Today I listened to a couple child sex crime detectives discuss the state of child pornography and child sex crimes in America. The audience cringed and squirmed as the detectives cited their statistics. They had a backlog of 80 cases and had submitted over a million child sex photos to a national database. They even splashed 40 dots on a map of people sharing child pornography. The audience exited the presentation mortified and began talking about their own children.
I perhaps was the only one that dismissed the statistics as overhyped. I googled the area they were policing. My own estimates put the population at under 5 million. 80 cases in 5 million people is nothing (cases are not to be confused with actual crimes because they do not include undetected crime and they include false positives). Fear mongering sells, but no news agency will publish the fact that children are safe and the world is getting safer.
Bryan Caplan writes about the relative harms for children in the modern world. From Caplan’s book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids:
If my parents were worried about kidnapping thirty years ago— when people were nice—how often does it happen in modern America?
Almost never. For children under twelve years old, the chance of a stereotypical kidnapping is one in a million per year…
For twelve- to twenty-fouryear- olds, the incidence rate is about one in 144 for aggravated assault, and less than one in 500 for rape/sexual assault.
Since this survey is based on interviews with victims twelve and older, it does not count crimes against young children. But according to police reports, kids under twelve are much safer than twelve to seventeen-year-olds. Their assault rate is about seven times lower, their robbery rate about twelve times lower, and their forcible sex rate about two times lower. The world is far from perfect, but serious crimes against children are rare—and getting rarer.
Of course, reported stats are overstated by false reports and understated by undetected crime, but this is the best evidence we have. Using morality statistics (a cleaner stat), we see the same pattern. From Caplan’s book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids:
So the world is getting safer for our children, but why then do people believe that it is not? When you tell people about the worst mom in America, they will be horrified and then tell you a story about a friend’s friend who had something bad happen.
Two items of note. One, did the parents of that particular child engage in protective parenting? If so, how is that an argument for being protective?
Two, the story is never about a personal friend or their own children. It always happened to “someone” who lives in town or “someone” my sister knows. Statistically speaking, this makes sense. Each individual knows about 600 people. Assuming the contacts are unique, the maximum immediate reach of “people known by people we know” is 360,000 people (600 x 600). Add to that the fact that any news story will stick out in people’s minds, or the fact that “children being hurt” gossip spreads like wildfire among parents, then statistically yes, anyone someone talks to will have some sort of antidotal evidence that is some way related to their point. This evidence is manifestly not representative of the state of American crime.
But shouldn’t Americans rather be safe than sorry? Fear mongering creates a safer environment for children at the margin. This is true, but increased worries about crime, sexual abuse, and the evils of this world heavily dissuade people from having children. Fear mongering leads to the death of babies through abortion and the nonexistence of valuable human beings through increased use of birth control. The entire thesis of Bryan Caplan’s book is that the perceived cost of (harms to) children are not accurate, if we start believing the evidence we would have more children. More children makes the world a better place.