Schneier on Security
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March 28, 2007
Body Armor for Children
In the UK, parents are buying body armor for children.
One type of risk we consistently overestimate is risks involving our children.
Posted on March 28, 2007 at 1:18 PM
• 49 Comments
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Is overestimating risk in this area necessarily a bad thing? Is it something that is easy to rationalise as a parent? If risk is defined as some variation of "Probability X Impact" and probability is something that is nearly if not completely measurable then you are suggesting that what we are overestimating is impact. Its difficult and perhaps impossible to not overestimate (from an "outsider's" viewpoint) the impact of the loss of your own child.
In this case, I don't think the risks are that high. FTA, it sounds like the gang of older kids has been a problem for a while. Given also that this is the UK, where even adults are well-advised to avoid certain neighborhoods where bands of near-feral children roam, and the increasing rate of muggings and attacks in large UK cities, I can easily see where a vest would be a reasonable precaution. Add to that the idea that parents are generally hardwired to protect their children, and this is not an unreasonable article.
I do agree that we as a species tend to overestimate some risks and underestimate others.
It's a cost/benefit analysis. Parents need only consider for half a moment the tremendous pain they would feel if a bad thing were to happen to their child, and their decision to err ernomously on the side of caution becomes rational: it's "worth it" to allocate the extra resources (time, wealth, emotional involvement) to try to avoid the unwanted outcome.
I wonder how much a child wearing a vest is at increased risk of mugging (the vests themselves are valuable), or just of extra ridicule or bullying.
Parents don't overestimate risks involving their children. Parents know a given risk is small. But the downside is so big, that the benefit gained from allowing the activity, or the benefit gained from not taking more or better precautions than otherwise would be taken, pale.
If your kid gets hit by a stray bullet, do you feel better by consoling yourself with "Hey, the risk was minute."
It's not so much overestimating the need to protect against harm, as overestimating the sensational nature of one particular type of harm. Chances are, if you sat down rationally and looked at causes of death, there are more efficient ways you could spend the same resources with the same overall goal of protecting your child.
Money spent protecting yourself from miniscule risks is money you don't have to spend on more serious ones.
Parents should spend money on education and health, not movie plot threats.
Or to be more concrete, buy a car seat before buying a bullet-proof vest.
And make sure they know how to swim.
Eh, as long as they're just wasting money instead of trying to curtail my freedom to protect their kids, I'm perfectly fine with it.
Is there any data on what effect buying the child a protective vest actually has on their safety? It wouldn't surprise me if the vest made the child more reckless. Whether that the extra risks outweigh or nullify the benefits, I'd guess that it's too early to tell.
Also, I'd be quite interested to know the long-term psychological effects of such treatment; whether it makes children more or less self-reliant? I suspect that it probably leads to an overestimation of risk and the increased propensity to buy bullet-proof vests for ones offspring. ;)
"Parents need only consider for half a moment the tremendous pain they would feel if a bad thing were to happen to their child, and their decision to err ernomously on the side of caution becomes rational"
If the decision is driven by emotion to the extent that they "err enormously", then surely it is non-rational. Understandable? Yes. Predictable? Maybe. Sensible? Arguable in either direction. Rational? Still no.
With parents I believe that instead of making a rational cost/benefit analysis the potential impact causes them to exaggerate the risk.
Surely it is always bad to overestimate something?
Because then you can't make a correct judgement about the best course of action.
In this instance, having overestimated the risk, the parents may buy a vest when instead they could have purchased perhaps a knife proof vest, or even better a first aid course which could allow either child to sve the life of its sibling, parent or anyone else.
Er... how long before a child turns up at school with one of these vests on, and another pupil decides to test its stab-proof capabilities, just for fun???
Re overestimating risk: don't neglect the messenger. It's the Times, which is a Murdoch paper. Overestimating risk is News Corp's business (or rather, risk involving law&order, terrorism, etc; risk from climate change tends to get somewhat left behind).
They should send their children to marial arts practice instead. At least there they learn conflict resolution and various other things that will benefit them even outside of a combat situation.
From the post:
"In the UK, parents are buying body armor for children.
"One type of risk we consistently overestimate is risks involving our children"
From the article:
"The company has received more than 100 calls from parents in the capital over the past few weeks."
Some one hundred parents have. The population of the UK is over 60 million. There are an awful lot of parents who haven't overestimated this risk.
Of course, even if buying a child a stab-proof vest is a ridiculous strategy, one would hesitate before laughing at these parents. Most of the UK is pretty peaceful, but there are parts of London, and other cities, that have, to put it mildly, a law-and-order problem. What you have is something like a cultural breakdown, a social and ethical wasteland. One of the recent incidents to which the article refers involved girls of as young as 13 quite literally calling for and egging on a murder.
