On “Keeping Kids Safe From the Wrong Dangers” by Belkin

Belkin, L. (2010). “Keeping Kids Safe From the Wrong Dangers” New York Times Online. Retrieved on October 6, 2010: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/weekinreview/19belkin.html?_r=1


Belkin puts the spotlight on the somewhat irrational behaviors of parents when it comes to protecting their children. With the best of intentions, they worry about kidnapping, school snipers, terrorist, dangerous strangers and drugs, while the most likely things to cause children harm are car accidents, homicide (usually at the hands of someone they know), child abuse, suicide and drowning. So why are parents constantly overestimating rare dangers while underestimating common ones?

The author makes the point that evolution may have something to do with it in that our brains are not designed to process abstract or long-term risk, but rather to react to an immediate dangers for instance represented by a sound and make a determination of whether not it presents a danger. In today’s fast-paced world where we are bombarded with all kinds of worst case scenarios and sensationalism, our sense of proportions gets distorted. So, we end up driving our kids to play-dates, when a walk on their own may have been better both health and safety wise.

User Groups:

So how can parents make more informed and conscientious decisions about the health, safety and welfare of their children? Although hard to do, stepping back from the hype and sensationalism of mass-media, attempting to put it into perspective seems like a logical step. However, what about the case of Owen Thomas who killed himself, where the autopsy showed brain trauma from playing football. How is a parent to process that information rationally? It’s just one case right! But data shows that roughly one in four kids have had at least one concussion from playing football, and the long term effects of concussions are not well understood. All the same, as a parent you want to make the best decision for your child, weighing benefits against risks. Not an easy task for sure!

Conceptual Design:

Knowing that people are poor at long-term risk assessment, any system which focus on long-term effects need to account for this deficiency, and in the case of dangers to children one of the objectives would be to put potential risk in perspective, thus promoting behavior changes by shifting the focus to real, not perceived, dangers, which could make a real difference in this world. Apart for ease of and usability, informative statistics, context sensitive help and reference materials, the system needs to address this human deficiency and put in place support structures such that they are less likely to fail.

Interaction Design:

Provides users with statistical and factual data seems key to any system addressing long-term behavior effect. As implied in the article, human nature is to focus on the immediate term, in which mass-media’s sensationalism plays a pivotal role, thus the system design needs to provide a logical counter perspective, such that the focus is on real, not perceived dangers, such that it is all about real-world dangers to children. The emphasis needs to be about creating awareness, and to empower parents to make informed decisions about their children’s safety, away from the hype and sensationalism of mass-media. While a challenging task, even small incremental progress in this endeavor may make it all worthwhile. As with most ‘proving a negative’ scenarios, measuring success may prove difficult.

Interface Design:

The objective is to engage the user such that it promotes awareness and change in behavior. By focusing on facts based information and contrasting this information with the hype and sensationalism of mass-media, the user may have a good chance of ‘not failing’ even though the odds are stacked against them. Always paramount in public-facing applications, ease of use and usability is key, thus the site must be logically constructed such that information is easy to find and access. So, before the child is enrolled in football, parents now have a reference point as to assessing the risk of injury as well as benefits realistically.

  1 comment for “On “Keeping Kids Safe From the Wrong Dangers” by Belkin

  1. October 21, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    The most interesting point, for me, is that we, humans, are not good as evaluating long-term risks. Parents and their children is just one user group example for which this is true. Parents have a collection of p-prims that they have gathered from reading and watching media—sensationalism sells! But the side effect is a growth of strange beliefs among parents—slippery thoughts.

    For the conceptual, interaction, and interface designs, we can go broad here—if we know that people are poor at long-term risk assessment, what support structures would they need to succeed at problem solving? This is pretty much the crux of most cognitive deficiencies—what do we do to support our user, knowing how they are likely to fail?

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