When Parenting Meets #FeedFear

By Sandi Villarreal 4-13-2015 | Series:
A mother carries her child through a city. Image via Konstantin Sutyagin/shutter
A mother carries her child through a city. Image via Konstantin Sutyagin/shutterstock.com

As a journalist, editor, media professional, and all-around digital addict, I believe the ever-present “newsfeed of fear” engenders a very real threat to our personal well-being. But is it possible that it also harbors startling implications for our behavior and even our relationships?   

Reflecting on Gareth Higgins’ words on “availability heuristic” (“A Newsfeed of Fear,” Sojourners, May 2015) — basically, that our fear of bad things happening is based on how many examples of those bad things we can easily bring to mind — the first thought that entered my head was my constant command to my 1.5-year-old, “Hold Mommy’s hand!”

Of course, we live in the middle of Washington, D.C., on a high-traffic street with no front yard to speak of; any time we leave the house, I have to go on high alert lest my newly running toddler dart off the sidewalk. But when I dug a little deeper to explore in what other circumstances my danger-Will-Robinson-danger alarm has gone off, I was forced to admit that it can occur basically any time she’s in my care.  

When I became a parent, it inexplicably became frightening that my house didn’t have a mudroom — or anything save a single slab of lockable wooden door separating our warm and cozy home from the terror that existed beyond it. Suddenly, a 5-degree rise or drop in my kid’s nursery — indicated by her video monitor, which also plays soothing lullaby music — became cause to purchase a window AC unit and an electric heater despite our house’s central air and heat. I contemplated buying the mattress pad that sounds an alarm if it detects baby has stopped breathing (because SIDS), but opted against it since I was already checking on her every five minutes anyway.  

First, let me say, I think all of these are good and normal (right?) reactions to first-time parenthood, and I have since calmed the hell down. But they can also be artificially generated behavioral responses to the digital world we live in, enhanced by mommy blogs and parenting books warning us of the dangers of crib bumpers (27 accidental deaths/year) and window blind cords (about 7 deaths in 2014). And don’t even get me started on #PregnancyFeedFear — somewhere around 6 months in, you give up and just eat the dang sushi and deli meat.   

The vaccination “debate” is just the latest boiling point of this open-source information free for all. While I can't quite wrap my head around the logic behind not vaccinating children at all, I know plenty of parents who opt to space doses throughout the first couple of years because of potential adverse side effects of the government-suggested bundled doses. My newsfeed — currently enrolled in two different parenting groups — can overwhelm me with real, documented information, and sometimes it can be difficult to separate the good-parenting-advice wheat from the conspiracy-theory chaff. 

A recent Invisibilia podcast episode featured this topic of fear: What causes it and is it possible to overcome it? It pointed out, similarly to Higgins, that we now live in one of the most peaceful times in human history. Yet parental norms have shifted drastically in just one generation at a pace that reflects the opposite pattern of crime rates. Why the divergence? According to hosts Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel and their guests, our evolutionarily developed fear mechanisms (think fight or flight, or those “gut instincts”) that kept us from being eaten by saber tooths back in the day could actually be artificially triggered by exposure to false narratives of danger — for example, #FeedFear.  

And it makes sense. It’s my job to consume the news — or at least what the sensationalistic media decides passes muster for audience consumption. A disturbing example of this is the recent Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism report on Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus.” Headed by “What Went Wrong?” in bold type (and answered by one j-school friend in my newsfeed: “everything.”), the report pointed out multiple times that the author of the RS piece could have sought alternative narratives — one of the many other established, and in some cases, already adjudicated, rape cases —to paint the picture of a sexual assault epidemic on college campuses. But no other story “was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie's.”

And there you have it: Rape doesn’t sell anymore, but gang rape might.

What do our brains do with that? When isolated shootings become mundane at the thought of mass murders and serial killers, somewhere in our wiring, our fear centers may process that as the norm. And so our behavior — whether through isolationism, umbrella parenting, or engaging in anxiety-ridden coping mechanisms — may follow suit.

As I’ve eased off the crazy momma-bear first 18 months of parenting and into my second pregnancy, I’m now that mom in the Huggies commercial that basically says “f-it” (“fudge,” y’all) and lets her kid eat off the floor. But I live in a world that sends police to your house and charges you with neglect for letting your 10- and 6-year-olds walk home from the park. I want my children to be smart about their surroundings, but I don’t want them to fear everything and everyone around them. Where does "stranger danger" impede "love your neighbor?"  

The fear we are instilling in our children by allowing fear-based anxiety to dictate how we raise them will only have a domino effect on their own well-being. I don’t have an answer for how to strike the balance of aware, yet “free range,” parenting — apart from eventually moving home to Texas where everything is safe and wonderful (I kid) — but I think it’s imperative that this generation figures it out before the effects get worse.

Sandi Villarreal is Web Editor & Chief Digital Officer for Sojourners. You can find her on Twitter @Sandi.

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