Politics & Policy

The Real Danger of ‘Dangerous’ Toys

James A. Swartz displays the Wonder Woman Battle-Action Sword at a WATCH press conference in November. (Reuters photo: Mary Schwalm)
Labeling virtually any toy as a potential menace does more harm to children than any plastic sword.

Every year since 1973, toy-safety advocacy group World Against Toys Causing Harm (WATCH) has released a list of ten nominees for its “Worst Toy of the Year” award. Ostensibly, the group’s aim is to deter parents from accidentally giving their children dangerous Christmas gifts.

But of late, the campaign has run out of steam. Back when dangerous toys were common — as they were at the turn of the last century, when WATCH was founded — such protections were a public service. Today? Not so much. Clearly, WATCH is struggling to find any toys that are actually “dangerous”: Among the 2017 nominees, which were announced just in time for Black Friday shopping, two are not toys, and one was recalled before WATCH even published the list.

And the rest of the toys? Most people would be hard-pressed to find something wrong with them.

On the list are a plastic sword manufactured by Mattel as part of the franchising for the Wonder Woman movie; a NERF bow-and-Styrofoam dart weapon; and a drone. Are these dangerous? Not in the way we traditionally use that word, no. Indeed, parents who buy these toys are fully aware of the “danger” — and often buy them for that very characteristic. It’s no surprise that swords — and darts and drones — are dangerous. To remove the “danger” is also to remove the fun.

Which is to say that WATCH considers a toy to be “dangerous” if it’s possible that some uses might lead to injury — regardless of whether that use is intended, likely, or incredibly rare. There is no way to ensure that any toy is 100 percent safe, considering that WATCH’s criteria basically amounts to “if harm is possible, the toy is harmful.”

WATCH’s shotgun approach to toy safety is certainly intellectually irresponsible, but it’s also far worse for children than the toys on its list could probably ever be. It’s hard to ignore the relationship between efforts to eliminate any possible route to physical injury during early childhood and efforts to prevent emotional injury in the college classroom and beyond. In both cases, the risk of broadly defined “injury” is deemed more important than the broadly defined “risk.” While it may be ideal to escape education without “injury,” growing pains are often a necessary part of learning. So it is with children, and, as it turns out, too many restrictions in the name of safety hamper their early development.

A 2012 study published in the journal of the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that limiting a child’s exposure to risk-taking activities during early childhood could cause the child to making far riskier decisions as he grows older. The study also showed that many parents — and groups such as WATCH — underestimate the degree to which children are aware of potentially harmful situations and attempt to avoid them. In fact, observational studies found that while children “exposed themselves to risk,” they also “displayed clear strategies for mitigating harm,” and then drew on “their risk experiences” to help their playmates avoid harm.

WATCH’s shotgun approach to toy safety is certainly intellectually irresponsible, but it’s also far worse for children than the toys on its list could probably ever be.

Even if WATCH’s campaign were good for children, however, it’s impotent and redundant thanks to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). A federal board designed to set standards in product manufacturing industries, the CPSC not only follows the same strict criteria as WATCH but actually possesses the power and authority to enforce them. Ironically, it was WATCH’s own founder, Edward M. Swartz, who helped necessitate the CPSC, by running a tough campaign against the unregulated toy industry in the 1960s. Swartz, however, was fighting products that were actually dangerous — he represented a family whose children were badly burned by highly flammable bedding, for example. Swartz labeled the CPSC “toothless” and “ineffective” when it first began, but today, by regulating ad nauseam, it doesn’t look much different from most other federal agencies.

So what purpose could WATCH possibly serve today? And at what cost? Steve Pasierb, CEO of industry nonprofit the Toy Association seems to have our answer: In a press release issued in May, he posited that WATCH is “needlessly frightening parents . . . to generate publicity and donations for themselves.”

He’s right. Take this claim WATCH makes on their website: “One child is treated in a U.S. emergency room every three minutes for a toy-related injury.” This data comes from the CPSC, which publishes the numbers and causes of toy-related injury on its website each year. Yet there’s a major flaw with how WATCH reached the one-in-three conclusion: Twenty-five percent of injuries last year alone, the largest group, involved “non-motorized scooters,” but the CPSC includes in this metric children injured by vehicles while riding the scooters, regardless of whether scooter malfunction was responsible. Additionally, “water guns” can be a cause of injury if a child slips on a deck and injures himself while playing with one.

It seems the statistics would be far more accurate — and far less threatening and misleading — if WATCH separated out injuries that occurred while playing with a toy when using statistics to pressure parents to listen to them.

A far greater menace is the dangerous social change in schools and society that threaten to erode parents’ ability to raise their children in a healthy environment.

It’s never been safer to be a child than it is today, and while much of that is thanks to the WATCH of the 1960s, it’s hard to see what the WATCH of 2017 is doing to help improve that safety. Dangerous toys are not the troubles that today’s parents are facing. A far greater menace is the dangerous social change in schools and society that threaten to erode parents’ ability to raise their children in a healthy environment. Overzealous toy-safety groups only exacerbate this erosion by fueling the over-expansion of the word “danger.”

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