via GPS seems not just reasonable, but prudent.
After the event was over, several students emailed to question my logic, upset that I’d imply the risk of being lured into the sex trade is lower than that of neglecting to wear a seat belt.
To illustrate my point, I went through the math.
While any child could conceivably end up in the sex trade, traffickers predominantly target vulnerable children: runaways, victims of sexual abuse, children in foster care, and LGBTQ kids who have been rejected or stigmatized by their family.
Of the approximately 100,000 children involved in the commercial sex trade, the vast majority are these vulnerable children, 70 to 90 percent of whom have a history of sexual abuse and 60 percent of whom are from foster care or group homes. One in six runaways ends up in the commercial sex trade. Because LGBTQ kids are overrepresented in the foster-care system and often stigmatized or rejected by their families, they are, arguably, at the highest risk of ending up in the commercial sex trade.
Given the odds, tracking these kids with GPS strikes me as an exceedingly logical course of action.
For children who have at least one responsible adult they can look to for unconditional love and support, an adult who does not sexually abuse, stigmatize or reject them based on sexual orientation, their relative risk of being pressed into the sex trade is amazingly low.
On the other hand, all children, even those being raised in safe, loving families, are at a much higher risk of serious injury or death when they fail to fasten their seat belt.
On average, 16,375 teens die in the United States each year, and one-third of them die in motor vehicle accidents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seat belts reduce the risk of motor vehicle death and serious injury by half.
Increased awareness and outrage about the sex trafficking of minors are good things for society at large. It can help law enforcement capture and prosecute more pimps and pedophiles, aid in identifying children who are being victimized and prevent additional children from ending up in the commercial sex trade.
But parenting from a place of outrage over hazards with lower relative risk can distract us from the mundane, and often more manageable, high-risk hazards kids face every day.
What’s worse, it can obscure meaningful solutions for those kids who are at real, imminent risk of being victimized.
If we really wanted to reduce the number of kids being victimized in sex trafficking, we would support and protect our throwaway youth. We would ensure runaways, foster kids and LGBTQ youth have safe shelter, crisis management resources, mental-health counseling and substance abuse treatment. We would redouble our efforts to reunite runaways with their families or find alternative, safe, long-term placement. We would protect LGBTQ children from people who tell them they are an abomination and therefore unworthy of their family’s unconditional love and support.
I am hopeful that day will come, but in the meantime, I will continue to help kids understand the difference between the remote dangers and the real risks they face as they grow up. If we hope to raise kids who are brave, competent and resourceful, we have to let them step out into the world on their own, away from our relentless, watchful eyes, and with a realistic perspective on the dangers they face. We must, as psychologist Laurence Steinberg writes, “protect when you must, but permit when you can.”
And for goodness’ sake, remind them to wear their seat belts.
If you suspect someone may be a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888, visit humantraffickinghotline.org or text HELP to BEFREE (233733).
Jessica Lahey is a teacher and the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed” and a forthcoming book on preventing addiction in children.