Fixating on one irrational reaction to a real problem misses the bigger picture.
For once I can't blame people for over estimating the risk. About two to three weeks ago there was a week where seven murders of a child/teenager were reported in one week. This is in a city with about 150-160 murders a year (there were 766 murders in the UK as a whole in 2005/6 - which includes the 52 deaths in the 7th July bombings). The concentration in time and in the age range of the victims was so extreme that it's easy to see how people would have difficulty seeing it as a statistical 'blip'.
Overestimating a risk is the job of those, selling such snakeoil.
btw: You got an insurance against shifting sand dunes?
Risks are commonly underestimated!
Think of your car, your house, getting covered by a fast shifting dune - your child!
Buy now: insurance ultimate!
"Is overestimating risk in this area necessarily a bad thing?"
Overestimate rare risks versus common ones, and you'll end up with a higher real risk than a good estimate would have gotten you.
Overestimate *all* risks and you'll end up in a padded cell.
Good news, these will flood eBay and Craig's List as the little tikes out grow them.
This started happening in the Baltimore-Richmond corridor while the "D.C. Sniper" was at large. There was a very tangible fear, despite what logic would otherwise dictate. You've already written about the psychology of security: We put our kids in body armor, then sit them down to a meal of half pound hamburgers slathered with mayonnaise and cheese sauce on white bread, a bag full of fried potatoes, and an extra large chocolate milkshake.
It's not middle-class and upwards parents that are interested in this protective clothing. Their kids are driven to private school in armoured 4WDs. It's the poorer parents in rougher areas and tough schools that want the protection. And I don't blame them. If I had to live in some of these districts I'd be wearing protection too. DHL will deliver in Baghdad but not to these desolate war-torn housing estates.
BillK - you clearly have a different definition of "middle class" than I do.
Private school and armoured 4WDs?
It wasn't that long ago that kids were being mugged (and in some cases killed) for the Air Jordan and Nike shoes they were wearing. A cool bullet proof vest would be much better than a pair of shoes.
I think they should implant each vest with RFID chips so the perps can be tracked while also protecting the privacy of the wearer.
Had it not occurred to any of these people to go after the problem instead of creating a new one? If that one mother's daughter kept getting picked on by a gang of kids, then putting on a vest isn't going to help her at all. Next time the gang comes around for a beating, they'll simply pull it off the girl. Why isn't the administration going after the gangs?
Armour is only effective as a layer of security, not the whole onion. If she's with a group of friends, then the vest is useful against a stray bullet, but on her own, it's useless.
Overestimating risks isn't bad per se. What's bad is overestimating risks to the expense of other (more likely) risks.
For example, your chances of dying from heart disease are much greater than your chances from being stabbed as a child. And (if I recall) the UK has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the world. So a rational parent would forget the body armour and feed their kids a proper diet...
This added benefit:-
If the children SLEEP in it we can save money on the concrete bunker we're building to protect them!
Agreed, overestimating impact may lead to unnecessary costs in one way or another (wasted money, unreasonable fear, impaired social development) but I guess what I am saying is that, in this case anyway, that it may actually be impossible for a parent to avoid overestimation of impact and perhaps its actually a built in safety mechanism for our species.
A good thesis on this topic (irrational judgements == species safety mechanisms) is the book "Stumbling on Happiness" (http://www.randomhouse.com/kvpa/gilbert/)
I highly recommend it as an in depth insight to our apparently irrational behaviour.
Kids, aim for the head*. =:oP
*: This is called satire. If you do anything that stupid, don't come whining to me.
The reason why this 'parents buying vests' phenomenon is newsworthy because only a few parents are doing it; if a majority or all parents were buying them, it would be a business plan market statistic, or worse, a National Audit Office statistic under 'social consumption' indicators.
@ Bruce Perry: as for your comment re 'movie plot threats':
I do not know if you follow UK news, but at the moment in inner city London, life is imitating those movie plots with several children having been stabbed (in one case by her own younger sister) or shot dead within the recent few weeks. The last thing parents probably want in addition to their grief is a burden of guilt.
i can't help but wonder how much "zero tolerance" policies on playground violence might be implicated in its escalation. i mean if both a fistfight and stabbing/shooting are going to lead to explusion, why not minimize the chances of successful retaliation, and maximize the likelihood of harm? i seem to recall that in certain parts of the developing world, imposing the death sentence for armed robbery basically eliminated armed robbery -- by replacing it all with murder.
I worry about my kids, but I also don't want them growing up hating me for being some psycho over-protective parent who stopped them ever having fun. Being a parent requires thinking through your attitude to risk, otherwise we'd all just swaddle our kids in cotton wool and refuse to let them out the door until they reach adulthood (at which point they would presumably last about five minutes in the world outside).
