Frank Furedi: Scaring Children Witless

  • Date: 19/09/19
  • Frank Furedi, Spiked

Eco-alarmists are feeding kids a daily diet of fear and doom.

Scaring children witless

‘Eco-anxiety’ has become the latest fashionable malaise. Apparently it is afflicting many children. That kids as young as four and five are feeling anxious about the climate is not surprising – after all, they are fed a diet of doomsday scenarios by the new eco-alarmists. Having effectively been given permission to feel hyper-anxious about the coming Armageddon, many youngsters have wholeheartedly embraced the role of the stressed-out victim of humanity’s eco-crimes.

As usual, the media and popular culture have been at the forefront of cultivating this narrative about eco-anxious children. In a new HBO series, Euphoria, an over-the-top anxious teenager embraces what we might call the eco-doom excuse. She says there is little point in kicking her drug habit because ‘the world’s coming to an end and I haven’t even graduated high school yet’.

Another HBO series, Big Little Lies, features a scene in which the daughter of one of the main characters has a panic attack in class after being relentlessly subjected to climate scare stories. There is a wonderful moment in which the teacher asks the eight-year-olds, ‘How many gallons of water does it take to make a single pound of sausage?’. As if participating in some kind of secular ritual, the chorus of children reply in unison: ‘A thousand!’

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it has become a sign of virtue for both children and adults to make a display of the disturbing symptoms of eco-anxiety. Such symptoms show that we are aware and concerned. In turn, the idea that climate-change concern is causing mental suffering adds up to further proof of the damage caused by climate change. In recent months there have been many reports about the mental-health consequences of climate change. For climate alarmists, the discovery of this alleged new malaise of eco-anxiety is a bonus. Linking climate catastrophism to the deterioration in children’s mental health allows them to boost the eco-fear narrative. It is a good example of the concept of joined-up scaremongering.

Joined-up scaremongering usually involves taking a pre-existing danger and adding the idea that it poses a unique threat to children. Why? Because if you mention the word ‘child’, people will listen. You can raise the moral stakes by claiming a child is at risk. People won’t just listen to you – they will endorse your demand that ‘something must be done’.

For instance, campaigners against poverty know that they are far more likely to gain sympathy for their cause if they draw attention to what is now called ‘child poverty’. It is as if socio-economic injustices are not compelling enough on their own terms – no, they have to be recast as things that harm children in particular.

Or take campaigners on Third World issues. They know that mentioning ‘child labour’ or ‘child soldiers’ or ‘starving children’ is far more likely to resonate with the public than general calls for economic assistance. As an acquaintance of mine who works in the charity sector put it to me: ‘Mention the word children, and the money rolls in.’

Children, therefore, become a kind of moral resource that can be used to promote policies and causes. Which is why, time and again, discussions about supposed catastrophic threats like climate change tend to focus on ‘our children’s future’.

It is bad enough that society has become so devoted to scaring children about the future survival of the planet. What is even more corrosive is the medicalisation of children’s concern about the future, the transformation of it into a mental-health problem. The number of children supposedly suffering from a climate-change-related mental-health problem is growing all the time, we’re told. Although reports on eco-anxiety rarely specify the percentage of children suffering from it, we are assured that the number is rising.

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