Last week, my husband sent me a link to an article about the dangers of wearing sunscreen while swimming. Apparently, a popular sunscreen ingredient – avobenzone – breaks down in chlorinated water, turning into a toxic compound linked to liver and kidney problems.
Great, I thought. Another thing to worry about.
Now when I head to the pool with my children, not only do I get to worry about them getting sunburned, I get to worry about what happens if I do slather them in the very stuff meant to protect them.
As parents, we are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Not only do you have to suffer the negative consequences of whatever decision you make, you have to live with the added guilt known as, “you should have known better.” Being parents in this day and age practically requires a PhD in Epidemiology to decipher the amount of information that is constantly lobbed at us.
In summer, it gets worse.
“Hidden Dangers of Summer!” the headlines cry.
“Wet sand increases the risk of sickness!” researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency warn.
“You are more likely to get murdered now that the weather is hot!” newscasters foretell. The list goes on – hot playground slides, potato salad food poisoning, and Lyme disease.
Even once you’re home safe and sound after an enjoyable afternoon at the pool, you can’t relax. My husband and I had read the obligatory beginning of summer articles warning us about dry drowning before taking the family to the pool. Our oldest son was finally brave enough to stick his head under the water, and in doing so, took in a few mouthfuls. Later that evening, we exchanged worried looks every time he coughed. “Do we need to call the pediatrician? What were the symptoms of dry drowning again? Should we stay awake and stare at him all night long just to be safe?”
We decided against the latter. He was fine, thankfully. It turns out that sometimes kids swallow water and that sometimes they cough afterwards.
If a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, then constantly being bombarded with scare-mongering headlines about how to keep your child safe must be beyond hazardous. I find myself devouring tidbits of data on summer safety, hoping I can somehow optimize my children’s health. However, what these articles offer isn’t information, it’s the illusion of control.
“I just need to buy the right sunscreen, the one that costs $100 a bottle, and apply liberally. In pools we will use rash guards instead. We also have to guarantee they get enough exposure to the sun without sunscreen so they aren’t Vitamin D deficient, but not too much so that they get burned, and not during peak hours,” I catch myself thinking. “Then everything will be okay.”
There is, of course, no guarantee that everything will be okay. Parents long for nothing more than a guarantee that their children will outlive them, and live better than them as well. Our fear can be easily capitalized on, generating clicks whenever a headline promises to tell us of a hidden danger in our own backyards.
Articles are written on studies plucked from scientific journals for their interesting headlines, not necessarily for their actual contribution to the scientific body of knowledge. Without the broader context, it’s impossible to know if a study on avobenzone in sunscreen is an actual concern for dermatologists or simply an outlier.
The problem with this fear-mongering with a foothold in science is that it has parents convinced that we are all experts. We glean information from news articles, Facebook posts, and blogs, until we feel that we have become well-versed on a topic.
This confidence, however, can be dangerous. The anti-vaccine movement, for example, is on the rise, fueled by concerned parents who believe they can debunk years of scientific research. Accordingly, along with an increase in un-vaccinated children is a resurgence in vaccine-preventable diseases like measles. When we’re constantly being told we need to parent from a place of fear, it’s easy for parents to begin questioning even long-established science.
I know that I will keep reading sensationalist articles with the hopes that I can give my children any chance at a better foothold in the world.I can’t read a headline that begins with, “The Hidden Dangers of….” and then decide to simply rely on my own parental instincts instead.
Articles detailing the latest dramatic study should only be read to quench curiosity, rather than to dictate actions. Not until that study becomes part of a meta-analysis and that meta-analysis warrants a change in recommendations from a leading organization such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, should they warrant too much concern.
If we attempt to avoid any potential dangers this summer, we will end up locked indoors exposed to the lurking danger of too-much screen time. Yes, stepping outside means tuning out those voices that are debating if it’s better to go to a chemically treated playground or a virus-infested sandy beach.
I often think it would have been easier to parent before this age of information, but the trade-off for ease would be dealing with the consequences of dangers we now know to avoid. I am grateful for the advances science has made in keeping our children safe, but I still find myself mourning the loss of fear-free summers. I know, however, that I can’t have my ice-cream cake and eat it too. (Plus, have you seen the latest research on the addictiveness of sugar?)