Backlash against the anxiety makers.
Our 'Scares and Panics' column on the Mediawatch page usually has space for only a small fraction of the anxiety-generating articles which litter our newspapers every morning. It is difficult to find anything which has unequivocally been declared safe by the 'experts'. Hidden dangers are portrayed as lurking in every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the phones we use, and even the pet dog that we love and cherish.
Increasingly, however, there are signs that people have had enough. We know that we are living in the safest era that our species has ever enjoyed. And while our evolution may have disposed us to retain an essential degree of innate fearfulness, we are beginning to tire of overly sensational and unproductive warnings and lifestyle prescriptions.
A splendid article in The Times by Mary Ann Sieghart captures this shifting zeitgeist very nicely. Commenting on the contemporary neurosis about hygiene which surrounds child-rearing in modern Britain she says:
"From the way that mothers behave these days, you would think that modern Britain was infinitely more perilous than in Victorian times. In their fevered imagination, germs lurk in every dishcloth and paedophiles on every street corner. As a result, today's children are being brought up in a world so sanitised that they have no chance of immunising themselves against the hazards that they will sooner or later encounter."
In the Independent we also find the redoubtable Sir Terence Conran saying:
"I always have the vision of the typical British family, cosseted on a diet of clinically prepared oven-ready microwaveable food with an absurdly short sell-by date, prepared in a hygienic and bacteria-free environment, falling dead after eating a couscous in a kasbah in Tangier whilst all the Arabs around them are healthy and happy with their pecks of dirt fighting their gastro-battles."
In the same paper Kate Watson-Smyth writes:
"Government health bodies advise people to pay close attention to supermarket use-by dates and to wash their hands when preparing food but scientists have found that the children of farmers suffer less from allergies, hay fever, wheezing and asthma. This is thought to be because they are exposed to bacteria and microbes in infancy which toughens their immune systems."
At the same time, of course, we are being warned by 'experts' to keep our children away from farms because of the risk of e-coli 0157 poisoning. And Professor Mac Johnson, of the UK's Royal Veterinary College claims that domestic pets are equally dangerous. He suggests that ".anything that's attractive to children, like the tail of a dog, is potentially a source of 0157 for them." He follows this, however, by saying: "I don't know why we've had no cases linked with it. I suspect it could be just a matter of time before the link is proven."
We have argued in earlier articles and bulletins that these and similar health warnings can have adverse effects on childrens's lives. In Scaremongers: the new threat to children's health, for example, we noted that:
"Even well-meaning health promotion campaigns can have adverse side effects, say SIRC, citing recent reports of what doctors call 'muesli-belt malnutrition' among children whose parents feed them 'healthy' low-fat, high-fibre diets which do not provide the calories they need for normal growth.
Over-zealous promotion of such 'healthy eating' and constant warnings about the dangers of being overweight are also now widely recognised as contributing factors in the development of eating disorders such as anorexia among young girls.
It is these kinds inappropriate messages which people are now increasingly beginning to reject. There is a limit to which we can deny our children basic positive experiences in life, such as having a pet or visiting a farm or even eating something they like, just because someone thinks that it is unhygienic, unhealthy or dangerous. The tide is beginning to turn against the self-appointed guardians of our children's interests. And about time too.