There are children being murdered in the UK by guns and knifes used by other children or teenagers but on a whole there are probably more murdered each year by parents or other adult relatives.
I couldn't be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, its possible to get another. There's only one Maltese Falcon.
@Kiwano: A fight is one thing, but GBH and Murder are another. I believe that 'but it was on a playground and they expelled me' is not a defence.
Personally, I worry more about kids and traffic accidents. Or suicide. Seriously, these are more likely ways for your kids to die - just they're harder to do something about than strapping them into a flak jacket.
Bruce Perry is right - buy a car seat, teach them to swim. And to look both ways. And give them a hug now and again.
These will be bought by people who can afford them rather than the people who live in the areas where they are needed.
This appears to be addressing a symptom and it is interesting that this is published in The Times.
more children die from being hit by a vehicle than are murdered. Education in road safety is a wider need.
"Is overestimating risk in this area necessarily a bad thing?"
I think that overestimating risk is never a step in the right direction. Once you have overestimated the risk, you no longer can deal with the situation rationally.
"Armour is only effective as a layer of security, not the whole onion. If she's with a group of friends, then the vest is useful against a stray bullet, but on her own, it's useless."
This is certainly true - the effectiveness of body armor is only as good as its ability to stay on the body it's protecting. I think there is a legitimate concern that the presence of body armor might make a child more at risk. What happens when a gang decides they want the body armor that even a group of friends might be wearing?
Body armor is also robbing the children (at least as reported by the article) of the opportunity to be taught how to avoid these situations and to take care of ones self in a dangerous environment. While in some cases it may be unavoidable to go through dangerous areas, the children can be taught ways to reduce their risk as they go about their day.
"Is overestimating risk in this area necessarily a bad thing?"
Does it mean pulling resources away from more realistic wants and needs? If so, I'd say yes.
If we buy kids vests, they will start aiming for the head. Then we will have to buy helmets, then what? Poison? Shooting knee caps? The problem isnt the innocent kids, it is getting the guilty.
Another angle to consider...but I would think you rather be shot in the chest than a head shot. Morbid angle but it is what it is.
Bruce Perry said:
"Parents should spend money on education and health, not movie plot threats."
Absolutely. However, these are things people seem to want "for free". This is another way of saying "I want the government to pay for it."
Of course, we are the government, and we are also it's checkbook. So, of course, that means raise taxes. "Raise them on those filthy rich!" Of course, the rich in metropolitan areas means a family making $90,000 a year, which is a middle school teacher and a fireman, and they can't afford to buy a house.
I think we'd all demand more if we had a personal stake in education and health care. It feels different when you write the check personally instead of money being ripped from your paycheck before you feel it's gone.
Many parents want these things to be "free", so they complain about the quality, but have no personal stake in the cost.
Is the outcome the same when a kid is stabbed to death or wears body armor and has their neck slit?
This is like antibacterial detergent, the more you use it, the sicker people get because they don't build up their immune system. Like wise, I see kids wearing body armor with the sad notion they can jump out of a moving car. Then again, body armor could be chlorine for the gene pool.
Having something happen to your child is worth than death.
How can this be, the UK is a gun control paradise!
"Having something happen to your child is worth than death"
I assume you mean worse than death? Are you wanting your child wrapped in a protective cocoon? I have a son and I know that I would be devastated if something happened to him but at the same you have to let Karma, God's will, or destiny takes its hold. There is no perfect way to protect yourself from everything.
Sending your kids out in body armour betrays a complete lack of care and concern for their wellbeing. If you really gave a damn for your kids, you would pull them out that situation so fast the air would clap in the vacuum they left behind.
If your cushy job is so important that you cannot bring yourself to resign and move to a safer place, you should give your kids up for adoption. You have no right to keep them.
We see here one of the perils of overestimating some risks, which hardly anyone ever mentions. Hysteria over the chosen risk blinds people to the background of related problems, of which the obvious problem is often merely the most obvious one.
Schools love to install cops in the halls and to search lockers and bodies for drugs and guns. While the media take videos of the guards, they ignore the dilapitated structures, missing books, ignorant students, and imature social structures surrounding them.
People busy emoting over Columbine overlooked the supersize trashbag of problems in the fetid dark of which the shootings grew, such as the schools' inability to control bullying, inability and perhaps opposition to instill a sense of personal control, inability to offer hope that there is any point in attending classes.
aim for the head
I think back to the roughest neighborhoods I've ever lived in, in the USA, and if I'd had a kid in those neighborhoods (and when I was a kid in one of them), I'd have been more worried about a brick to the head than guns and knives. But we didn't have much gun control, and no knife control!
Wow man. You got a contract to spam blogs to sell mannequins? Awesome.
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