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Risk vs. Safety


Last year I pitched a story to a mid-size BC news source that questioned the old adage that ‘you can never be too safe.’ I wanted to show how the overemphasis on safety in an online game for children ages 6-14, while well intended, has lead to types of surveillance that ultimately take away from the value that play provides. The editor rejected the story with a simple question: “How is “less safe” play beneficial to kids?” I emailed back to clarify: no response.

Now an article written by the BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit (BCIRPU) asks, “can we go too far when it comes to child injury prevention?” and their answer is “yes”–but as it turns out, my editor wasn’t the only one to reject the idea that safer isn’t always better. Brussoni et al. make a strong case for the problem with over-emphasizing safety on playground surfaces, but the comments section clearly reflects the polarizing effect that the topic of children and risk has on adults. One commenter asserts that “to oppose additional safety measures based on a supposition that a child’s development will be impaired if playgrounds are made safer is wrong until that hunch is proven using accepted scientific criteria”.  Rather than re-state the reasons why ‘safety second’ could be a good thing for kids (you can read them here), I want to chime in on why the topic at best raises eyebrows and at worst invites logical fallacies like this one.

To be clear, I am not saying that safety isn’t a priority and neither is the BCIRPU. What I’m saying is that risk is also of value to children and youth (as one example, see Poyntz 2014 for a discussion of the role risk plays for youth in a functioning democracy). It’s my feeling that most adults CAN and DO see the benefit of risk when the evidence is clearly presented to them. The question, then, is why do so many adults have a difficult time accepting that additional safety features in children’s lives can have an adverse effect on child well-being?

Part of the answer, I suspect, has to do with the myth of childhood innocence, which put the simplest way, is the widespread belief that children are essentially vulnerable, dependent and in need of protection. If childhood is first and foremost defined by vulnerability, children are understood as being without agency–meaning that they lack the ability to express their own views, make decisions, or participate in society. Child well-being, then, becomes a question of protection. Strong arguments, however, have been made to show that children are actors and active participants in their lives (James et al. 1998). A child’s well-being is not only about protection, it also hinges on the ability to participate. The question, ‘how is less safe play better for children?’ I suggest, is a symptom of both a limited understanding of childhood and a narrow conception of a child’s well-being. To put it another way, it is entirely possible, and I’d argue increasingly more probable, for children’s well-being to be compromised even in the absence of risk. The BCIRPU article explains a few of the reasons why.

The BCIRPU have joined the growing number of scholars who are acknowledging the value of risk and the ways that an overemphasis on ‘safety’ can impinge on important moments for the child’s well-being (see Hearn 2007; Katz 2005 and Livingstone 2009). It gives me confidence to see these conversations occurring in the public forum.

Work Cited:

Brussoni, Maria,  Allison Macperhson, and Ian Pike. (2015, April 1). “Can we go to far when it comes to children’s injury prevention? BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit.” Retrieved 2015-04-22 2015, from

Hearn, Matt. (2007). Watch Yourself: Why Safer Isn’t Always Better. Vancouver: New Star Books. Print.

James, Allison., Chris Jenks and Alan Prout (1998). Theorizing Childhood. Oxford: Polity Press.

Katz, C. (2005). The Terrors of Hypervigilance: Security and the Compromised Spaces of Contemporary Childhood. In J. Qvortrup (Ed.), Studies in Modern Childhood: Society, Agency, Culture (pp. 99–114). Palgrave Macmillan.

Livingstone, S. (2009). Children and the Internet. Cambridge: Polity.

Poyntz, S. (2014). “Eyes wide open: stranger hospitality and the regulation of youth citizenship.” Journal of Youth Studies, 18. doi:10.1080/13676261.2013.763918



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