There’s nothing shocking or unusual about parental hysteria – we see it all the time.
If you’re a member of any school or local neighbourhood-based WhatsApp or community Facebook group, you’ll likely have witnessed one of the following examples: panic over parking, rage about recycling, fierce speculation over non-uniform day and bullish beliefs from the pro (”the school doesn’t give kids enough work to do at weekends!”) and anti (”well my child was too busy building a fort in the forest!”) homework brigades.
See also: constant concerns over screentime, plus reports of various viral online hoaxes (easily debunked with a quick Google, not that anyone bothers); not to mention an all-out stampede in the wake of letters received asking people to sign their children up for the flu jab – despite the usual disclaimer from schools reminding parents that it’s optional.
The latest scandal at one local school close to where I live? A ticking off by the headteacher to parents of kids as young as eight, for allegedly (and unthinkably) allowing them to watch Squid Game.
So no, gossip, nervousness and unfounded rumour at the school gate is nothing new. But sometimes idle agitation has deeper, more insidious effects – and can tip the balance into being actively damaging.
I once had a one-minute conversation with a fellow parent – within seconds she’d revealed that she hadn’t had any of her kids vaccinated – for anything – because she still believed misinformation linking the MMR vaccine to autism. She referenced, of course, Andrew Wakefield’s debunked and discredited research in The Lancet, despite huge banks of research to the contrary.
“I don’t believe in giving my children artificial drugs,” is the common snub – usually from parents who are perfectly happy to deliver hours of TV advertising to those very same children; or Calpol when they have a fever (and a hefty dose of processed chicken nuggets).
So, too, then with the anti-vax collective, some of whom are now picketing kids outside the school gate. Almost eight in 10 schools said they had been targeted by anti-vaccine protesters in a recent survey by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) union – one head teacher in Gateshead even reported protesters had upset pupils by showing them pictures of what appeared to be dead children, falsely claiming the images had been caused by vaccines.
Giving young kids nightmares for weeks on end, under the guise of “saving the children”? Nice way to go about it, guys.
Keir Starmer has now asked for exclusion orders to be implemented to prevent such groups from spreading misinformation to children, according to the BBC, describing the protests as “sickening”; and urging the government to “urgently” update the law to allow exclusion zones to be set up around school gates.
He’s been backed by the home secretary, Priti Patel, who told the Daily Telegraph that while freedom to protest was a fundamental part of democracy, it is “completely unacceptable for children, teachers, or parents to be intimidated and harassed outside their school by protesters peddling misinformation and dangerous lies about the life-saving vaccine programme”.
I don’t necessarily agree that exclusion zones should be set up; and find the concept and details of Patel’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill – which will expand police powers to allow them to stamp out protests that cause “serious unease” and create new penalties for people who cause “serious annoyance” – deeply disturbing.
But equally disturbing is the fact that Covid-19 rates are going up in the UK – they are now “astonishingly high”, according to one expert, as calls grow for the government to implement its “Plan B” measures before Christmas.
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The World Health Organisation has listed so-called “anti-vax” ideas as one of the biggest threats to global health, alongside pandemics and the climate crisis – and judging by the behaviour of groups like this, we can all see why.
Standing outside school gates and peddling misinformation to children is the very worst of social media manifested in real time; a sort of Black Mirror-esque version of the screaming hordes of Facebook come to life (no coincidence, then, that young people are quitting the site in droves). Heaven forbid they actually ask what teenagers want, rather than ramming their own agenda down their throats, masqueraded as “saving” them.
Maybe what we need isn’t a legal exclusion order, but something similar to a social media “mute” button. To turn down the volume of those whose voices we really don’t need to hear. Not “unfriend” them outright (because we’ve all got to learn to rub along, somehow) but “unfollow”, certainly. And if they still won’t listen – and learn? Then, we block.
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