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Fears and loathings of the modern age

ONCE UPON a time, long, long ago, children were scared of ghosts and darkness and thunderstorms. But times change and children change with them.

They now cower in fear of rape, guns and terrorist attacks.

Joy Burnham, of the University of Alabama in the United States, has examined the changing fears of children across the years. In 1897, she reports, children were scared of animals, disease and death, together with the perils of things that go bump in the night. Now, few of the simpler 19th century fears remain.

Dr Burnham surveyed more than 1,000 boys and girls between the ages of six and 18. The foremost fear, among 60.9 per cent of pupils, was rape. Almost as many pupils also feared being unable to breathe, or contracting Aids.

Fear of death, their own or that of a member of their family, also ranked highly.

Other fears were more revealing of modern-day preoccupations: 47 per cent of pupils said they were scared of terrorist attacks, while almost as many feared they would have to go and fight in a war.

Many were afraid of tornadoes and hurricanes, possibly reflecting the devastation wreaked by Hurri-cane Katrina in New Orleans in August 2005.

Pupils also fear shooting incidents, following the shootings at an Amish school last year (the killings at Virginia Tech occurred after the study).

Dr Burnham claims that schools need to be prepared to deal with the fears and loathings of the modern age. Teachers and counsellors should speak to children in times of crisis, such as after a terrorist attack or a school shooting. But they also need to provide help with everyday adversity.

One expert who supervises counsellors in schools commented: "Kids are scared of being bullied, of their parents splitting up, of being mugged.

It's a very narrow experience, but a very immediate one for them."

* jburnham@bamaed.ua.edu

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